Savings the forests is saving the planet

by Fr. Shay Cullen

The International Day of Forest is today, 21st March. Forests are of vital importance to the well-being of all creatures, the natural world and especially humankind. They absorb the damaging CO2 that contributes to climate change. Their protection and restoration should be the highest priority of each nation, in order to hold back global warming from rising above 1.5 degrees celsius and avert the catastrophe that is to come. Fr. Shay Cullen explains what attempts are being made around the world to save forests.

Forests are vital for retaining and releasing water the whole year-round, preventing draught and to provide clean water and protection from landslides and soil erosion in the typhoon season. In the Philippines and other nations that have suffered deforestation, there is a severe low crop yield that causes food insecurity due to massive rains and typhoons because of soil erosion. In some provinces, 50 percent of the rich topsoil has been washed away. There are no more forests to hold the water back. The Philippines, once self-sufficient in rice, now imports most of its rice.

The deforestation is mainly caused by mining companies and loggers that have been granted permission by officials. In 1900, there was 70 percent forest cover in the Philippines. By 1999, there was about 3 percent to 5 percent remaining. Forty years of savage and uncontrolled logging has caused this irreplaceable loss of primary rainforest. Denuded, bare and exposed hills and mountains are the tragic result and it still goes on. Ninety-eight percent of Philippine plywood that is exported  to Japan is worth US$86 million. However, some wood exported is from sustainable plantations.

There has been what I call “foresticide” with the global deforestation rate at an estimated 10 million hectares per year. That is 429 million hectares since 1990. The cutting of millions of hectares of Brazilian Amazon rain forest and the killing of forest guards and indigenous people is growing. More than 230 million hectares of prime forest will have been destroyed by 2050, researchers say.

There is a “secret war” over the environment in the Philippines, Brazil and elsewhere as some government officials support logging by mining companies. Dozens of forest guards and environmental protectors are being systematically shot dead by mining security guards in the Philippines and cattle ranchers in Brazil. The military allegedly declare indigenous communities as terrorists or supporters of communists and justify displacing them. The mining companies then exploit the ancestral lands without protest or opposition. Italian environmentalist priest Father ‘Pops’ Tentorio was shot dead in 2011. No one has been convicted for the crime. Other priests have been killed in previous years.

In the Amazon, the forests are cut to provide pasture for cattle and fields for palm oil and soya growing. The indigenous people are being wiped out by disease and violence by the cattle ranchers and soya planters. The proliferation of cattle in the world is now at 989 million which is down from more than one billion in 2014 and is an environmental disaster as cattle produce huge amounts of methane, a global warming gas causing climate change that damages forests. In Europe, there is a battle to preserve the forests of Poland. The government is allowing the logging of the world heritage site of the famous primeval Bialowieza Forest that has stood for millions of years. In 2018, the European Court of Justice declared the deforestation as illegal. Poland however is planning to continue soon despite the protests and legal challenges. Destroying the habitat of wildlife will destroy their chances for survival.

Germany has a big threat to its fabled forests by acid rain caused by polluting factories, coal plants and vehicles emissions. By 1980s, 2.5 million hectares were damaged and hundreds of thousands of trees died in the country. The acid rain killed the leaves and their roots. Thankfully, the forests are now being protected with changes in law and change to renewable energy sources.

Trees are essential for humans, animals and birds. The trees emit healthy gases which is why people claim it is beneficial to live near trees. They are interconnected by a root system and promote the growth of essential fungi and other plants. A world without trees and the wild creatures they support is a diminished form of life. There is good news though as mega planting projects are becoming increasingly popular according to a report by Geography Realm.

In Uddar Pradesh, India in 2016, 800,000 volunteers planted 50 million trees in a single day. The record was broken the following year by the state of Madhya Pradesh, which had 1.5 million volunteers planting 66 million tree saplings in just 12 hours. The efforts continue each year. This year, respecting all the social distancing measures, 2.0 million volunteers gathered at farmlands, government buildings, and riverbanks in Uttar Pradesh to plant 250 million saplings distributed by the officials. Also, this year, trees are being tagged to keep records of their survival. The overall goal is to increase the forest cover to 235 million acres by 2030 – a number India committed to at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015.

Ethiopian government’s Green Legacy Initiative placed innumerable volunteers, around 23 million of them, at 1,000 planting sites across the country. Together they allegedly managed to plant more than 350 million saplings in just 12 hours.

Faced with desertification and increasing wildfire threats, Turkey has initiated its own mega-planting project. Last year, the government declared that November 11th would become the National Forestation Day. In the first year, volunteers planted 11 million trees in more than 2,000 locations across Turkey. Northern Anatolian City of Çorum broke the world record for the most trees planted at a single site in one hour– 303,150 saplings. However the survival rate is disputed and is is estimated only 40 percent have survived.

Yet it is hope for the future that the forests can be replanted and, in the Philippines, we need more planting projects working directly with the people. The DENR projects have endured failures and allegedly some corrupt deals with contract growing.

The best practice we found is to give the saplings to the indigenous peoples to plant on their ancestral deforested lands. The Preda Foundation have been working with the Aeta indigenous people, to support them and they have planted an average of 3,000 saplings every year for the past 15 years. A small but significant contribution. By trusting and working with the local people we feel we can help to save the forests and restore them in time.

Philippine landslide Image: