Monday, 7 February 2011

Celebrating forest for the people

By Joachim Ezeji

As the world celebrates the international year of forests, Nigeria needs to wake up to its forest challenge . Though, no up to date data currently exists on the extent of deforestation, accounts by some Nigerian scholars posit that about 92 percent of the land surface of Nigeria is considered prone to land degradation from moderate to severe stages.

Over 350 million tons of topsoil is estimated to be lost each year due to soil erosion. Natural forests, believed to have covered about 40 percent of the country’s land surface some 50 years ago have dwindled to mere 9 percent currently.

The estimated 26 million herds of cattle and goats which are mostly grazing beyond carrying capacity have not helped the land reclamation strategies. More than 37 percent of the country’s forest reserve were lost between 1990 and 2005 as a result of illegal and uncontrolled logging, incessant bush burning, fuel wood gathering and clearing of forests for other land uses hence making the country vulnerable to declining soil productivity, desertification, loss of aquatic life, coastal/soil erosion, biodiversity lose, water and air pollution, drying up of water bodies, erratic flooding causing loss of life and property and diseases etc.
Globally, at least 1.6 billion people directly depend on forests for their livelihoods and the majority of them are poor and live in and around forests. It is estimated that approximately 60 million people, mainly from indigenous and local communities, reside in forests. According to FAO data, the annual value of wood harvested from forests is more than $100 billion, and globally, more than 60 million people are employed by forest-based industries (wood, pulp and paper and other processing plants).

Also, forests tend to soak up rainwater and release it slowly, thereby acting as a natural defence against flooding and drought. Forests can improve water quality by filtering harmful pollutants, pathogens, and sediments that can cause illness in people or livestock.
For water, the role of forests is most strategic. While water is the irreplaceable source of life; wetlands are the source of water for the vast majority of the world's people. According to Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN Director General. “Wetlands are not only natural infrastructure that store and clean water, regulate flows and protect coasts. They are also food bowls for millions of people around the world and their major source of livelihood – farming, fisheries and food security all depend on healthy wetlands.”

Wetlands, such as mangroves, peat forests and freshwater swamp forests, are home to a wealth of biodiversity. To mark this year’s World Wetlands Day on Wednesday 2 February, IUCN highlighted the role and importance of forests in wetlands. This year’s World Wetlands Day also marks the 40th Anniversary of the Ramsar Convention. Ramsar protected wetland sites cover an area of 186 million hectares, about the size of Mexico, the largest protected area network in the world.

Wetlands provide many services, such as food, fresh water and fuel, and fulfill vital roles in carbon storage, pollution control and protection from natural hazards, such as floods and storms. Water supplies are dependent on healthy wetlands; healthy forests help to support and protect wetlands. Yet, there are worrying signs that wetlands are being lost at a higher rate than any other ecosystem. According to The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, 50% of our wetlands globally have been lost over the last century. Widespread degradation and loss is triggered by the development of infrastructure, land conversion, deforestation and the introduction of invasive species.

Accordingly, investment needs to be made to secure the water resources we currently have and, as part of this, decision makers need to recognize the vital services that a healthy natural environment provides, particularly as communities adapt to the effects of climate change. According to Mark Smith, Head IUCN Water Programme. “Demand for energy and food is growing as populations expand, driving up the demand for water. Now, more than ever, we must invest in natural infrastructure, such as forests and wetlands, that will safeguard water resources for people and nature.”

Therefore, Investing in forests within wetlands goes a long way. For example, New York City found that it could avoid spending US$ 4-6 billion on water treatment plants (plus annual maintenance costs) by investing just US$ 1 billion on protecting forests in water catchment areas. Switzerland saves around US$ 64 million a year by using untreated groundwater, naturally filtered through forested watersheds. Forests function as a filter, storage and purifier in water catchments.

Also, it has been suggested that CO2 emission from rapid deforestation dwarfs those from technical sources such as gas flaring from oil fields. This is particularly true for the twelve forest-rich countries of equatorial Africa (of which Nigeria is one) whose corresponding annual (2005) emissions are estimated at about 1.1 billion tons. The rapid economic over-exploitation and fast thinning of forests at the base level in Africa is often attributable to firewood collection. But major drivers of forest degradation in Nigeria’s Niger Delta includes oil exploration activities and urbanization; other drivers are agriculture and logging. Other scholars have also argued that the pressure to convert native forests into agricultural lands is being driven by the market, which puts a price signal on agricultural commodities but not on the benefits that forests provide.

In view of the foregoing , the designation of year 2011 as the international year of forests becomes illustrative. Its launch was held on 2 February in the UN General Assembly Hall, part of the High-level Segment of the 9th session of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF9). The President of the General Assembly, H.E. Mr. Joseph Deiss, will preside over the ceremony and the programme will open with a video message from Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.

The ceremony also featured an array of international speakers, from government ministers to Nobel laureates and other members of the international forest community including Under-Secretary General Mr. Sha Zukang, Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai, renowned filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand, and Felix Finbeiner, founder of Plant the Planet.

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