January 24, 2011

International Year of Forests.

Over 1.6 billion people around the world — almost a quarter of humanity — depend on forests for their livelihood. Forest products are a source of employment and economic growth, accounting for some US$ 270 million in global trade annually, sustaining communities around the world. Home to some 300 million people worldwide, forests are also integral to regulating the climate and supporting biodiversity. Yet the world's forests, and the people who depend on them, are under increasing pressure from unsustainable logging, and agriculture and biofuel producers competing for land.

Each year 130,000 km² of the worlds forests are lost, mainly through conversion to agricultural land, unsustainable harvesting of timber, unsound land management, and the creation of new human settlements. Covering over 31% of the world's total land area, the Earth's forests and forest soil store more than one trillion tons of carbon, twice the amount found in the world's atmosphere. Forests offer the quickest, most cost effective and largest means of curbing global emissions, while deforestation accounts for up to 20% of the global greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

Not only impacting carbon emissions and climate change, forest degradation also destroys animal and plant habitats, contributes to soil erosion and siltation of rivers and streams, frequently destroying the livelihoods of the poorest among (forest dependent) people. Harbouring 80% of the world's biodiversity, providing habitats for about two-thirds of all species on Earth, the continuous deforestation of closed tropical rainforests in particular could account for the loss of as many as 100 different species every day. Which is why the United Nations is launching the 2011 International Year of Forests at the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF) to raise awareness about sustainable management, conservation, and sustainable development of all types of forests.

However, it seems that in Canada — proudly displaying a leaf as its national symbol — the current Conservative government is happy to mark the International Year with a mere pat on the Canadian forest industry's back. Claiming to have more protected forest, and more "third-party certified" forest than any other country, as well as some of the "toughest" forestry regulations in the world, Canada's government and forest industry seem quite content congratulating themselves for the country's position as the world's most successful exporter of forest products.

The Canadian forest industry's inroads in Asia are fodder for a government hungry for any signs of its dismal policies' successes, with Canadian wood exports to China, for instance, tripling in value over the past five years — from C$ 109 million in 2005 to C$ 385 million in 2009. Yet what government and industry frequently fail to mention is that less than 10% of Canada's forest are fully protected, and that logging of one of the world's three largest remaining "frontier forests" (the other two situated in Brazil and Russia) as well as clearcutting account for nearly 90% of all logging activity in Canada.

It may therefore be worthwhile to consider the importance as well as the future development of Canada's forest industry, especially at a time when logging remains the dominant activity in the country's forests. An estimated 50% of Canada's vast boreal forest, the "northern" forest which occupies 35% of the total Canadian land area and 77% of Canada's total forest land, is now accessible by highways and logging roads. Simultaneously, the Canadian Forest Service has experienced dramatic reductions in budget and staff, making access to information about the state of Canada's forests, as well as oversight and promotion of sustainable land management more difficult than before. In other words, it's now easier for Canadian's to find out exactly how large profits the forest industry is reaping than it is to see the forest for all the wood.

Comprising nearly 45% of the total Canadian land area, the forest's animals, plants, and products affect each Canadian every day, from the products we consume and depend upon on to the air we breathe. The "productive" forest areas of Canada total almost 2.5 million km², or roughly a quarter of Canada's total land area. Forestry is Canada's largest natural resource industry, with forest products' trade surplus almost eclipsing the combined surpluses of agriculture, energy, fisheries, and mining, making our country the largest exporter of wood products in the world.

Representing almost 2% of Canada's GDP, worth C$54 billion annually, the forest products industry is one of the country's largest employers, providing 240,000 direct jobs across the country (in silviculture, logging, wood industries, paper and allied products), as well as thousands of indirect jobs through purchases of goods and services. The Canadian forest industry is the economic heart of some 200 communities across the country — communities which have limited alternative economic and employment opportunities.

Clearly, there are many more reasons to take the opportunity over the coming year to consider the asset as well as natural wealth Canada's forests represent, and how we are managing the over a third of the world's boreal forest, the fifth of the world's temperate rainforest, and the tenth of the total global forest cover which lie within our borders. Clearly, our forests deserve more than a round of sanctioned cheers to celebrate how fast we’re managing to sell them.

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