19 Apr Why Plant The Nation
By Ané Venter
I press down the plunger of my French Press and pour myself a cup of coffee; it’s Monday morning and time to start work in my home office. I pick up my cup of liquid gold from the wooden kitchen countertop, and shuffle my feet across the floorboards towards the study. Entering through the wooden door, I first walk past my bookshelf – Oregon Pine perhaps? I sit at my chair and place my coffee down on my desk, using a coaster – so as not to stain the wood with a wet ring. It’s an old desk, made from the wood of some trees that lived long ago. Following a few sips of coffee, I begin to write.
We may not always realise it, but trees are an integral part of our lives. Whether they provide materials for furniture, fuel, construction or food products, we rely on them in a very significant way. In short, if we didn’t have trees to provide various natural resources, our lives would be drastically different.
Why do trees matter?
Trees, like all plants, form part of an ecosystem within their environment, and thus play a big role in keeping a balance with the surrounding flora and fauna (plants and animals). This balance, paired with the various living and non-living constituents that make up an ecosystem, can be referred to as its habitat. The procurement of natural resources from trees (like wood and various chemicals) for our own purposes will always have the same result; namely, through our reclamation of these natural products, we tend to alter or lose these habitats by either removing parts of it, or upsetting the natural balance in place. The obvious result of this is the changing or loss of suitable habitats, and a decline in availability of the raw materials that grow in them.
Figure 1: Image showing a South Africa Pine plantation. Image source: M. Macnamara, 2018, SA spoilt for choice with timber, TimberIQ, Accessed: 14/04/2020, http://www.timberiq.co.za/2018/06/28/sa-spoilt-for-choice-with-timber/
For the most part, it is possible to hinder the negative impact of our insatiable demand for certain products, something which we have been doing, at least in South Africa, since the late 1800s. By establishing tree plantations in which we grow dedicated species-specific crops of trees, we can eventually harvest and process the grown raw materials into usable products such as planks, beams, veneer, particle board, plywood, wood chips, sawdust, fruit, nuts, etc. Through this lengthy process (with the average plantation growth period being anywhere between 7-30 years) we have been able to successfully alleviate the pressure on natural forests and the species that grow within them, by providing alternative, sustainable resources.
However, despite the availability of plantation-grown products, humans are still clearing our planet’s forested areas at an alarming rate, whether indirectly: by disturbing biological cycles, which can result in wildfires, droughts, flooding, etc. (The New Humanitarian, 2010); or directly: for agricultural purposes, or unsustainable harvesting of raw materials. Such clearing is creating massive problems for our planet, as forests not only consist of useful resources, but also act as huge Carbon reservoirs.
The issue in our atmosphere
Figure 2 : Image showing the various Greenhouse Gases and their common sources. Image source: www.climate-change.com, Greenhouse Gases, Climate Change Trust 2019, Solar Studios, Accessed: 13/04/2020, http://www.change-climate.com/Greenhouse_Gases.htm.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is one of the most abundant greenhouse gases (GHG) in our atmosphere, along with Methane (CH4) and Nitrous Oxide (N2O).
The presence of these GHG is an essential part of the survival of life on Earth, as they naturally trap in heat from the sun, thereby keeping the Earth at an optimal temperature for life to flourish. The problem we are experiencing today, however – as a result of our incessant burning of fossil fuels, coupled with deforestation is that the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere is rising at a rapid and constant rate. The result is a steady increase in the Earth’s temperature, which is commonly known as Global Warming. The latter phenomenon would be of no consequence if it were happening at a regular rate, but with the current increases we have been observing for the last 50+ years, we are experiencing devastating conditions unfold for life on this planet; such as natural disasters, changing weather and climate patterns, desertification, flooding, loss of species, loss of habitats, melting ice caps, rise in sea levels, mega fires – to name a few. CO2 emissions have increased by 47% since the beginning of the Industrial age (±250 years ago), and another 11% since 2000 (Buis, 2019).
Figure 1: A chart showing the steadily increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (in parts per million) observed at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii over the course of 60 years. Measurements of the greenhouse gas began in 1959. Image source: A. Buis, 2019, The Atmosphere: Getting a Handle on Carbon Dioxide,https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2915/the-atmosphere-getting-a-handle-on-carbon-dioxide/
What do forests have to do with the atmosphere?
Trees are made up of two main ingredients: Organic Molecules (chemical structures made up of Carbon atoms) and water. Trees use Carbon for their livelihood, by ‘inhaling’ Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it (by means of photosynthesis) into the necessary Organic Molecules. With a complicated and lengthy chemical process, trees eventually turn Carbon Dioxide into wood; and when they are chopped down and left to degrade or perhaps burnt, the Carbon that was previously sucked out of the atmosphere and sequestered in the wood will once more be released into the atmosphere. Thus, forests act as large Carbon ‘sinks’, and a growing forest is a direct solution with which to help reduce the harmful levels of GHG in the atmosphere – alleviating the effect of global warming and the disastrous consequences that come with it.
Although the most ideal first step in the protection of nature and its resources is preservation; ecological restoration is a useful tool that can be used to enhance the conservation of a natural area. Ecological restoration is defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed’’ (SER 2004). To date, it is estimated that a whopping 40% of the Earth’s forest cover has been removed; with some countries experiencing an overall loss of 8.2 million hectares in one year (1 hectare = 10 000 m2). With this level of deforestation taking place each year, it is no wonder that it is a priority to commit to reforestation on a global scale (WWF, 2020).
It is clear that the loss of forests has more than one negative impact on our way of life, with forests carrying out the following (among others) paramount functions:
- Forests are often rich in biodiversity of plants and animals, which enrich our planet with variety and resilience.
- Forests provide us with many resources, including timber, food products, health products and form recreational areas.
- Forests act as large Carbon sinks, which help alleviate the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.
By taking part in ecological restoration projects, we are actively supporting trees and the functions they perform on our planet. To think of trees (and not only trees, but all forms of plant life) as the ‘lungs’ of the planet is helpful in reminding us of their essential role in our lives; and it should be recognised that all those who require Oxygen and an optimum Earthly environment in order to survive, are indebted to trees. Additionally, if you enjoy the warm feel of wooden floorboards under your feet – you can thank the trees they came from. If you, like me, like to sit at your wooden desk, or store your books in a wooden bookcase, or even rest your feet on your wooden coffee table you owe that pleasure to the trees that provided the raw materials. If you relish in eating a nice chocolate bar, or uncorking your wine in the evening, or need an aspirin to curb a headache – realise that those products, chocolate, cork and aspirin, all come from trees! It is pretty much impossible to overstate the value of trees and the abundance of goods and services they provide us with, and thus, it is unequivocal that we should be concerned with the wellbeing of forests and the trees that they are made up of. This is why we, humans, should be planting trees… because we, humans, are using them.
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SER, 2004. The SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration, Tuscon, Arizona: Society for Ecological Restoration International.
New Humanitarian, 2010. Deforestation leading to fewer resources, more
Available at: http://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2010/07/01
[Accessed 14 April 2020].
Wessels, B., 2018. Wood Products Manufacturing, Stellenbosch: s.n.
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