The human war on forests

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The Guardian reported that two and a half acres of forest – equivalent to two football fields – is cut down every second. ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP

It was in discussions with Stalin on vital strategy during World War II in Tehran that Winston Churchill had famously said: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

This can be tweaked to make it applicable to an another war, one with far more horrific and destructive consequences than the two world wars – the war on the natural world.

In the words of environmental activist Vandana Shiva: “It is a war unleashed by the violence of the monoculture mind, which reduces nature to a raw material, life to a commodity, diversity to a threat, and views destruction as progress”.

We perpetrate assaults on the forest as if it were an enemy to be wiped out.

Such an assault leads to deforestation – the permanent removal of a forest or trees to clear the land for agriculture, or grazing or using the timber for fuel, construction or manufacturing. To perpetuate this war, politicians, corporate houses, the media, and corporate enterprises that deal with paper and timber refer to issue that appear to be true. But the truth is so awful that it needs to be blended with lies to pacify public outrage.

Robert Jay Lifton, an American Psychiatrist, has written in his crucial book The Nazi Doctor that it is hardly possible to perpetrate mass atrocities without first convincing everybody that the action is not harmful but rather beneficial.

Deforestation is always accompanied by catchy slogans – we are not killing trees, we’re creating more job opportunities; we’re saving trees from diseases; we’re preventing wildfires; we’re not killing forests, we are helping the local economy.

Even more effective and extensive lies have accompanied deforestation. In North America, around half the forests in the eastern part of the continent were hacked for timber and farming between the 1600s and late 1800s, according to National Geographic.

The forests are also in bad shape today almost throughout the world. Deforestation is extensive in the tropics. A 2017 report by scientists at the University of Maryland showed that the tropics lost around 158,000 square kilometres of forest in 2017 – an area the size of Bangladesh.

The Guardian reported that two and a half acres of forest is cut down every second. This is equivalent to two football fields. One hundred and fifty acres are cut per minute.

This works out to 214,000 acres per day, an area larger than New York City.

Seventy-eight million acres are deforested each year, an area larger than Poland. Since humans started cutting down forests, 46 per cent of trees have been felled globally, as per a 2015 study report published in Nature.

Old-growth forest is called “biological desert”, even though extensive scientific research has established that natural forests provide habitat for most of the world’s threatened species.

Particular animal species are chosen as “indicator species” so that the entire forest ecosystem of interdependent species does not have to be considered as a synergistic whole. Ancient trees are called “decadent”, in the hope that there would be less outcry over the loss of something already decaying than over the loss of something that was born long before our civilisation and its war against nature.

Deforestation is essential as we need roads and logging to put out forest fires. The forests need to be cut to provide jobs as well as to create healthy forests. However, to reveal the truth the “bodyguard of lies” needs to be busted. Contrary to the popular propaganda, the adverse impact of deforestation renders the forest soil unusable for plantations.

For example, when the rainforest is cleaned in tropical areas, nutrient availability goes down considerably. This means that farmers will have to use fertilisers and artificial stimulants to make the land fit for cultivation.

The wood and paper industry and its markets are now global, with only a handful of companies left to compete. Over the past generation, employment has gone down as production has gone up. Forests are the backbone of life forms and the life on the Earth is sustained through them.

We depend on forests for our survival, from the air we breathe to the wood we use. As well as providing habitats for animals and livelihood for humans, forests also offer watershed protection, prevent soil erosion and mitigate climate change. Yet, despite our dependence on forests, we are still allowing then to disappear [WWF].

The economic value of the services provided by forests worldwide is estimated at $16.2 trillion. Forests pump out oxygen we need to live and absorb the CO2 we exhale. A single mature, leafy tree is estimated to produce as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year.

While phytoplankton in the oceans accounts for at least half of the earth’s oxygen, forests play a key role. After oceans, forests are the world’s largest carbon sink.

We have been the obedient servants of Gilgamesh for 5,000 years. We have cut a path of destruction, ignored the spreading deserts, disregarded the disappearing animals, the foul air and water, the warming planet.

We have destroyed most of the earth’s natural forest cover, and we pretend we can live without it.

The story goes that Gilgamesh defeated the forest protectors and the forces of civilisation won the battle for the forest, but it is not true.

We can hardly afford to ignore the warning of the Brazilian indigenous Kayapo chief Tacuma: “The world is in great danger. When the trees die, the Earth dies. We will be orphans without a home, lost in the chaos of the storm.”

Jaydev Jana is a retired Indian Administrative Service officer