A view of Nyangweta forest in Kisi County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Time has never been ripe like it is today to talk about our forests. The current drought which is a consequence of climate change could have been less severe if our forests were conserved. There is a strong nexus between the health of humanity and that of forests. Unfortunately, forests continue to be destroyed through human activities.

It is sad to note that globally, ten million hectares an equivalent of 14 million football pitches – of forest were lost per year to deforestation between 2015 and 2020. Fire affected approximately 98 million hectares of forest globally in 2015. As we celebrate International Day of Forests today, it is an apt time to create awareness on the importance of conserving our forests and the consequences of our inaction.

This year’s International Day of Forests being marked under the theme “Forests and Health”, stresses on the importance of forests and the forestry sector for human and environmental health. This is in sync with Food and Agriculture Organisation’s strategic plan that is anchored on four betters namely – better production, better nutrition, better environment and better life. A better life and socio-economic prosperity of a nation is tied to a secure natural resource base for provision of ecosystem goods and services that drive the productive sectors of our economy. Forests are at the centre of it all. Through forest-friendly policies and increased investment in forests and trees, we can protect our planet and our health.

Acknowledging the state of ecosystem degradation and adverse effects of climate change globally, the United Nations General Assembly in 2019 passed a resolution, to proclaim this decade 2021-2030 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. This resolution obligates member countries to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems in line with other commitments under the Multilateral Environment Agreements.

Efforts by  President William Ruto to plant 15 billion by 2032 deserves applause and support from all and sundry as a great milestone towards cooling a hot planet.  

You will be surprised that about a billion people on the globe rely on forests as their main source of food, where they get edible herbs, fruits, nuts, meat and insects. Forests are also sources of many medicines that are harvested from leaves, barks and roots. These not only satiate traditional herbalists but have also been used to derive active ingredients of conventional medicines. Ethnoveterinary medicine has emerged as a field of study and indeed many herbs have been documented as potent drugs against a number of animal illnesses. 

Part of Iyale forests within Taita hills forests in Taita Taveta County. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

History documents that forests, apart from being carbon sinks, also protect humanity from diseases. The emergence and re-emergence of zoonotic animal diseases is blamed on human invasion of forests.

Forests are also libraries full of indigenous knowledge. How the Kaya Forests of the coastal region have been protected from human destruction not with a fence but through cultural practices is a gem worth studying. How some indigenous communities have lived all their lives in forests shows what a powerhouse our forests are.

Forests for medicines

Doctors are today turning to forests to treat people suffering from high blood pressure, mental illnesses, fatigue, anxiety, and tension. Forest bathing, or communion with trees in a forest has been shown to manage these conditions. FAO is currently implementing the Green Cities Initiative; whose goal is to create green spaces in cities. These green spots will serve to calm down humanity weighed down by the hustles and bustles of life and will also absorb air pollutants in cities while also improving nutrition by giving fruits.

Act as carbon sinks

Healthy forests help keep global warming in check. Forests contain 662 billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than half the global carbon stock in soils and vegetation. Forests and trees also help buffer exposure to heat and extreme weather events caused by climate change, which poses a major global health challenge. For example, trees properly placed around buildings cool the air and can cut air conditioning needs by up to 30 per cent, also saving energy. 

A river at Nanyuki Forest in Mt. Kenya. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Success story

FAO recently visited Kirisia Forest in Maralal Samburu County and it was a nice surprise to see hundreds of healthy livestock in the middle of forest enjoying a green graze. Kirisia Forest hit global headlines following the efforts of the local people to voluntarily move out of it in an effort to conserve this forest that had been brought to its knees through rampant cutting down of trees. The efforts bore fruits and streams that had dried roared back to life to irrigate the forest and make it a haven of green pasture.

In conclusion, I would like to quote a passionate call by the UN General Secretary António Guterres during COP27: “We are getting dangerously close to the point of no return; the global climate fight will be won or lost in this crucial decade – on our watch. One thing is clear: those that give up are sure to lose, so let’s fight together – and let’s win”.

So let us heed this call and at a personal level, the best gift you can give to the world is to plant trees.

[Carla Mucavi is the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Kenya Representative]