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Homes for people
About a million hunter-gatherers live in forest, depending on it completely 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.
Wood for fuel
Over half the world’s population use 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, for 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
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.
The 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.
Forests have an effect on climate at both a local and a global level. Much of the rain is caught by the leaves and then evaporates to form clouds which produce more rainfall, perhaps further inland.
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.
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 are now largely grown in plantations. Others, such as brazil nuts, are still mostly harvested from the wild.
A 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.
A gene pool
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.
A 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.
Volumes of wood are usually measured in cubic metres.
Although 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.
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This site is funded by DFID and has been produced by the World Land Trust.