Forest ecosystems deliver a vast array of products and services to the society. Perhaps the most famous product from the forest is wood, which also has a enormous diversity of applications and purposes, such as construction purposes, furniture and fuel. But apart from that there is a large number of non-timber forest products, like medicinal plants, honey, fruits and bushmeat. The availability, the use and the importance of these products varies per region and per culture. Especially in developing countries many people are dependant upon these products. In many cases they form an important part of the diet, like proteins from animal products. Most often the poorest and vulnerable part of society depend very much on the forest. This group can also revert to the forest resources in periods when their conditions get worse – the forest is then functioning as a safety net.
Apart from concrete products, forests also deliver all kind of Ecosystem Services. Forests play an important role in the global and local water cycle. The specific role very much depends on the local circumstances and conditions and also on the forest type itself. Positive effects of forest are attracting rain water, purification of water and regulation of water flows. In areas with relief trees protect the soil against erosion.
Forests also influence local climate. Dependant on the latitude forest influences the temperature in a region: in the tropics forest have a net cooling effect through evapotranspiration while at higher altitudes, mainly boreal forests, there is a net warming effect because the relative dark colour of the canopies absorbs warmth from the sun (albedo effect). On a global level forests stabilize climate by regulating energy and water cycles. Rainwater that is generated by the Amazon tropical forest enables the beef and soya production as well as the biofuel industry in Brazil, which are of great importance for the economy. And the deforestation in Southeast Asia can have consequences for the rainfall patterns in Southern Europe and the Northwest coastal area of the United States.
Forests do also have a cultural, religious and spiritual significance, like sacred forests, that are often untouched or protected. In Ethiopia, a country with a very high deforestation rate, the few remaining forests are located near old churches. Specific locations in the forest can also be used for rituals like circumcision or initiation.
From a biodiversity viewpont forest are also extremely valuable. The tropical rainforest is the biome with the largest biodiversity of all biomes. Many impressive species live in forests, like the great apes. However, ecosystems in general have very much changed in the past 50 years, more than in any other period of human history. That also applies to forest ecosystems. This has resulted in big en often irreversible loss of diversity of life on earth. In the past centuries 1000 times more species were extinct than on average in the period before. And at this moment 10 to 30 % of mammal, bird and amphibian species are threatened with extinction. It is of importance to conserve biodiversity, because it has all kinds of regulating, supportive, cultural and provisional functions. Interventions are required to stop deforestation, forest fragmentation, forest degradation but also climate change. There is a lot of uncertainty with respect to the effect of climate change on biodiversity, but it is clear that it is an important stress factor for ecosystems.
The services of the forest are public goods: not only the landowner benefits but also its neighbours and e.g. the people that live downstream a forested area. When it comes to CO2 storage or to unique biodiversity, the world population as a whole benefits. Forest owners usually do not get paid for the services, which leads to biased decisions on land-use. The landowners will choose for the most profitable type of land-use and if external costs and benefits are not included, it is likely that forests are converted to arable land, pasture or plantations. By offering the landowner a prize for the public goods, they can make a fair and sustainable choice. One option that of selling the stored or sequestered carbon from the forest through carbon credits.
-Mitchell, A.W.,Secoy,K and Mardas N. (2007). Forests First in the Fight against Climate Change. Global Canopy Programme.
- Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.