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The dangers of deforestation for our planet

Commentary: In recent years, the area of tropical rainforests has decreased at an alarming rate. Strengthening of global cooperation and restoring degraded and damaged forests have become a major focus of international relations, with the survival of forests closely related to the sustainability of the earth’s ecology

Forests are an important part of the global ecosystem. Due to factors such as population and agricultural expansion, deforestation and illegal timber trade, current forest protection is facing a severe situation.

Many countries and international organizations actively participate in various projects, discuss and summarize experiences, strengthen cooperation and jointly promote forest protection.

The theme of the recently held International Forest Day 2021, promoted by the United Nations, has been “Forest restoration: a path to recovery and well-being”. The Portuguese UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has said that forests are vital to human well-being and the planet’s health, but the current rate of their disappearance is shocking. He has therefore urged governments, organizations and individuals to take urgent action to restore and conserve forests in order to sow the seeds for a sustainable future.

Currently, the statu quo of global forest protection does not give cause for optimism. The annual loss of global forests amounts to ten million hectares, the size of Iceland’s land surface. In its latest Global Forest Resources Assessment, FAO has pointed out that a total of 420 million hectares of world’s forests have been destroyed since 1990.

Forms of destruction include deforestation, destruction of forest land for agriculture or infrastructure development, etc. Data show that population and agricultural expansion are still the main reasons for deforestation, forest degradation and loss of forest biodiversity. According to the report, 40% of tropical forests were cleared between 2000 and 2010 due to large-scale agricultural development and 33% due to local subsistence agriculture.

Timber smuggling is also a major cause of forest degradation: in some countries, the destruction of 90% of tropical forests is connected to this illegal activity. In recent years, the extremely dry climate caused by climate change has led to frequent forest fires around the world and triggered a number of major indirect disasters.

In October 2021 the EU’s Joint Research Centre reported that 2019 was the worst year for forest fires in the world: in Europe alone, over 400,000 hectares of forests were destroyed and the area of nature reserves affected by fires also hit a new high.

The survival of forests is closely related to the sustainability of earth’s ecology. Carbon emissions caused by forest reduction are estimated to account for 12% to 15% of global emissions. As underlined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and by FAO in its above stated report, “the rate of deforestation and forest degradation is still alarmingly high. This is one of the main reasons for the continuing loss of biodiversity”.

The report states that, in order to reverse the severe situation of deforestation and biodiversity loss, countries need to make changes in food production and consumption, as well as protect and manage forests and trees as part of building integrated landscape ecosystems, so as to repair the damage already done.

Some countries and regions, particularly those with abundant forest resources (such as Brazil), are actively taking measures to strengthen forest protection and sustainable development and to achieve green economic transformation.

The Amazon is one of Brazil’s “calling cards”. Its rainforest has a total area of about 5.5 million square kilometers, over 60% of which is in Brazil, and the rest in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, (formerly British) Guyana, Peru, Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) and Venezuela. The Amazon rainforest is the largest and most species-rich rainforest in the world, accounting for 20% of the world’s forest surface. It is called the Earth’s lung and green heart.

The oxygen produced by photosynthesis accounts for a third of global oxygen. The carbon dioxide absorbed each year represents a quarter of its total uptake from the soil. Therefore, the Amazon Basin has a significant impact on the global climate and ecological environment.

With a view to protecting the rainforest, the Brazilian government has adopted strong environmental protection legislation to increase penalties for deforestation. The government implements a joint and centralized national policy of rainforest management and logging rights and develops sustainable logging. All logging operations in rainforest areas must be authorized by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Information on tree felling, including tree species, height, collection center, etc., is to be entered into the management system for future traceability. Furthermore, Brazil has also strengthened the monitoring of small-scale logging activities with the help of high-definition satellite imagery, thus greatly improving the efficiency of rainforest protection.

The Peruvian government, in turn, is cooperating with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the private sector and farming communities to take measures to reduce deforestation, support sustainable rainforest development and improve the ecology and living conditions of the people living in rainforest areas.

Over one hundred private protected areas have been currently established throughout Peru to promote the development of sustainable agriculture, while supporting rainforest biodiversity.

Benin’s government has recently updated its forestry policies and regulations, and is improving the forestry tax system and vigorously developing forest resources. Benin has invested in view of achieving an annual increase of 15,000 hectares of planted forests and it has increased its timber production to 250,000 cubic meters per year, thus providing employment opportunities and increasing its public income.

In Tanzania, the government has cooperated with the relevant international organizations not only to formulate plans to protect the country’s forests and expand the size of forest reserves, but also to develop ecotourism projects to provide employment opportunities for communities around the nature reserves.

The European Union has issued a number of policy documents in recent years, thus closely integrating forest protection with climate change and biodiversity protection policies. In 2003, the EU formulated a special action plan to combat illegal logging and trade.

In December 2019, it announced an action plan to promote the global protection and restoration of forests, and proposed priority guidelines for their protection, including new regulatory measures, enhanced international cooperation and support for innovation and research.

In early 2020, the EU established a joint and centralized forest information system and plans to carry out future monitoring projects on nature and biodiversity, forests and climate change, forest health and ecological economy.

Thanks to a substantial reduction in deforestation, large-scale afforestation and natural growth of forest land in some countries, the rate of forest loss has slowed down significantly. Compared to the sixteen million hectares of forest from 1990 to 2000, the global forest and the area shrinkage from 2015 to 2020 has been reduced, but there is still much room for improvement.

With a view to strengthening ecological protection, this year FAO and UNEP have launched the United Nations Ecosystem Restoration Decade. Strengthening global cooperation and restoring degraded and damaged forests and other ecological resources have become a major focus of international relations.

FAO stated that the objective of the multilateral Treaty Aichi Biodiversity Targets (the Convention on Biological Diversity, which became effective on December 29, 1993) was to protect at least 17% of the world’s land surface through the forest reserve system. That aim was achieved in 2020, but all parties need to make further efforts to ensure this protection.

The international community is also actively exploring cooperation projects to promote global management of forest resources among countries. FAO, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, UNEP and other international agencies have collaborated in the development of the Amazon Integrated Protection Area Project, which involves nine countries and regions.

The project promotes effective and coordinated supervision of the Amazon reserve, and helps reduce the impact of climate change on that ecological zone and improve residents’ resilience to environmental change.

The African Union Development Agency (Auda-Nepad), the World Resources Institute, the World Bank and other institutions have jointly launched the African Forest Landscape Restoration Plan, which aims to restore 100 million hectares of forests in Africa by the end of 2030 in order to improve food security, enhance countries’ adaptability to climate change and eradicate rural poverty: over 20 African governments, as well as technical and financial partners, are participating in the plan.

The lesson to be learnt is that we must stop behaving like the Brazilian governments of years ago. Due to their lack of environmental awareness, since the 1970s the Brazilian governments have been destroying forests and reclaiming wastelands in the Amazon region, building road networks and vigorously developing agriculture and breeding activities.

Illegal deforestation and forest fires, as well as the building of dams and the construction of mines, have caused unprecedented damage to Amazon forests and protected areas.

In recent years, the area of tropical rainforests has decreased at an alarming rate. On average, a forest the size of a football pitch disappears there every eight seconds.

There is still a long way to go before forests and humans can co-exist more harmoniously.

Giancarlo Elia Valori