EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Restoring the Earth: Protecting and Restoring Forests

Since 1990, the earth’s forest cover has shrunk by more than 7 million hectares each year, with annual losses of 13 million hectares in developing countries and regrowth of almost 6 million hectares in industrial countries. Protecting the earth’s nearly 4 billion hectares of remaining forests and replanting those already lost are both essential for restoring the earth’s health—the foundation for the new economy. Reducing rainfall runoff and the associated soil erosion and flooding, recycling rainfall inland, and restoring aquifer recharge depend on both forest protection and reforestation. 3

There is a vast unrealized potential in all countries to lessen the demands that are shrinking the earth’s forest cover. In industrial nations the greatest opportunity lies in reducing the quantity of wood used to make paper; in developing countries, it depends on reducing fuelwood use.

The use of paper, perhaps more than any other single product, reflects the throwaway mentality that evolved during the last century. There is an enormous possibility for reducing paper use simply by replacing facial tissues, paper napkins, disposable diapers, and paper shopping bags with reusable cloth alternatives.

First we reduce paper use, then we recycle as much as possible. The rates of paper recycling in the top 10 paper-producing countries range widely, from Canada and China on the low end, recycling just over a third of the paper they use, to Japan and Germany on the higher end, each at close to 70 percent, and South Korea recycling an impressive 85 percent. The United States, the world’s largest paper consumer, is far behind the leaders, but it has raised the share of paper recycled from roughly one fifth in 1980 to 55 percent in 2007. If every country recycled as much of its paper as South Korea does, the amount of wood pulp used to produce paper worldwide would drop by one third. 4

The largest single demand on trees—fuelwood—accounts for just over half of all wood removed from the world’s forests. Some international aid agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), are sponsoring fuelwood efficiency projects. One of AID’s more promising projects is the distribution of 780,000 highly efficient cookstoves in Kenya that not only use far less wood than a traditional stove but also pollute less. 5

Kenya is also the site of a project sponsored by Solar Cookers International, whose inexpensive cookers, made from cardboard and aluminum foil, cost $10 each. Requiring less than two hours of sunshine to cook a complete meal, they can greatly reduce firewood use at little cost and save women valuable time by freeing them from traveling long distances to gather wood. The cookers can also be used to pasteurize water, thus saving lives. 6

Over the longer term, developing alternative energy sources is the key to reducing forest pressure in developing countries. Replacing firewood with solar thermal cookers or even with electric hotplates powered by wind, geothermal, or solar thermal energy will lighten the load on forests.

Despite the high ecological and economic value to society of intact forests, only about 290 million hectares of global forest area are legally protected from logging. An additional 1.4 billion hectares are economically unavailable for harvesting because of geographic inaccessibility or low-value wood. Of the remaining area thus far not protected, 665 million hectares are virtually undisturbed by humans and nearly 900 million hectares are semi-natural and not in plantations. 7

There are two basic approaches to timber harvesting. One is clearcutting. This practice, often preferred by logging companies, is environmentally devastating, leaving eroded soil and silted streams, rivers, and irrigation reservoirs in its wake. The alternative is simply to cut only mature trees on a selective basis, leaving the forest intact. This ensures that forest productivity can be maintained in perpetuity. The World Bank has recently begun to systematically consider funding sustainable forestry projects. In 1997 the Bank joined forces with the World Wide Fund for Nature to form the Alliance for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Use. By the end of 2005 they had helped designate 56 million hectares of new forest protected areas and certify 32 million hectares of forest as being harvested sustainably. That year the Alliance also announced a goal of reducing global net deforestation to zero by 2020. 8

Several forest product certification programs let environmentally conscious consumers know about the management practices in the forest where wood products originate. The most rigorous international program, certified by a group of nongovernmental organizations, is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Some 114 million hectares of forests in 82 countries are certified by FSC-accredited bodies as responsibly managed. Among the leaders in FSC-certified forest area are Canada, with 27 million hectares, followed by Russia, the United States, Sweden, Poland, and Brazil. 9

Forest plantations can reduce pressures on the earth’s remaining forests as long as they do not replace old-growth forest. As of 2005, the world had 205 million hectares in forest plantations, almost one third as much as the 700 million hectares planted in grain. Tree plantations produce mostly wood for paper mills or for wood reconstitution mills. Increasingly, reconstituted wood is substituted for natural wood as the world lumber and construction industries adapt to a shrinking supply of large logs from natural forests. 10

Production of roundwood (logs) on plantations is estimated at 432 million cubic meters per year, accounting for 12 percent of world wood production. Six countries account for 60 percent of tree plantations. China, which has little original forest remaining, is by far the largest, with 54 million hectares. India and the United States follow, with 17 million hectares each. Russia, Canada, and Sweden are close behind. As tree farming expands, it is starting to shift geographically to the moist tropics. In contrast to grain yields, which tend to rise with distance from the equator and with longer summer growing days, yields from tree plantations are higher with the year-round growing conditions found closer to the equator. 11

