Deforestation: Above and Below the Waterline

A multi-faceted approach is needed in tackling the effect of human activity on the climate and natural world. A reduction in industrial emissions through better practice, technology and efficiency is key, coupled with protection of carbon sinks, namely the forests and the oceans.

Seagrass meadows play a critical role in the carbon cycle (photo: M. Sanfélix)

Seagrass meadows play a critical role in the carbon cycle (photo: M. Sanfélix)

The oceans are the largest carbon sinks in the world storing 93 % of carbon in the form of algae, vegetation and coral, and sequestering 20 to 35 % of anthropogenic emissions. However, there is evidence to suggest that the oceans are becoming less efficient since around the year 2000 in absorbing these emissions1. Further, since the 1940’s, marine carbon sinks have been suffering with a loss of 30 % of mangroves, 25 % of salt marshes and over 30 % of seagrass meadows2. These are being lost at a faster rate than the rain forests.

Coastal development, aquaculture operations and timber removal are destroying these marine ecosystems, and thus there is a connection between the destruction of forests on land and under water. Deforestation through clearing and burning also generates 17 % of global carbon emissions, more than from all the world’s air, road, rail and shipping traffic combined. The highest rates of deforestation are taking place in the regions where illegal logging is at its worst – the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia3. These are areas where there is a lack of forest governance and where accountability and transparency are often in short supply.

Mangrove forests are threatened by coastal development (Source:

Mangrove forests are threatened by coastal development (Source:

Illegal logging actually floods the market with cheaper wood, which suppresses global timber prices between 7 and 16 per cent3. It is estimated that legal timber companies are being denied US$30 billion per year from these activities.

It looks good, but do you know where it was sourced?

It looks good, but do you know where it was sourced?

As can be imagined, protecting forests and marine ecosystems require political and economic solutions, as well as enforcement of law. And as an end user of timber products we have a deep responsibility to ensure that our furniture, floors and wooden features in our homes and businesses are from sustainable and legal timber. We are all part of the solution.


  1. Khatiwala et al. (2009). Reconstruction of the history of anthropogenic CO2 concentrations in the ocean. Nature 462, 346-349
  2. Blue Carbon – The Role of Healthy Oceans in Binding Carbon. Rapid Response Assessment by GRID-Arendal and UNEP. 14 October 2009
  3. Davyth Stewart. Combating illegal logging key to saving our forests and preventing climate change. Project LEAF (Interpol), 21 March 2013

Man of the Trees

We take the ideas of conservation and reforestation for granted, and putting them into practice varies around the world. These ideas have not always been present and they did not arrive spontaneously. One man whom we are indebted too is Richard St. Barbe Baker.

Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889 – 1982) initiated international reforestation and conservation.

Returning to Britain after working as a missionary in Canada, he started studying divinity at Cambridge, but was interrupted by the Great War to serve in the Royal Horse Artillery regiment in France and was seriously wounded twice. Perhaps this changed his perspective, as well as his observations of the soil loss resulting from deforestation, as upon returning to Cambridge he took up a Diploma in Forestry. After graduation he joined the Colonial Office and was sent as a Forestry Officer to Kenya. There he witnessed centuries of land mismanagement from the wheat farming of the Romans to the grazing of goats introduced by the Arabs. Determined to halt deforestation he formed an organisation called ‘Watu wa Miti’ with the local Kikuyu people – this translates as ‘Men of the Trees’, and would form the basis of an international organisation.

St Barbe Baker mobilising The Green Front

He joined the Bahá’í Faith after Kenya and continued to do forestry work in Nigeria, Australia and Palestine, uniting different faiths to work on the common goal of reforestation. He crossed the U.S. and toured the Redwood groves of California, and in the 1930’s he worked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was a popular speaker now and continued to grow chapters of his organisation, which became known as the International Tree Foundation. After World War II he toured through Europe and launched the idea of an international Green Front to promote reforestation, and ambitiously launched a project to reclaim the Sahara desert after a 25 000 mile journey around the perimeter.

His organisation and those he assisted planted many millions of trees and he was seen as one of the fathers of the organic agriculture movement.

