About a million hunter-gatherers live in forest, depending on
it almost entirely for food, shelter, clothing, fresh water,
medicines and other basic necessities. Between 100 and 300 million
people live on the edges of forests and use its products for
many of their daily needs.
Over half the world’s population uses wood (sometimes
in the form of charcoal) for cooking and heating their homes.
In 1996, in Africa as a whole, nearly 520 million m3
of wood were used as fuel. This compares with 80 million m3
used for all other purposes (timber, paper, etc).
About 1500 million m3 of wood are harvested world-wide
every year for timber, (for making furniture, buildings, railways
and docks etc), and to produce wood pulp for paper. Britain
has to import about half the wood products it needs, including
a great deal of hardwood from tropical countries.
Rain soaks into the leaf litter and gradually seeps and trickles
its way underground where it eventually joins streams and rivers.
On open land, the rain is more likely to run off the surface
very quickly, sometimes causing flash floods.
One of the causes of global warming is increasing levels of
carbon dioxide in the air. Plants make their own food through
a process of photosynthesis. They take up carbon dioxide from
the air and, using the energy of light from the sun, they turn
it into carbon and give off the oxygen. Because trees are so
big, they can ‘store’ a great deal of carbon.
place for leisure and spiritual refreshment
In Britain, at least 50 million visits are made each year to
our forests. Trees have a special meaning in many cultures;
the Tree of Life is part of the first story in the Bible; the
Hindu Matsya Purana said 1,500 years ago, “He who plants
even one tree goes directly to heaven;” sacred groves
were found in ancient Greece and are still honoured today by
many African and Asian villagers.
Forests are the source of resins and latex, bamboo and rattan,
ingredients for cosmetics and many foods and medicines. Some
are used by local people, others are sold world-wide. Some
products, such as rubber, were originally from natural forests
but are now largely grown in plantations. Others, such as
brazil nuts, are still mostly harvested from the wild.
The leaves of the trees and shrubs stop the worst impact of
heavy rainfall on the soil and the roots act as a kind of underground
net, holding the soil in place and protecting it from being
washed or blown away. The tree canopy also protects the soil
surface from the strong sun which otherwise could bake it hard.
Forests in general, and rainforests in particular, contain
a huge range of plants and animals. Many of our common foods
such as tea, rice, corn and chickens, originated in rainforests,
although they are now grown or raised commercially in quite
different parts of the world. Cross-breeding of modern plants
with those found wild in the forests often leads to improved
crops. Over a quarter of all common medicines have been developed
from material first found in tropical rainforests. In the
past, people who traditionally lived in the forest often provided
the knowledge on which the research was based. New species
and new uses for known species are continually being discovered.
home for wildlife
In Britain, ancient forest supports a larger number of insects
than any other kind of habitat. Animals which are dependent
on the forest, and which we are in danger of losing, include
the dormouse, the stag beetle, the violet click beetle, the
firecrest and the nightingale. The Amazon rainforest contains
several million animal species, mostly insects, but there are
3,000 known species of land vertebrates and 2000 known species
of freshwater fish.
Britain has lost most of its own forest, much of our way of
life depends on the forests of other countries. Forests are
clearly vital, not only to the people who live in or near them,
but to the whole world. However, people’s need for timber
or for other economic uses of the land are also important. How
can we preserve the forests and still find ways for people to
use them to make a living? The case study
which follows, and others later
in the site, show some examples of what can be done.