In eastern Canada, for example, the average hectare of forest plantation produces 4 cubic meters of wood per year. In the southeastern United States, the yield is 10 cubic meters. But in Brazil, newer plantations may be getting close to 40 cubic meters. While corn yields in the United States are nearly triple those in Brazil, timber yields are the reverse, favoring Brazil by nearly four to one. 12

Plantations can sometimes be profitably established on already deforested and often degraded land. But they can also come at the expense of existing forests. And there is competition with agriculture, since land that is suitable for crops is also good for growing trees. Since fast-growing plantations require abundant moisture, water scarcity is another constraint.

Nonetheless, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects that as plantation area expands and yields rise, the harvest could more than double during the next three decades. It is entirely conceivable that plantations could one day satisfy most of the world’s demand for industrial wood, thus helping protect the world’s remaining forests. 13

Historically, some highly erodible agricultural land in industrial countries was reforested by natural regrowth. Such is the case for New England in the United States. Settled early and cleared by Europeans, this geographically rugged region suffered from cropland productivity losses because soils were thin and the land was rocky, sloping, and vulnerable to erosion. As highly productive farmland opened up in the Midwest and the Great Plains during the nineteenth century, pressures on New England farmland lessened, permitting cropped land to return to forest. New England’s forest cover has increased from a low of roughly one third two centuries ago to four fifths today, slowly regaining its original health and diversity. 14

A somewhat similar situation exists now in parts of the former Soviet Union and in several East European countries. As centrally planned agriculture was replaced by market-based agriculture in the early 1990s, unprofitable marginal land was abandoned. Precise figures are difficult to come by, but millions of hectares of low-quality farmland there are now returning to forest. 15

South Korea is in many ways a reforestation model for the rest of the world. When the Korean War ended, half a century ago, the mountainous country was largely deforested. Beginning around 1960, under the dedicated leadership of President Park Chung Hee, the South Korean government launched a national reforestation effort. Relying on the formation of village cooperatives, hundreds of thousands of people were mobilized to dig trenches and to create terraces for supporting trees on barren mountains. Se-Kyung Chong, researcher at the Korea Forest Research Institute, writes, “The result was a seemingly miraculous rebirth of forests from barren land.” 16

Today forests cover 65 percent of the country, an area of roughly 6 million hectares. While driving across South Korea in November 2000, it was gratifying to see the luxuriant stands of trees on mountains that a generation ago were bare. We can reforest the earth! 17

In Turkey, a mountainous country largely deforested over the millennia, a leading environmental group, TEMA (Türkiye Erozyonla Mücadele, Agaclandirma), has made reforestation its principal activity. Founded by two prominent Turkish businessmen, Hayrettin Karaca and Nihat Gökyiğit, TEMA launched in 1998 a 10-billion-acorn campaign to restore tree cover and reduce runoff and soil erosion. Since then, 850 million oak acorns have been planted. The program is also raising national awareness of the services that forests provide. 18

Reed Funk, professor of plant biology at Rutgers University, believes the vast areas of deforested land can be used to grow trillions of trees bred for food (mostly nuts), fuel, and other purposes. Funk sees nuts used to supplement meat as a source of high-quality protein in developing-country diets. 19

In Niger, farmers faced with severe drought and desertification in the 1980s began leaving some emerging acacia tree seedlings in their fields as they prepared the land for crops. As the trees matured they slowed wind speeds, thus reducing soil erosion. The acacia, a legume, fixes nitrogen, thereby enriching the soil and helping to raise crop yields. During the dry season, the leaves and pods provide fodder for livestock. The trees also supply firewood. 20

This approach of leaving 20–150 tree seedlings per hectare to mature on some 3 million hectares has revitalized farming communities in Niger. Assuming an average of 40 trees per hectare reaching maturity, this comes to 120 million trees. This practice also has been central to reclaiming 250,000 hectares of abandoned cropland. The key to this success story was the shift in tree ownership from the state to individual farmers, giving them the responsibility for protecting the trees. 21

Shifting subsidies from building logging roads to planting trees would help protect forest cover worldwide. The World Bank has the administrative capacity to lead an international program that would emulate South Korea’s success in blanketing mountains and hills with trees.

In addition, FAO and the bilateral aid agencies can work with individual farmers in national agroforestry programs to integrate trees wherever possible into agricultural operations. Well-chosen, well-placed trees provide shade, serve as windbreaks to check soil erosion, and can fix nitrogen, which reduces the need for fertilizer.