His autobiography entitled “My life, my trees” was published in 1970 and in 1972, the board of directors of Friends of Nature (USA) awarded Dr Baker their Conservation Award, for “being the foremost world citizen to stress the importance of maintaining tree cover for the continued existence of life”1. He was presented an OBE by the Queen in 1978 and up until his ninety-third year he was still travelling the world and died on 9th June 1982, whilst visiting Canada.

“Planting and growing increasing quantities of trees is the scientific solution to Earth’s environmental dilemma.”  ~ Richard St. Barbe Baker


Inhibiting the Mafia and the Prevention of Illegal Logging

The value of rare wood attracts petty thieves, government officials and the Mafia. In fact, a new report from the United Nations finds that up to 90 % of tropical deforestation can be attributed to organised crime which controls 30 % of the global timber trade. Unfortunately illegal logging rates have actually been rising, with many ploys being initiated such as fake permits, bribed officials, hacked databases and mixing illegal timber amongst common stock.

The theft of tropical wood. Photo source: see ref (1)

Last month, Hang Serei Oudom, a Cambodian journalist who exposed illegal logging and corrupt officials involved in forest crimes was found murdered in the boot of his car. In April this year, tireless campaigner Chhut Vuthy, was shot dead by a Cambodian military policeman after refusing to hand over photographs showing illegal logging in the southwestern Koh Kong province. Or that’s the official version – his family insist a third person was involved. According to the UN, Cambodia’s forest cover has decreased from 73 per cent in 1990 to 57 per cent in 2010.

Chhut Vuthy, killed in April. (The Economist)

This destruction of natural habitat is with a double-edged sword, not only are threatened forests and their creatures destroyed, but deforestation followed by burning, largely of tropical rainforests, is responsible for an estimated 17 per cent of all man-made emissions (50 per cent more than that from ships, aviation and land transport combined)1. As the UN report notes, today only one-tenth of primary forest cover remains on the globe.

Project LEAF, an Interpol and UN collaboration

Unlike with drugs or ivory, shipping timber is still legal. However, Interpol recently stepped into the logging foray this year in June with the creation of LEAF (Law Enforcement Assistance for Forests). This is a combined effort by the UN and Interpol funded by the Norwegian government. The project’s objectives are:

  • Providing an overview and review of extent, primary geographic locations, routes, causes and structure of networks involved in illegal logging, corruption, fraud, laundering and smuggling of wood products;
  • Supporting countries in improved enforcement efforts;
  • Providing training and operational support;
  • Providing insights into the way organized criminals organize their activities;
  • Developing best practices for combating REDD-related and forest-related corruption.

While it is certainly positive that this initiative has been launched, enforcement is difficult when dealing with governments who are involved in the profits, and illegal logging is often taking place in countries with lesser degrees of law and order. This suggests to me that a combined use of tracking technology and enforcement would aid this project.

RFID tag, commonly attached to goods we buy. (BBC)

Radio chip tracking technologies are already on the increase by global brands to monitor products and customer behaviour, and some environmental use has started. The Instituto Ação Verde (The Green Action Institute) is using thumb-sized RFID devices to track over 2,500 Amazon trees. The Fraunhofer Institute is even working on a RFID tag comprised mostly of wood, to prevent adding impurities and extra labour in downstream processing, thus overcoming some objections from timber companies.

Perhaps LEAF is looking at this line of thought already, but it seems to me a global database of tree RFID tags allowing effective tracking would make Interpol’s and the UN’s life easier. These could be created by LEAF and given to local enforcement and forestry agencies, with initial supervision of their attachment to the tree or/and shipment of trees leaving ports and harbours. An international legal requirement of tracking timber shipments would be a further boon.


1. Green Carbon, Black Trade: Illegal Logging, Tax Fraud and Laundering in the World’s Tropical Forests. UNEP and Interpol. 2012.

Britain’s Trees

A land covered by ice and glaciers

Britain’s native trees have not always been present and rooted – they were scoured clean from the earth during the last ice age 20 000 years ago. Species migrated southwards until reaching the physical barrier of the Alps. As the ice retreated about 10 000 years later, trees recolonised the landscape. This was easier due to the land bridge connecting mainland Europe that was not yet covered by rising sea levels. After a few thousand years of growth, Britain would have been covered by magnificent woodland.

