The UN General Assembly proclaimed 21 March the International Day of Forests in 2012. The day celebrates and raises awareness of the importance of all types of forests. On each International Day of Forests, countries and institutions are encouraged to undertake local, national and international efforts to organise activities involving forests and trees, such as tree planting and public awareness campaigns. This global celebration of forests provides a platform to raise awareness of the importance of all types of woodlands and trees, and celebrates how they sustain and protect us through the provision of various goods and services.
Forestry has become a cross-cutting field impacting on agriculture, the environment, health and economic, cultural and social issues. Forests and forest products enhance agriculture and food production directly and indirectly. For example, forest foods range from wild plant-based fruits, leaves, oils, tubers and rhizomes to mushrooms, insects particularly termites, and caterpillars and bush meat. The contribution of non-wood products to national economies is also gaining marked recognition at all levels. In dry forest areas and wetlands, forests provide valuable dry season grazing pastures for livestock and wildlife. Enclaves of sacred forests provide unique socio-cultural values, including traditional ceremonies, cleansing, retreats and healing sessions. Some countries have initiated the development and exploitation of forest-based eco-tourism enterprises and consumptive use of wildlife resources.
The Miombo Woodlands
In addition to the socio-cultural benefits of forests, they hold more than three-quarters of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, provide many products and services that contribute to socio-economic development, and are particularly important for hundreds of millions of people in rural areas, including many of the world’s poorest. Forests play a fundamental role in combating rural poverty, ensuring food security and providing decent livelihoods. They offer promising mid-term green growth opportunities and deliver vital long-term ecosystem services, such as clean air and water, conservation of biodiversity and mitigation of climate change.
As underscored at the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, forests and trees play a crucial role in determining the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. Acting as carbon sinks, they absorb the equivalent of roughly 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Forests and trees outside forests – especially those on farms and grazing and common lands – also play a vital role as safety nets to increase the resilience of the poor to major disasters and climate change. The roles of forests and trees have assumed special importance in the advent of climate change and other environmental shocks and in our collective effort to eradicate poverty, especially in the rural areas.
Despite the significant importance of forests and human dependence on their resources, the world’s forests continue to decline as human population grows and the demand for food and land increases. In 1990, the world had 4128 million ha of forest but by 2015, this area had decreased to 3 999 million ha, a net loss of about the size of South Africa. The rate of annual net loss of forests has slowed from 0.18% in the 1990s to 0.08% over the last five-year period. Between 2010 and 2015, there was an annual loss of 7.6 million ha and an annual gain of 4.3 million ha per year, resulting in a net annual decrease in forest area of 3.3 million ha. The forest lands in South Africa have not significantly changed since the 1990s because a lot of attention has been given to the forestry sector.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes’ Fifth Assessment Report states that one of the most cost-effective mitigation options for forestry is sustainable forest management. This is a crucial element in attaining many of the Sustainable Development Goals. Equally, the sustainable management of forests and related natural resources is indispensable for the realisation of the African Agenda, 2063. Sustainable Forest Management, as described by the United Nations, is “a dynamic and evolving concept [that] is intended to maintain and enhance the economic, social and environmental value of all types of forests for the benefit of present and future generations”. The United Nations’ commitment to SFM has been well stated in the SDG Target 15.2: “By 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally.” Several indicators show progress towards SFM over the last 25 years.
In 2019, the international Day of Forests addressed the theme ‘Forests and Education’ and focused on promoting the role of education and research as cornerstones for sustainable forest management. This theme underlines the importance of improved forestry education and the roles of educational establishments and research centres in advancing sustainable forest management. The theme is significant for Africa, considering the continuous decline of investment in forestry education in many parts of the continent. We need to reverse this trend in order to ensure the sustainable management of our forests and related natural resources for sustainable development.
In South Africa, since 21 March coincided with Human Rights Day, celebrations were held on the 18th –19th March at the Future Africa Campus at the University of Pretoria. The occasion was attended by Senzeni Zokwana, Minister of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries, who was welcomed by Prof Jean Lubuma, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. Celebrations included a tree-planting ceremony, followed by a panel discussion on forestry and education.
Prof Paxie W Chirwa is SAFCOL Forest Chair and Director of the Forest Programme at the University of Pretoria, while Opeyemi Adeyemi is a PhD student in Forestry Science.