2011 was the International Years of Forests and, thanks to this UN initiative, mass media have talked a little bit about our forests. We could read that European and North-American forests are not bad at all, especially if compared to the forests in other continents, where deforestation increases at an alarming rate and primary forests —those never exploited or influenced by human activities— are endangered. Here you have some facts and figures: Latin America and the Caribbean, with 57% of primary forests on Earth, have suffered the greatest deforestation, with tens of thousands hectares of forest land converted into agriculture; in Africa and Asia, although hectares of protected areas and natural parks do increase, ancient woodlands and native forests quickly disappear; in China, India and Vietnam new forests are planted to replace the primary forests, but biodiversity and the quality of young woods is far from the richness of old woods. However, in Europe, woodland increases. And according to FAO, Spain is the country with the highest growth of forest area, with 118,500 new hectares of forest land every year. Or at least this is what statistics reveal. But let’s go through it with a fine tooth comb to see what lies hidden.
To begin with, statistics include Russian large woodlands, which spread to the end of Asia, as European forests. These Russian forests have a surface area of 800 million hectares, standing for 80% of European woods. Therefore, most “European” woods are beyond European borders. Here we go! The rest of European countries exhibit smaller woodlands: the top three are Sweden with 28 million hectares, Finland with 22 million hectares and Spain with 18.5 million hectares, rather humble figures. The growth of European woodlands is partly due to the reforestation process from 1940 to 1960 and the natural expansion and recolonisation of forest, now occupying abandoned arable lands or meadows and pastures which are no longer grazed by livestock. In fact, this is a significant phenomenon in European rural areas, but the most significant growth is due to forest plantations. According to some observers, FAO is wrong when counting pine, poplar and eucalyptus tree plantations as forests, because despite being trees, these plantations are very different from a true forest. Plantations lack diversity (they consist of only one tree species, almost no vegetation and almost no animal life) and, due to tree felling process, soil retention and conservation is less effective. Moreover, plantations are made up of young trees which are chopped at an early stage to get low-quality timber and pulpwood (for paper production). Therefore, plantations should be counted as agricultural land, not as forest. And it should be clearly specified that the growth in European woodlands are based on plantations.
The other reason why we should not consider that our management of woodland is better than others is hypocrisy. The two main consumers of tropical timber in the world are the US and Europe, precisely. And the same applies to products grown in single-crop farming after deforestation in South America, Africa and Asia: soybeans are grown to feed animals we eat, our clothes are made of cotton, linen and leather, and our vehicles use biofuel made of cereals, palm and beetroot. Therefore, the deforestation agents are us, the consumers of rich countries, not the inhabitants of the Amazon or the inhabitants of African tropical forest or the inhabitants of South-East Asian woods. With a least bit of common sense, we should not sermonize on wood management with the excuse that our woodlands are relatively healthier.
According to this joint report by Greenpeace, Ecologistas en acción, SEO Birdlife and WWF about the problems of European forest, the solution lies in a better management of our own woods, so that we could take more timber and biomass from our own resources and import less from other continents. This way, we would prevent tropical wood deforestation and our own wildfires, because forests are destroyed by fire when they are poorly managed. For instance, in Spain every year an area of 150,000 hectares is destroyed by fire. And to be even more coherent, we could reduce the consumption of products causing deforestation in Third World countries, like meat.
- Primary forest: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old-growth_forest
- FAO report "State of the World’s Forest" (2011): http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/i2000e/i2000e.pdf
- WWF report about the Spanish woods "Bosques españoles: los bosques que nos quedan y propuestas de WWF para su restauración" (2009): http://assets.wwfspain.panda.org/downloads/gap.pdf
- Report by Greenpeace, Ecologistas en acción, SEO Birdlife and WWF about European forest protection "La UE ante los problemas de los bosques europeos" (2010): http://awsassets.wwf.es/downloads/documento_conjunto_conf_bosques_valsain_6_7_abril_.pdf
- Post at Delivering Data about the excessive consumption of meat: http://www.deliveringdata.com/2011/04/we-can-survive-thanks-to-vegetarians.html