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Celebrating Forests Today and Every Day

On the 21st day of March, the world celebrates the International Day of Forests! While we try to celebrate trees and forests every day through our lifestyle, we think it’s a great idea to dedicate a day to highlight why this is so important.

Even if you live in the city, and venturing into the woods is not your cup of tea, you – like any other living being on the planet – rely significantly on forests. Even if you don’t know it.

Woodlands provide us with most of the essential resources we need daily: food supplies, timber for fuel and building, and products such as paper, toilet paper, medicines, cosmetics, packaging, and more. Farming is often favoured to forests and the latter are therefore gradually turned into vast grazing land.

Despite their essential role in our survival, forests are disappearing at an alarming pace. Between 1990 and 2015, we lost an area equivalent to South Africa: 129 million hectares!

Taking down trees endangers the whole ecosystem, because within an ecosystem, all living beings affect and support each other. Forests are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and 60 million indigenous people. A mature oak can host up to 500 species!

On a global scale, forests represent the second-largest storehouse of carbon and greenhouse gases while they release vital oxygen for us to breathe. The canopy of trees also protects the soil from sun rays, allowing it to stay humid while storing clean water.

Trees’ root systems retain the soil, and their leaves end up forming a constant layer of decomposing nutrients that provides food for all fungi and microorganisms. These lifeforms clean the soil of toxic components before they can get into our water sources, among other things.

Everything is connected.

So, is the solution to plant more trees? Yes… and no. In these past decades, the tendency has been to replace native trees with other species – generally more profitable. While a native tree is designed to fulfil the needs of the surrounding living beings, a foreign species is not.

Forests in Portugal

In Portugal, indigenous species include Strawberry trees (the fruit from which locals make medronho alcohol), Pyrenean oaks, Cork oaks, Holm oaks, Cherry, Hazel, Cedar, and Chestnut trees as well as Stone Pines – the ones that provide pine nuts! And, of course, the iconic Olive trees.

An exhaustive list (in Portuguese) is provided by ICNF – The Nature and Forests Conversation Institute.

Nowadays, Portuguese native forests represent a tiny percentage of forested areas. By the 19th century, only 7% was left. Eucalyptus trees are now the ones composing the most abundant “forest” in the country.

That’s because Eucalyptus trees were brought from Australia by botanists in the 18th century, and became gold for the national economy. In the 1950s, the government advised locals to extensively plant eucalyptus: it’s easy to grow, three times as lucrative as cork, and they can be harvested every twelve years. Easy money in a country where the baseline monthly salary is under 600 euros.

That’s how Portugal became the leading nation for wood and paper exports.

However, while Eucalyptus is valued for its many medicinal uses, in Portugal, its main characteristic is how easily it burns, adding to the already high risk of wildfires.

Exploring solutions

Facing the dramatic disappearance of native forests, preserving what still exists is not enough.

Our hopes might lie in the innovative concepts of reforestation, regeneration of ecosystems, and rewilding, which is the effort to turn nature back to its wild state, for example, by bringing back wildlife where it used to live.

This year, the International Day of Forests’ theme is Forest Restoration. Here are a few inspiring initiatives that deserve our attention and support:

  1. In Kenya, Wangari Mathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for tree planting and environmentalism. She founded the much-needed Green Belt Movement. You can learn about her vision in the documentary Taking Root.
  2. Back in Portugal, Reflorestar Portugal is a project aiming for natural regeneration and ecosystems restoration. By facilitating networking and connection between people, it helps build stronger communities united by the same values. According to them, healing communities is the first step before healing nature.
  3. Close to us at Casa Beatrix, the regional hub of the association Quercus (the Latin word for oak) in Guarda is all about nature preservation. It contributes to different campaigns and activities, including tree planting, exhibitions, workshops, and various partnerships to raise awareness of local initiatives.

What can YOU do for forests?

Gaining awareness about trees and their importance is a great first step. We loved reading The Hidden Life of Trees (did you know trees can “talk” to each other, and will stay out of their peers’ growing space?) & Lab Girl (a memoir and fascinating love letter to trees, full of science and humor).

If you live in Portugal, think about participating or supporting one of the initiatives we mentioned above, or signing up for a tree planting activity in your area (the president of your village can probably point you in the right direction, or you can always ask at the Camara/Municipality. And if you live abroad, consider donating to Wangari Mathai’s foundation, or any other trustworthy reforestation initiative. You can also switch to Ecosia as a search engine, because for every search you do, you will contribute to tree planting!

Either way, you can’t go wrong if you encourage tree planting. So, if you don’t know what to get for a friend’s birthday or as a baby shower present, consider a tree!


Featured image by Luís Cardoso on Unsplash 

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