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March/April 2011
Vol. 36, No. 2


UN: 2011 International Year of Forests

In the mid-1990s, when the Maryknoll sisters' house was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in northern Philippines, it was initially assumed that eventually the house would be replaced by a simple wooden structure. Alas, this was not to be. At that time, it came to the attention of the sisters that the degraded state of the Philippine forest, morally understood, meant there could be no more tree cutting, period. The house would have to be constructed from other materials as the illegal logging industry had practically decimated the once extensive mahogany forest of the northern mountains.

This story holds the essence of the situation of the forests in tropical countries around the globe: grave loss. The reasons vary. In the case cited above, the cause was economic profit, but forest degradation is often caused by poverty. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), "In developing countries, wood-based fuels are the dominant source of energy for more than two billion poor people. In Africa, over 80 percent of harvested wood is used for energy." Other common reasons for loss of forested areas are conversion to agricultural land and the creation of human settlements.

According to the World Bank, between 2000 and 2005, "deforestation affected an estimated 13 million hectares per year."

It is, therefore, no surprise that the UN has named 2011 the International Year of Forests. However, it might be surprising that the subtitle is "Forests for People" and that one of the lead agencies charged with implementation is the FAO. FAO explains itself with the following statement:

"The livelihoods of hundreds of millions of rural people depend on forests and trees. People who benefit from forests are more likely to conserve them if they have a say in how they are managed. FAO promotes participatory forestry and community-based enterprise development to enable communities to balance their economic needs with the conservation of forest resources for the future."

The underlying theme and ethical framework for this work is sustainability. Both present and future needs and rights of people must be taken into account in the use of natural resources.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is also highly involved in the International Year of Forests. On its launch on February 23, it awarded $200,000 to two projects for outstanding achievement in forest management: The Asociación Forestal Integral San Andrés, Petén (AFISAP) in Guatemala and the Manahari Development Institute in Nepal (MDI-Nepal). Both groups have worked for decades in sustainably managing the forests under their care.

In addition UNEP has announced a new and impressive undertaking: With the collaboration of the European Union, it will be engaged in a major project in the north western part of the Mau forest complex in Kenya. This project supports a visionary plan on the part of the Kenyan government toward transformation of its economy. Renewable energy and improved management of its nature-based assets are at the core of its transformation; its path is sustainable development. The plan contains a step-by-step strategy projected toward completion by the year 2030. It involves not only the rehabilitation and restoration of a large ravaged forest area but also the recovery of the Yala and Nyando rivers. "These rivers flow into Lake Victoria and are important for drinking water; they support 5,000 hectares of rice production important for local food security and the Kenyan economy." In view of the fact that across the globe it is estimated that there are more than a billion hectares of lost and degraded forest land that could be restored, this project could be a prototype for other projects everywhere.

On the margin of the above project, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is financing improvements along the Mau Mara River Catchment. It is important to note this because, along with the other examples cited, it points to a moral shift in which humanity is stepping up to assume responsibility for the well-being of the whole earth community.

Properly managed, the forests will provide food, water and economic opportunities, wood to build houses, shade and beauty in abundance.

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