Ten things you may not know about forests

Sustainable forests: nature’s supermarket

13 Sep 2017

Forests are one of nature’s great providers. A source of water and food security, they also give us everything from paper and medicine to renewable energy, low-tech air conditioning and air cleansers. They also protect and enrich biodiversity and are a major tool in the fight against climate change.

Ask several people what a forest is and their answers will probably differ. This is because forests are busy and complex living worlds. FAO broadly defines forests as land spanning more than half a hectare with trees higher than 5m in height, and with canopies that cover at least ten percent of the land. Many different types of forests exist around the world, reflecting different climates, altitudes, and soil types.

Here are a few interesting facts on forests and trees that you might not already know:

1. Forests cover one-third of the world’s land area and host more than half of the world’s land-based plant and animal species.

2. A quarter of all modern medicines come from tropical forest plants, including two-thirds of all cancer-fighting drugs. As well as saving people’s lives, these medicinal plants are worth a staggering US$108 billion a year.

3. Forests have an abundant supply of nutritious foods, such as nuts, fruits, seeds and even insects which are rich in protein and important minerals such as calcium and iron. These natural products help forest communities and millions of other people to remain healthy.

4. Trees in forests are natural aqueducts, redistributing up to 95 percent of the water they absorb to where it’s needed most. They hold water in the soil, preventing erosion, and later release it back into the atmosphere, producing a cooling effect.

5. Trees are a great carbon sink, with the world’s forests removing an estimated 2.1 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually – that’s 2.1 billion tonnes! This plays a fundamental role in balancing the world’s carbon cycle and helping to combat climate change.

6. Almost 900 million people, mostly in developing countries, are involved in woodfuel and charcoal production. 2.4 billion people worldwide, or one in three, use woodfuel to cook meals, making wood energy a major contributor to food security and nutrition. Woodfuel provides 40 percent of today’s global renewable energy supply – as much as solar, hydroelectric and wind power combinedand demand for bioenergy is soaring.

7. The world is witnessing a net loss of 3.3 million hectares of forest area a year - an area the size of Moldova. However, more than 20 developing countries have improved food security while maintaining or increasing forest cover. This shows that it is not necessary to cut down forests for agriculture in order to reduce hunger – quite the opposite! We need to manage forests sustainably so that they can remain healthy, provide a variety of goods and services and even support agriculture, livestock and fishery production.

8. Sustainably managed forests provide the primary raw material for paper, which is renewable and one of the most recycled materials in the world – around 55 percent or 225 million tonnes of all fibre used for paper production nowadays comes from recovered paper. 

9. The Hevea brasiliensis tree in the Amazon rainforest is a great source of natural rubber. By making a precise cut in the bark of the tree – called ‘tapping’ – it is possible to harvest the latex without damaging the tree.

10. Every year on 21 March, the world celebrates the International Day of Forests. In 2017, the theme was ‘Forests and Energy’. In 2018, the focus will be on ‘Forests and Sustainable Cities’.

We can see that forests are important to sustaining life on Earth and a great source of many products – a sort of natural supermarket. However, we must remember that their resources are not unlimited: we need to care for and manage them sustainably! 

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