Protecting and Restoring Forests

We can reforest the Earth! All countries can contribute to lessening the demands on our shrinking supply of natural forests by reducing wood use, recycling paper, and implementing sustainable forestry.
By Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute
April 24, 2009
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At the beginning of the 20th century, the Earth’s forested area was estimated at 5 billion hectares. It has since shrunk to just less than 4 billion hectares.
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Protecting the Earth’s nearly 4 billion hectares of remaining forests and replanting those already lost are each essential for restoring the Earth’s health, an important foundation for the new economy. Reducing rainfall runoff and the associated flooding and soil erosion, recycling rainfall inland, and restoring aquifer recharge depend on simultaneously reducing pressure on forests and on reforestation.

There is a vast unrealized potential in all countries to lessen the demands that are shrinking the Earth’s forest cover. In industrial nations the greatest opportunity lies in reducing the quantity of wood used to make paper, and in developing countries it depends on reducing fuelwood use.

The rates of paper recycling in the top 10 paper-producing countries range widely, from China and Finland on the low end, recycling 33 and 38 percent of the paper they use, to South Korea and Germany on the high end, at 77 and 66 percent. The United States, the world’s largest paper consumer, is far behind South Korea, but it has raised the share of paper recycled from roughly one fourth in the early 1980s to 50 percent in 2005. If every country recycled as much of its paper as South Korea does, the amount of wood pulp used to produce paper worldwide would drop by one third.

The use of paper, perhaps more than any other single product, reflects the “throwaway” mentality that evolved during the last century. There is an enormous possibility for reducing paper use simply by replacing facial tissues, paper napkins, disposable diapers, and paper shopping bags with reusable cloth alternatives.

The largest single demand on trees — the need for fuel — accounts for just over half of all wood removed from forests. Some international aid agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), are sponsoring fuelwood efficiency projects. One of AID’s more promising projects is the distribution of 780,000 highly efficient wood cook stoves in Kenya that not only use far less wood than a traditional stove but also pollute less.

Kenya is also the site of a solar cooker project sponsored by Solar Cookers International. These inexpensive cookers, made from cardboard and aluminum foil and costing $10 each, cook slowly, much like a crock pot. Requiring less than two hours of sunshine to cook a complete meal, they can greatly reduce firewood use at little cost. They can also be used to pasteurize water, thus saving lives. Over the longer term, developing alternative energy sources is the key to reducing forest pressure in developing countries.

Despite the high value to society of intact forests, only about 290 million hectares of global forest area are legally protected from logging. Forests protected by national decree are often safeguarded not so much to preserve the long-term wood supply capacity as to ensure that they continue to provide invaluable services such as flood control. Countries that provide legal protection for forests, such as in China and the Philippines, often do so after they have suffered the consequences of extensive deforestation.

Although nongovernmental organizations have worked for years to protect forests from clearcutting, sustainable forestry is now seen as another way to protect forests. If only mature trees are felled — and on a selective basis — a forest and its productivity can be maintained in perpetuity.

In 1997, the World Bank joined forces with the World Wide Fund for Nature to form the Alliance for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Use. By 2005 they had helped designate 55 million hectares of new forest protected areas and certify 22 million hectares of forest. In mid-2005, the Alliance announced a goal of reducing global net deforestation to zero by 2020.

There are several additional forest product certification programs that inform environmentally conscious consumers about the sustainable management of the forest where wood products originate. The most rigorous international program, certified by a group of nongovernmental organizations, is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Some 88 million hectares of forests in 76 countries are certified by FSC-accredited bodies as responsibly managed.

Forest plantations can reduce pressures on the Earth’s remaining forests as long as they do not replace old-growth forest. As of 2005, the world had 205 million hectares in forest plantations, an area equal to nearly one third of the 700 million hectares planted in grain. Tree plantations produce mostly wood for paper mills or for wood reconstitution mills. Increasingly, reconstituted wood is substituting for natural wood as the world lumber and construction industries adapt to a shrinking supply of large logs from natural forests.

Production of roundwood (logs) on plantations is estimated at 432 million cubic meters per year, accounting for 12 percent of world wood production. This means that the lion’s share — some 88 percent of the world timber harvest — comes from natural forest stands. Projections of future growth show that plantations can sometimes be profitably established on already deforested, often degraded land, but they can also come at the expense of existing forests. There is competition with agriculture as well, because land that is suitable for crops is also good for growing trees. Water scarcity is yet another constraint, as fast-growing plantations require abundant moisture.

Nonetheless, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects that, as plantation area expands and yields rise, the harvest could more than double during the next three decades. It is entirely conceivable that plantations could one day satisfy most of the world’s demand for industrial wood, thus helping to protect the world’s remaining forests.

South Korea is in many ways a reforestation model for the rest of the world. When the Korean War ended half a century ago, the mountainous country was largely deforested. Beginning around 1960, under the dedicated leadership of President Park Chung Hee, the South Korean government launched a national reforestation effort. Relying on the formation of village cooperatives, hundreds of thousands of people were mobilized to dig trenches and create terraces for supporting trees on barren mountains. Today, forests cover 65 percent of the country, an area of roughly 6 million hectares. While driving across South Korea in November 2000, it was gratifying for me to see the luxuriant stands of trees on mountains that a generation ago were bare. We can reforest the Earth!

In Niger, farmers faced with severe drought and desertification in the 1980s began leaving some emerging acacia tree seedlings in their fields as they prepared the land for crops. As these trees matured, they slowed wind speeds, thus reducing soil erosion. The acacia, a legume, fixes nitrogen, enriching the soil and helping to raise crop yields. During the dry season, the leaves and pods provide fodder for livestock. The trees also supply firewood. This approach of leaving 20 to 150 seedlings per hectare to mature on some 3 million hectares has revitalized farming communities in Niger.

Shifting subsidies from building logging roads to planting trees would help protect forest cover worldwide. The World Bank has the administrative capacity to lead an international program that would emulate South Korea’s success in blanketing mountains and hills with trees. In addition, FAO and the bilateral aid agencies can work with individual farmers in national agroforestry programs to integrate trees into agricultural operations wherever possible.

Reducing wood use by developing more-efficient wood stoves and alternative cooking fuels, systematically recycling paper, and banning the use of “throwaway” paper products all lighten pressure on the Earth’s forests. But a global reforestation effort cannot succeed unless it is accompanied by the stabilization of population. With such an integrated plan, coordinated country by country, the Earth’s forests can be restored.


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