Reducing wood use by developing more-efficient wood stoves and alternative cooking fuels, systematically recycling paper, and banning the use of throwaway paper products all lighten pressure on the earth’s forests. But a global reforestation effort is unlikely to succeed unless it is accompanied by the stabilization of population. With such an integrated plan, coordinated country by country, the earth’s forests can be restored.

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3. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The State of the World’s Forests 2009 (Rome: 2009), pp. 109–15.

4. FAO, ForesSTAT, electronic database, at faostat.fao.org, updated 12 January 2009, using five-year averages; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2007 Facts and Figures (Washington, DC: 2008), p. 102.

5. FAO, op. cit. note 3, p. 129; Daniel M. Kammen, “From Energy Efficiency to Social Utility: Lessons from Cookstove Design, Dissemination, and Use,” in José Goldemberg and Thomas B. Johansson, Energy as an Instrument for Socio-Economic Development (New York: U.N. Development Programme, 1995).

6. Kevin Porter, “Final Kakuma Evaluation: Solar Cookers Filled a Critical Gap,” in Solar Cookers International, Solar Cooker Review, vol. 10, no. 2 (November 2004); “Breakthrough in Kenyan Refugee Camps,” at solarcooking.org/kakuma-m.htm, viewed 30 July 2007.

7. FAO, Agriculture: Towards 2015/30, Technical Interim Report (Geneva: Economic and Social Department, 2000), pp. 156–57.

8. Alliance for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Use, “WWF/World Bank Forest Alliance Launches Ambitious Program to Reduce Deforestation and Curb Illegal Logging,” press release (New York: World Bank/WWF, 25 May 2005); WWF/World Bank Global Forest Alliance, Annual Report 2005 (Gland, Switzerland, and Washington, DC: December 2006), p. 31.

9. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Forest Stewardship Council: News & Notes, vol. 7, issue 6 (July 2009); FSC, “Global FSC Certificates: Type and Distribution (March 2009),” PowerPoint Presentation, at www.fsc.org, June 2009.

10. A. Del Lungo, J. Ball, and J. Carle, Global Planted Forests Thematic Study: Results and Analysis (Rome: FAO Forestry Department, December 2006), p. 13; U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply and Distribution, electronic database, at www.fas.usda.gov/psdonline, updated 9 April 2009.

11. R. James and A. Del Lungo, “Comparisons of Estimates of ‘High Value’ Wood With Estimates of Total Forest Plantation Production,” in FAO, The Potential for Fast-Growing Commercial Forest Plantations to Supply High Value Roundwood (Rome: Forestry Department, February 2005), p. 24; plantation area in “Table 4. Total Planted Forest Area: Productive and Protective—61 Sampled Countries,” in Del Lungo, Ball, and Carle, op. cit. note 10, pp. 66–70.

12. Ashley T. Mattoon, “Paper Forests,” World Watch, March/April 1998, pp. 20–28; USDA, op. cit. note 10.

13. FAO, op. cit. note 7, p. 185; Chris Brown and D. J. Mead, eds., “Future Production from Forest Plantations,” Forest Plantation Thematic Paper (Rome: FAO, 2001), p. 9.

14. M. Davis et al., “New England—Acadian Forests,” in Taylor H. Ricketts et al., eds., Terrestrial Ecoregions of North America: A Conservation Assessment (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999); David R. Foster, “Harvard Forest: Addressing Major Issues in Policy Debates and in the Understanding of Ecosystem Process and Pattern,” LTER Network News: The Newsletter of the Long Term Ecological Network, spring/summer 1996; U.S. Forest Service, “2006 Forest Health Highlights,” various state sheets, at fhm.fs.fed.us, viewed 2 August 2007.

15. C. Csaki, “Agricultural Reforms in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: Status and Perspectives,” Agricultural Economics, vol. 22 (2000), pp. 37–54; Igor Shvytov, Agriculturally Induced Environmental Problems in Russia, Discussion Paper No. 17 (Halle, Germany: Institute of Agricultural Development in Central and Eastern Europe, 1998), p. 13.

16.  Se-Kyung Chong, “Anmyeon-do Recreation Forest: A Millennium of Management,” in Patrick B. Durst et al., In Search of Excellence: Exemplary Forest Management in Asia and the Pacific, Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission (Bangkok: FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, 2005), pp. 251–59.

17. Ibid.

18. Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, at english.tema.org.tr, viewed 31 July 2007.

19. Reed Funk, letter to author, 9 August 2005.

20. U.S. Embassy, Niamey, Niger, “Niger: Greener Now Than 30 Years Ago,” reporting cable circulated following national FRAME workshop, October 2006; Chris Reij, “More Success Stories in Africa’s Drylands Than Often Assumed,” presentation at Network of Farmers’ and Agricultural Producers’ Organisations of West Africa Forum on Food Sovereignty, 7–10 November 2006.

21. U.S. Embassy, op. cit. note 20; Reij, op. cit. note 20.

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