Forests and Wellbeing – Guyanese Forests’ Future is Vital to Our Own

By: Jaime Fernandez

Forests are among the most valuable ecosystems of our Earth. They support a rich and diverse network of habitats and wildlife. Approximately 80% of all plants and animals that exist on dry land can be found in forests. Worldwide, three hundred million people live in forests and 1.6 billion depend on such an ecosystem for their livelihood.

Forests used to cover extensive areas of our earth, yet economic activities have already destroyed half – and will continue to do so.

Our country is setting a great example by not making the same mistakes other countries have made or continue to make. 87% of our land area is still covered by forests which are showing historically low rates of deforestation.

However, it is also true that, if deforestation and forest degradation are not controlled in Guyana, the deforestation rate and its associated emissions may significantly increase, and we will suffer consequences similar to other countries that have not turned the tide in time.

Our Wellbeing Depends on Forests

Forests add value to our lives in so many ways. They clean our air and water, stabilise our local living conditions, and provide us with a rich variety of food, medicine, fuel and shelter. There are many untapped opportunities in which sustainable forest management can contribute to the wider local and national economy. We are only beginning to promote the attractiveness of the unique untouched nature of Guyana by exploring opportunities for sustainable tourism.

Trees and other plants protect land from desertification by increasing rain formation. They extract groundwater and release that water into the atmosphere during photosynthesis. Clouds then produce rain, which becomes both groundwater and, eventually, ocean water again.

However, when large numbers of trees are cut down, they can no longer extract, store and release water into the atmosphere. This means that cleared forests, which once had moist, fertile soil and plenty of rain, become barren and dry land. This kind of change in climate is called desertification. Such dry conditions can lead to an increased risk of fire on peatland and great loss of life for the plants and animals that once lived in the forest.

The roots of trees anchor the soil in place and in this way protect it from erosion. Without the stabilising function of trees, the soil is also at high risk for destructive landslides, which can cause damage to buildings, streets, etc. Large amounts of soil could also wash into local streams and rivers, clogging waterways and causing damage to hydroelectric power and irrigation infrastructure.

The water storage capacity of the forest prevents flooding. Trees absorb water from the soil, and therefore allow the soil to absorb more rainwater. During recent large rainfall events in Guyana we have witnessed how the water storage capacity of the forest soil has been overwhelmed, which leads to flooding. In deforested areas these heavy rainfalls are even more disastrous. Instead of trapping rain water, deforested areas suffer from surface water runoff. The quicker flow of surface water can translate into flash flooding.

Forests offer multiple health benefits. They are a source of components for traditional and modern medicine as well as a habitat for plants whose potential medicinal and nutritional value is yet to be determined. But the benefits a forest provides are not limited to its resources: Studies have shown that spending time in forests positively impacts our health.

The future of our forests concerns our generation and the ones to come. But it is up to us to determine that future.

Importantly, they provide indispensable carbon storage – vital in helping combat climate change, the biggest global health threat of our present day.

Our Forests Are More Valuable When Left Standing

With their vital functions, Guyanese forests serve as fundamental life support systems of our country and our living planet. Our extensive forests are rich in species, functional groups and niches for innumerable other organisms. Our forests are keystone structures vital to ecosystem health.

Forests play an important role in the conservation of biodiversity on which so many species depend. Guyana’s floral diversity is estimated to include over 8,000 species, 50% of which are considered endemic. In addition, Guyana is home to approximately 1,815 known species of fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals.

Now our challenge is to ensure these critically important forests, our Guyanese forests, are protected and left standing.

In Guyana, the main drivers of deforestation are economic activities such as mining, timber harvesting and logging. Further reasons for forest loss are the creation of arable land for crops such as rice, coconuts, sugarcane and cassava by small-scale shifting cultivation and forest fires. But today, we have the knowledge and capacity to save what’s left and repair much of what has been lost.

Now it is important to spread this knowledge throughout the whole country, via training on sustainable forest management, controlling forest fires and afforestation. Also, providing information and capacity building on alternative income sources, such as nursery establishment and management, sustainable tourism, medicinal plant and honey bee cultivation, etc. is essential to decreasing economic dependency on unsustainable forest uses.

With all the services that forests provide both to our and nature’s wellbeing, Guyana acknowledges that they are more important when left standing, than cut down. Therefore, our government has embarked on a programme that aims to protect and maintain our forests in an effort to reduce global carbon emissions and at the same time attract resources to foster sustainable socio-economic growth and development.

The future of our forests concerns our generation and the ones to come. But it is up to us to determine that future.

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