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It's vital to save our forests to save ourselves

By Kundhavi Kadiresan | China Daily | Updated: 2019-06-19 08:33

What if no forests are left by 2050?

Most of us are familiar with the old saying that sometimes we "can't see the forest for the trees". But what if I told you that, at our present rate of exploitation of our forests and depletion of our natural resources in Asia and the Pacific, we run the risk of not seeing any forest or the trees by the middle of this century?

As a region, Asia and the Pacific has more people than any other part of the world, and many areas within it have very high population densities. As a result, nearly two-thirds of the forests in this region have been degraded to various degrees. Only 19 percent of primary forests remain (where human intervention has been minimal), compared with the global average of 32 percent. So what will the future of our forests look like? Will we continue down this road or will we work together to improve things?

To get a better understanding of the way forward, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has just published a wide-ranging and comprehensive review of the forest sector in the Asia-Pacific region. It examines trends from the last 25 years, the current state of forests and forestry, and provides an outlook for their future to 2030 and beyond up to 2050.

The FAO report is unique because it looks well beyond the horizon to what our forests could look like by the middle of this century. I say "could look like" because the mid-century predictions depend largely on the path we take through our forests in the coming years and decades. The report, Asia-Pacific Forest Sector Outlook Study III, outlines some immense challenges ahead.

First, the population of the Asia-Pacific region is expected to add another 500 million people by 2030, rising to 650 million more by 2050, when about two-thirds of the region's population are predicted to be living in urban areas.

Second, the middle-income group is expanding in most countries. Which is increasing the demand for forest products and creating additional pressure to convert forests into agricultural land for a variety of uses such as meat and dairy production. And this increasing demand will add further pressure on natural resources such as soil and freshwater.

The FAO review shows deforestation has, through the years, left the region with huge areas of secondary forests. While replanting is of course to be encouraged, the loss of biodiversity from disappearing primary forests is a major concern.

The report warns that business as usual will lead us down a path that no one really wants to travel, a dead end future where natural resources have been squandered and exhausted. It suggests a more aggressive move toward an integrated landscape management plan that systematically deals with improvements in all natural resource areas-land, forests, soil and water-and benefits communities.

Innovations-making use of powerful new technologies-are needed for improved governance and management to cope with future demands on forests and land, including those in urban and semi-urban areas.

Clearly, there is a role for all of us to play. There is an urgent need for societies to reduce consumption, increasingly reuse instead of discarding forest products, and sustainably produce biomaterials from forests. In short, we need to find innovative ways to balance competing demands that will benefit us all.

There are, however, reasons to be optimistic. The rate of deforestation has been slowing in recent years. And, overall, big shifts in the way we interact with forests and landscapes are happening due to demographic changes, economic progress, technological advances, environmental awareness and improvements in governance. The traditional use of wood as a source of domestic energy is declining rapidly, due largely to increasing incomes, urbanization and the substitution of wood with electricity and liquefied petroleum gas. The use of printing paper has declined as our society has shifted to online media and paperless workplaces.

The Asia-Pacific needs political will and cross-country cooperation of all stakeholders to maintain some of these good traits and to deal with some of the above mentioned challenges.

At the end of the day, if carefully managed, forests offer solutions to food insecurity, climate change, water scarcity and energy demands-but we can only take advantage of these if we take corrective action-and do so quickly. To ensure a positive and resilient future for everyone, we need to avoid going beyond the tree line.

The author is assistant director-general and regional representative for Asia and the Pacific, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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