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Trees—Competing Demands for a Vital Resource

Every day forests provide benefits vital to life on Earth and to the quality of human life in particular. The vital connection between our forests and our children's future has never been more important, or more threatened, than it is right now. The earth's future is determined by our choices and actions. Forests have always been crucial to human life and economies, and they will become increasingly significant as the global human population grows.

The World Bank's Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development Forests Team have some eye-opening reports about the forests on our planet and how to sustain the world's forests. Currently, about 400 million people are highly dependent on forests for subsistence and income, and 1.6 billion people depend on forest goods and services for some part of their livelihoods. In a more general sense, the entire global population depends on forests for their carbon-sequestering services.

There is a story about a child who asks her grandfather: "Grandfather, we've learned all about the importance of trees, how they can help the environment, clean the air, and filter storm water run-off. When's the best time to plant a tree?" Her grandfather says, "Well, it takes time for those roots to go deep and for branches to spread... and so the most important time to plant a tree is 20 years ago." And the little girl asks, "Well, when is the next best time to plant a tree?" The grandfather responds: "Right now."

Word of the mouth

Our Well-Being is Dependent on the Green Economy

Forests provide a complex array of vital ecological, social, and economic goods and services. About 60 million people (mainly indigenous and tribal groups) are almost wholly dependent on forests, and another 350 million people who live within or adjacent to dense forests depend on them to a high degree for subsistence and income. In developing countries about 1.2 billion people (including more than 400 million in Africa) rely on open woodlands or agroforestry systems that help to sustain agricultural productivity and generate income. Some 1 billion people worldwide depend on medicines derived from forest plants or rely on common-pool forest resources for meeting essential fuel wood, grazing, and other needs.

At the global level, forests make an important contribution to economic development. Wood and manufactured forest products add more than $450 billion to the world market economy each year, and the annual value of internationally traded forest products has been running between $150 billion and $200 billion. The International Labour Organization estimates global forest-based employment (including both industrial and nonindustrial forest harvesting and industrialized forest products manufacture) at approximately 47 million; Besides providing wood and other products, forests are the repository of the great bulk of terrestrial biodiversity, with all that implies for gene pools, pharmaceuticals, and other unique and valuable goods and services. In addition, forests help maintain the fertility of agricultural land, protect water sources, and reduce the risks of natural disasters such as landslides and flooding.

Conservation and production of forests must coexist. Although large areas of the world’s forests must be preserved intact for their ecological and cultural value, much of what remains will inevitably be used for productive purposes. In addition to the lumber and wood products industry, the gathering and marketing of hundreds of forest products, such as forest fruits, fuel wood, and medicinal products, constitute an economic activity of enormous scale. Consequently, a dual approach covering both protection and productive use is needed. Efforts to improve sustainable use and management in the productive sector must accompany continued efforts toward protection and conservation.

Consequences of Failure to Manage Forests Sustainably

Failure to manage forests sustainably would have a variety of adverse consequences—economic, social, and environmental. At the national level, forests have an important role to play in sustaining economic growth and alleviating poverty. National economies could benefit much more than they do now from their forests.

Forest destruction and mismanagement lead to a decrease in export earnings, which in turn lowers government revenue, reduces employment, and limits the options for a diversified economy.
Over a billion people depend on forests as a direct source of income or livelihood, including maintenance of soil fertility and water resources. Approximately the same number depend largely on fuel wood for their cooking and heat.
Roughly a billion people also depend almost entirely on medicines derived from forest plants for their medicinal needs and an estimated 60 million people depend on benefits from downstream forest industries such as sawmills, carpentry, and handicrafts.
Estimates show that at least two-thirds of Earth’s terrestrial species are primarily found in forests. The maintenance of significant areas of plant diversity ensures a sufficiently wide range of tree species to buffer forests and helps ensure their function in regulating the landscape and preventing disruption by pests, disease, and normal climate variations.
So in addition to the tremendous loss of cultural value, the number of extreme poor could increase significantly if forests are not well managed and new forest resources are not developed. With fewer opportunities open to these mostly rural poor, this would lead to increased rural-to-urban migration.
The loss of the world’s forests would also have a tremendous impact on global climate change, and the biotic diversity of forests is the base for selection and breeding of plants and animals for a range of environments and human uses. This genetic bank is the source of higher-yielding and more pest-resistant food crops and of materials of medicinal, pharmaceutical, and industrial value. Failure to manage forests sustainably would thus have tremendous environmental consequences at both the local and the global level.

Tree planting provide "the roots" for building future appreciation and stewardship for nature.

National Wildlife Federation

Why Forests Matter to Africa
Source: Centre for International Forestry Research

Forests are vital for the welfare of millions in Africa, especially the poor and marginalized. Used wisely, they could improve livelihoods and people’s quality of life. The following statistics give a sense of forests’ importance to the continent:

  • Over two-thirds of Africa’s 600 million people rely directly or indirectly on forests for their livelihood, including food security.
  • Wood is the primary energy source for at least 70 percent of African households.
  • Forest-related activities account for 10 percent of GDP in at least 19 African countries, and more than 10 percent of national trade in 10 others.
  • Africa is home to 25 percent of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests and contains 20 percent of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.


Reversing deforestation is complicated; planting a tree is simple.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, Maryland