The development of humankind has been intrinsically dependent on forests. Forests cover 31% of the global land area and house most of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. However, deforestation and forest degradation continue at alarming rates, contributing significantly to the ongoing loss of biodiversity. Hence it is of great importance to find sustainable ways of human interaction with the world’s forests.
What is the Forest Ecosystem?
A forest ecosystem extends vertically upward enveloping forest canopies and downward to the lowest soil layers affected by roots and biotic processes. All living organisms in the forests depend on each other, but flora and fauna are also influenced by abiotic elements like light, wind and water. They are open systems in the sense that they exchange energy and materials with other systems, including adjacent forests, aquatic ecosystems, and the atmosphere which is essential for their sustenance. Forest lands are not equally distributed around the world, with only 5 countries (Russia, Brazil, Canada, USA and China) accounting for more than 50% of the world’s forest land. Various types of forest systems according to a publication by UNEP, include evergreen, deciduous, tree & shrub cover, fresh/brackish water, saline water and mixed forest.
Why are Forest Ecosystems important?
Forests are the most diverse ecosystems, housing the vast majority of the world’s terrestrial species. They provide shelter to 80% of amphibians, 75% of birds, and 65% of mammals. They play an important role in climate regulation by carbon sequestration, reducing flooding, preventing land degradation & desertification while reducing the risks of natural disasters. Along with several ecological benefits, forest ecosystems also provide socio-economic benefits to local communities and the economy. In the year 2019, the world traded more than 750 billion USD worth of forestry products and provided for about 86 million green jobs. The resilience of human food systems and their capacity to adapt to future change depends broadly on this biodiversity.
Damage done to the forest ecosystem
In the early 1900s, nearly 48% of the earth’s land was covered with forests, compared to 31% as of 2020. However, just since the 1990s the forest cover has shrunk significantly by about 420 million hectares. Conversion of forest land for agricultural and pastoral purposes is the biggest reason for deforestation. More than 1400 out of 60065 tree species across the planet are assessed as critically endangered and in urgent need of conservation action.Forest and rangeland degradation has resulted in soil erosion, damage to watershed areas, loss of biodiversity and loss of valuable ecosystem services. The only silver lining is that in the last five years, the rate of deforestation has decreased to 10 million hectares p.a. from 16 million hectares p.a. in the 1990s. Restorative activities have also decreased the net loss of forest area from 7.8 million hectares p.a. in the 1990s to 4.7 million hectares p.a. during the past decade. While that is a good start, it’s far from the ideal restoration goal.
Restoration measures for the forest ecosystem
Afforestation and reforestation take center stage when it comes to forest ecosystem restoration. This requires focus on engaging the forest dwellers, often indigenous population. Ensuring that indigenous and local communities have stewardship of their land, and providing them with support, is key to the success of forest restoration activities and to safeguarding the rights of community members. A planned afforestation effort needs suitable genetic variations of trees for survival, good growth and viability in the long term. Genetic variation also enhances populations’ resistance against acute and chronic stressors, such as pests and diseases, and this helps counter the effects of global warming. Additionally, management of invasive species (ones like Lantana camara terrorize the Indian forests) and replenishing groundwater levels contribute to protecting existing forests.
The largest forest restoration project was started in 2017 by Conservation International (CI), to plant 73 million trees over an area of 30,000 hectares in the Amazonian forests over the span of 6 years. In India, Green Yatra has been working on Urban Miyawaki Forest projects and has planted more than 500,000 trees to revive the forest ecosystems closer to cities. Such efforts are most likely to succeed when experts and conservationists deeply engage with the communities who depend on the forests in question and work with the government and other key pillars to restore the Forests. Building up local skills and infrastructure is a vital part of ensuring the long-term success of such restoration activities.