The coronavirus pandemic should have taught us a lesson on the ill effects of encroaching upon the natural world

THE world loses 10 million hectares of forest (about the size of Iceland) each year. This accounts for up to 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions – a major factor in climate change. To try and repair this broken relationship between humans and trees, in 2012 the United Nations decided to observe March 21, as International Day of Forests. 

The theme this year is ‘Forest Restoration: A Path to Recovery and Well Being’ – particularly poignant at a time when Covid-19 continues its devastating global journey. There is a direct link between the destruction of nature – which includes deforestation – and pandemics such as coronavirus, a disease that has jumped from wildlife to humans.

Forests in India 

The trees and forests in India are among the most diverse ecosystems in the world. With more than 20% of its land area under forest cover, the country is a treasure trove of natural resources and biodiversity. These range from Himalayan temperate to dry zone forests. The jungles are home to nearly 45,000 flora and 81,000 fauna, of which 5,150 flora and 1837 fauna are endemic to the country. 

However, in the past few years these forest lands have suffered massively due to rapid and unchecked industrialization as well as lack of awareness. Agricultural expansion, cattle breeding, timber extraction, mining, oil extraction, dam construction and infrastructure development have all contributed to the decline in forestation. 

Besides preventing more pandemics like the current one, here are 10 more reasons why we must protect our forests with urgency: 

1. Maintaining levels of oxygen: 

As we have all learnt in school, trees help in maintaining optimal levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. In fact, the lack of forest cover allows the harmful carbon dioxide to proliferate in the atmosphere, thereby leading to the greenhouse effect. 

The collection of trees in forests acts as a carbon sink in order to absorb the carbon dioxide and convert the same to oxygen that is our very lifeblood. To make sure that our earth has enough trees to help us breathe, this World Forest Day, support NGOs like Give Me Trees Trust and  Vanam India Foundation who have together planted millions of trees across the country.

2. Fighting climate change 

Finally, trees and afforestation are our greatest allies against fighting climate change and the global increase in temperature. Only through the conservation of flora and fauna can we hope to maintain optimal functioning of the food chain. This reduces human to animal conflict, thereby promoting balanced industrialization and a reduction in greenhouse gas emission. 

The trees also act as carbon basins of the world, which helps in reducing global warming and fighting adverse effects of climate change. One of the important NGOs participating in this fight is Teach for Green who are actively enabling the community to understand climate change through educational programmes, awareness drives and practical application of energy conserving methods.

3. Providing the 5 Fs: 

It’s no surprise that human beings rely on forests to provide them with the five Fs – Food, Fiber, Furniture, Fuel and Fertilizer. Even the basic activities or the things that we use on an everyday basis can be traced back to forests. In absence of unchecked deforestation, we may lose access to resources we take for granted. 

4. Checking soil erosion: 

The roots of trees and their intricate systems stop top soil from being eroded thereby maintaining the level of undergrowth as well. In addition to holding the soil in place, the various symbiotic relationships ensure that the natural bed also remains fertilized and adequately drained. This ensures that even small medicinal plants, shrubs and ground covering foliage can grow. 

5. Home to rare flora 

As many as one-fourth of all flowering species in India are endemic to the region, meaning that they can grow only in one place in the entire world. The Western Ghats alone are home to 2,116 such species, followed by the Eastern Himalayas with 466. 

These endemic plants are currently threatened by unchecked afforestation as well as by human interaction with the species. To protect the various rare flora and to preserve our native trees, NGOs like ReforestIndia are striving to follow agro-forestry and plant indigenous trees to stop them from becoming extinct.

6. Inhabited by rare animals 

In addition to this, India’s forests are also home to some of the most wondrous fauna in the world, a significant portion of which is endemic to the region. Asiatic Lion in Gir Forest, Lion-tailed Macaque in the Western Ghats, Nilgiri tahr, Malabar large-spotted civet and many more species are unique to the country. NGOs such as the Wildlife SOS, and WWF are working towards ensuring a better balance between the farming lands and the forest habitat. 

7. Source of livelihoods 

Many tribal and rural populations rely on forests for their sustenance. For about 100 million of them, forests are the main source for livelihood providing income from fuelwood, non-timber forest products or construction materials.The trees are also a source of their fuel, food for animals and timber. 

The reduction in forest cover is known to increase poverty and suffering among these groups. To support these forest-dependent indigenous tribes, NGOs like ATREE and End Poverty help conserve the forest, while simultaneously improving livelihoods for these marginalized communities through their various projects.

8. Groundwater conservation 

The relationship between forest cover and groundwater is quite multi-faceted. It starts with the roots of the trees holding the soil in place preventing the runoff of water. Additionally, the transpiration process that occurs among the trees to produce food for themselves also results in increasing moisture levels and lowering the temperature which helps in reducing the groundwater evaporation. 

Nonprofits like AARDE Foundation, Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) and Tropical Research and Development Centre are making a difference in conserving groundwater through rejuvenation of lakes, tanks, rainwater harvesting and tree planting.

9. Prevention of floods 

The trees are also responsible for holding the riverbeds in check and regulating the soil, which helps freshwater rivers and lakes regulate the flooding levels. This helps in nearby areas avoiding the risk of floods and excess rainfall in farming areas. 

10. Aiding adequate rainfall 

By reducing the overall temperature of the atmosphere and keeping the vaporization process running smoothly, the large bio reserves help in reducing the risk of drought. The water cycle starts running more smoothly owing to the moisture, which eventually transforms into clouds. 


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