21 March: International Day of Forests

In 2012 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 21 March the International Day of Forests to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests. The theme for 2021 is “Forest restoration: a path to recovery and well-being“.

But why dedicate an international day to forests? And why is forest restoration so important?

The cultural and symbolic importance of forest resources

Physically and mystically forests have defined communities throughout time. Forests feature in all aspects of culture: language, history, art, religion, medicine, politics, and even social structure itself. Trees, between the sky and earth, often symbolize links between the spiritual world of ancestors and people.

Forests cover one third of the Earth’s land mass and more than one-third is primary forest (naturally regenerated forests of native species, where there are no visible indications of human activities).

Two-thirds (66%) of forests are found in ten countries. And around 1.6 billion people – including more than 2,000 indigenous cultures – depend on forests for their livelihoods, fuel, food and shelter.

Forests are the most biologically-diverse ecosystems on land, home to more than 80% of the terrestrial species. Yet despite all of these priceless ecological, economic, social and health benefits, global deforestation continues at an alarming rate.

Forest restoration

Since 1990, 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses. The area of primary forest worldwide has decreased by over 80 million hectares since 1990.

Agricultural expansion continues to be the main driver of deforestation and forest degradation and the associated loss of forest biodiversity. Large-scale agriculture (mainly for cattle ranching and soya bean and oil palm cultivation) accounted for 40% of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010, and local subsistence agriculture for another 33%.

Forest restoration is a crucial element in strategies to mitigate climate change and conserve global biodiversity in the coming decades, and much of the focus is on formerly tree-covered lands in the tropics. Nearly 300 million people in the tropics live on lands suitable for forest restoration, and about a billion people live within 5 miles of such lands. Many of these people live in poverty.

Success of global forest restoration critically depends on prioritizing local communities. Just and equitable implementation of restoration projects will require that communities be empowered to manage and use local forests, providing human well-being benefits to millions of the most deprived and marginalized people, as well as environmental benefits for all.

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