International Day of Forest: Forests are more than just trees

By Olanrewaju Rukayat I.

A single look at the forest, and most people assume it is all about the trees. In Nigeria for instance, ask the man in the street what a forest is, and he’ll define a forest in terms of forest reserves with his focus on the trees. I believe this misconception of the word ‘forest’ is one of the major reasons our forests are being destroyed daily at a very alarming rate. The aim of this piece is to enlighten people on what a forest stands for, and shed light on the complexity of the forest (especially the tropical rainforest) to celebrate this year’s International Day of Forests (IDF).The theme for this year IDP is forest and biodiversity, too precious to lose.

Contrary to the popular layman opinion, forests are the most diverse ecosystems on land holding the vast majority of the world’s terrestrial species. For example, a tropical rainforest may have more than 480 tree species per hectare. Apart from these numerous tree species, other life forms within the forest include the herbivores, plants, mammals, birds, invertebrates, fungi, nematodes, bacteria among others.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defined forest as “land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent”. Forest is therefore any land more than 5000sqm with a canopy cover of 500sqm. In Nigeria, this means that any land with trees higher than 5m or has potential of attaining that height, spanning about 7 ½ standard plots (60ft by 120ft) with canopy cover of about ¾ of a standard plot of land falls under the term “forest”. Although this land shouldn’t be under either agricultural use or urban use.

The view that narrows forest down to trees undermines the importance of the very existence of forests. Therefore many people cannot phantom the gravity of their actions on not only the trees but also on all the organisms that inhabit the forest as well as those that directly and indirectly depend on those trees.

The forest ecosystem is a continuous cycle of life that revolves around plants, herbivores, carnivores as well as microorganisms. The Herbivorous wild animals depend on the trees and other green vegetation for their food needs, and the carnivorous wild animals turn to the grass eaters for their sustenance. When these animals die from predatory attack, diseases, age and other causes they are decomposed by the microorganisms that exist in the forest ecosystem and returned into the system as organic matter for plant growth.

Likewise, trees depend on pollinators such as insects, rodents, birds and other animals for their fruiting and the completion of their growth cycle. They also depend on microorganisms to aid some of their physiological processes for example the nitrogen fixing bacteria in the root nodules of leguminous trees depends on the tree for food and habitat and fixes nitrogen for the tree’s use. Such is the complex relationship that exist in the forest ecosystem.

Forests with their complex relationships are essential for humans, climate and wildlife. They are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and also form the source of livelihood of rural dwellers including 60 million indigenous people. These important resources provide habitat to diverse animal species and are essential to the sustainability of our world. Producing most of the oxygen we breathe and providing habitat for half of the planet’s flora and fauna, they are paramount to our continued survival and existence on this planet.

Unfortunately, these forests are threatened globally by human activities such as rapid deforestation, forest fragmentation and degradation, hunting, overexploitation, bush burning etc. and we lose about 12 million hectares of forests yearly. In Nigeria, we lose about 450,000 hectares of forest per annum. When we lose the forest, we are not only losing valuable tree cover, we are also losing those organisms that depend on the complex dynamics in the forest ecosystem for their habitat and food source. Forests in Nigeria are greatly threatened by deforestation, forest fragmentation and degradation, overexploitation, bush burning among other human activities.

Majority of the farmers in Nigeria still practice the slash and burn agriculture whereby an area of land or forest is cleared and burnt in preparation for planting. This form of land preparation has been one of the major cause of bushfires in recent times resulting in the loss of not only the trees but also other flora and fauna species. Although there is limited data on the effect of bush burning on forest ecosystems in Nigeria, the forest fires witnessed in Brazil, Bolivia and Australia in recent times gives a clear indication of the extent of destruction that results from bush burning.

The Amazon fire that raged from January to October 2019 destroying 906,000 hectares of forest is an example. This fire didn’t only destroy the trees and vegetation but also other life forms that inhabit the forest. Similar to this, is the Australian bush fire that raged between June 2019 and March 2020 affecting an estimated 18.6 million hectares. Apart from the millions of hectares of forest trees and plant life that was lost, about one billion animals (mammals, birds, reptiles, rodents etc.) was estimated to have been killed during the fire.

Summarily, forests form an important part of our existence on this planet because they are the wheel on which the planet moves. However, trees are just one of the many components of the forest biodiversity and our forests as we see them are integral parts of our planet and are therefore too precious to lose.

Rukayat is a doctoral student of Forest Management at the University of Ibadan. She wrote via: olanrewajuifedapo@gmail.com