Did you know there are around 10 times more trees on our planet than stars in our galaxy? But we should not take that fact for granted. We are still losing 10 billion trees every year. That is why WWF is working with our partners to inspire the world to better protect and restore a trillion trees by 2050. It is terrific to have champions for our work like Professor Jonathan Drori who has produced a wonderful new celebration of trees. Read on to find out more!
The first time I saw my father cry was when a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon in Richmond Park was struck by lightning and had to be felled. I was just a child, and until then I’d thought my father was all-powerful and would be able to protect such a valuable thing. Pondering on that experience, I’ve often thought that a measure of the strength and stability of a society is reflected in the way it values and protects its wild trees.
I’ve been researching for my new project, Around the World in 80 Trees, a book which I hope is a surprising and enjoyable global tour of tree species, some seemingly well-known, some obscure, and the way that human history and folklore are intertwined with plant science. As I unearthed fascinating stories and examined the latest research, I noticed a common and unsettling theme of unsustainable exploitation.
If we don’t overdo it, trees give us all sorts of valuable things (fruit, nuts, resin, latex…) without us necessarily incurring intolerable damage. Living trees happily hold soils together and slow down racing rainwater. They shade us and purify our air and spark pleasant memories as well as poignant ones. And then there’s timber. I’m all for planting forests (not monocultures please!) to provide building materials and paper. There are arguments for woodchip boilers too. If we use truly sustainable approaches we can provide a renewable resource for our many needs while maintaining habitats for precious wildlife.
At the core of this challenge is meeting the needs of today without harming the prospects of the future. In developing countries such as Haiti, landscapes have been denuded and the soils impoverished by citizens desperate for firewood and with no alternative. Rosewood (Dalbergia) is being systematically smuggled out of Madagascar’s dwindling forests, mainly for a ravenous Chinese market. The Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) – there were huge forests of it in South West Australia – was exported all the way to London at the end of the 19th century, to make wooden paving for the capital’s swankiest streets. Whoever could chop fastest and export the most made the biggest profits. The Brazilwood (Paubrasilia echinata) that gave its name to the country, was a valuable source of red dye in renaissance times and more recently the source of the world’s best cello and violin bows. Uncontrolled extraction has put the species at risk. The solution to this ‘race to the bottom’ is often to provide viable economic alternatives for those in poverty and in need of income, timber or fuel – and WWF helps communities to find these alternatives in many corners of the world.
The very land on which trees grow is often under pressure for other uses – for agriculture, for building development, for roads and for golf courses. Mangroves (Rhizophora), which can only grow at the water’s edge, are threatened by encroaching fish-farms and by sea-level rise as a result of climate change. Vast areas of the Amazon and other rainforests have been lost to industrialised farming; and in Sheffield, England, the local government has used puzzling short-term financial arguments to justify the butchery of health-giving street-trees. Arguably these are not signs of strength and stability. A truly strong society helps to sustain biodiversity, knowing that biodiversity underpins future stability for us all.
I hope that the stories in Around the World in 80 Trees might encourage more people to appreciate and enjoy trees and therefore put them higher up their list of things to hang on to.
Find out more here, and follow #80Trees where I’ll be posting weird and wonderful things I discover about trees. Proceeds from the book will go to various UK environmental charities, including WWF.