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The importance of preserving forests

Posted by Emmanuelle Grundmann on 3 March 2011

After the UN proclaimed the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010, its now the forests turn to take the spot on the international stage. Certainly, international years and days go by without producing the slightest concrete result. These events, despite shedding light on the forest, potable water, the rights of indigenous peoples, amongst others, they share a major drawback: they only last for a limited time. Once the event has passed the actions taken and lessons learned are often forgotten.

The water of New York, saved by forests

The results that we saw in Nagoya, were not up to the challenges presented by the Year of Biodiversity that just ended. Fortunately, 2011 can be considered a catch up period of all of those who refused to see the importance of biodiversity for the future of our planet.

Refusing the preservation of biodiversity in the name of economic development results in very short-term vision that makes absolutely no sense. Yes, these measures can seem restrictive at first glance, yet they are guarantees of good economic and social health in the mid and long term. Biodiversity brings many services that should not be underestimated. For example, supplying potable water; or pollination, which is essential for a large part of global agriculture; without forgetting the ever-growing number of medicinal substances found amongst animals, plants, and micro-organisms. A part of these services are made possible by forests and the species that they are home to.

The example of New York City is quite remarkable. The city has always been known for its free potable water. The water comes from the confines of the forests upstate, in the Catskill Mountains. However, this region saw very important expansion of agricultural land in the middle of the 20th century, to the detriment of natural ecosystems, particularly forests. This agriculture took the path of the agro-industry, extremely greedy for pesticides and chemical fertilizers. By the end of the 90s, the soil and the groundwater were so contaminated that the water was no longer fit for consumption. The city decided not to build a water treatment plant that would cost between 6 and 8 billion dollars, but rather to restore the degraded ecosystem of the once forested Catskill Mountains. And this, for the price of less than a billion dollars. Today, the 9 million inhabitants of the Big Apple and surrounding areas can again drink good quality potable water.

Over and above these services, we cannot forget that these very diverse forests (temperate, boreal, tropical, Mediterranean) are still home to 300 million men and women. For the Baka, the Penans, the Awà, the Dongria, the Kondh, the Komi or the Sami, the forest represents their pantry, their drug store, their home, their spirit. And nearly 2 billion people depend directly or indirectly on forest resources to live. The overexploitation of ecosystems and severe deforestation that is rampant in certain regions of the world puts the lives of these populations in peril.  This is something I have observed multiple times through my travels and reports.

Forests, our life insurance for the future

On my last trip, in Colombia, Juan and his family, of the Kogis people, spoke to me for a long time about their relationship with their forest. It’s a forest that they know inside out as well as the species it hosts. This forest furnishes everything that they need, or almost. They could not live without the forest and they never fail to thank it for all that it provides.

In our countries where consumption is raised up as the supreme value, without us realizing, forests (and particularly those of the tropical belt) continue to provide us with multiple products and services that we could not live without. Nevertheless, far from thanking it, we exploit it, worse we clear-cut it.

We have to hope that this year, 2011, will allow the public and all actors: political, social and economic to better know these ecosystems and to understand to what point they are our life insurance for the future. And, if we want this Year of Forests to be embodied with real and concrete political and economic decisions; ambitious, courageous, necessary, and proportionate to the value these ecosystems represent, we must all take action. This Year of Forests is not for a small number of dedicated individuals, NGOs, and foundations working for their preservation. This Year of Forests is ours. And the future of the forests is also our own.

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