Ariundle Nature Reserve (

A few thousand years later, so about 5000 years ago, ancient peoples cleared small sections of forest for agriculture and livestock farming. These people had religions connected with nature and it is around this time (4000 to 5000 years ago), that Stonehenge was erected. Later, during the Iron Age, the Celtic priestly class or druids played a strong role in determining the inhabitants’ connection with nature and trees. It is thought the word ‘druid’ is derived from Indo-European roots meaning ‘oak-seer’ or ‘oak-knower’. Especially important trees in Celtic mythology and tradition were the oak, ash, apple, alder, elder and yew. Trees were sacred and had spirits, while forests were ruled by a single goddess.

Systems of thought connected to nature were more prevalent in ancient Britain (Wigulf)

The Romans brought more organized agriculture and farming, as well as increased deforestation. Roman expansion had already led to deforestation of the Mediterranean basin and resource pressure turned their eye towards Northern Europe and Britain. Naturally there were also political reasons for expansion, including punishment of the Britons for their aiding of the Gauls.

Deforestation continued and in 1086 William the Conqueror with his Domesday census found that less than 15 % of the natural forest remained across England. However, he did enact forest laws in order to sustain hunting grounds. During the middle ages Vikings also burned sections of forest as part of their campaigns.

The continuous demand for timber throughout history (

Deforestation continued with the industrial revolution and the rise of sheep farming, faster growing coniferous forests were planted and the ancient broadleaf forests continued their decline; this has been observed in the pollen record. After the First World War it was realised that Britain had nearly run out of timber, and further fast-growing species were introduced along with the creation of the Forestry Commission. Quick fixes often do not work in natural ecosystems, and this was too late for the wolf, bear, wild boar, beaver, lynx and elk.

Wolves were common in Britain (print by

11.6 % of the U.K is currently covered by woodland, with England at about 9 % and Northern Ireland at 6.4 %. This is significantly lower than the European Union average of 37 %. While there are still pockets of ancient forests, trees in Britain have paid the price of industrialisation and war.

A Home in the Trees

A refuge in the garden (source: treehouse company)

Climbing a tree is a universal joy while growing up and constructing a tree house is a further source of fun, especially as an exclusive meeting place barring adults. Schemes for alien defense, gender battles and plots for world domination are often hatched, until we are told to come down or grow up, or when such an abode no longer inspires our imagination.

Nutritious Sago grubs are a delicacy

However, there are some people who are never told to grow up and climb down, and for whom the tree is an endless source of joy, shelter and essential part of family life. These people are the Korowai and Kombai tribes who live in the dense forest of West Papua in Indonesia, and until 1975 had hardly any contact with the outside world. A large portion of their life is spent 20 to 40 metres above ground in tree houses, and on notable occasions eating the nutritious delicacies of sago grubs.

The tree houses are constructed relatively quickly and provide a good defense against warring tribes, floods and biting insects. The pig is the local currency and a sacred animal, while ritual cannabilism was apparently practiced more in the past. However, once dead, the Korowai believe their souls travel to the underworld along a ‘Major Causeway’ and are welcomed by their ancestors. After a while there they can choose to reincarnate back into a child that is about to be born.

Korowai tree house

Home, sweet home

Constructing a tree house is begun by choosing a sturdy Banyan tree and then removing the crown. Thinner poles provide the framework while the bark of the sago palm is used for the floor and walls, and leaves provide roofing. Similar to most cultures, marriage normally initiates a new house.

For these two tribes, the tree is far more than a provision of shade and beauty, but a home and a source of comfort. Contact has been growing with the outside world, but I imagine there would be some confusion when describing current rates of deforestation and the behaviour of more ‘civilised’ humans.

Vistas of the forest: an old Korowai tree house

Rainforests: Where Trees Celebrate Life

clouds above rainforest

Clouds form above rainforests from moisture released by leaves

Rainforests, and especially tropical rainforests, is where life thrives with all its originality and creativity. These conditions are wet and for tropical regions, warm. This luxurious climate is perfect for growth, but there is also fierce competition for light and nutrients. It is humid beneath the canopy but pleasantly cool above where water is released through leaves to form clouds. Thus these forests have a dramatic effect on Earth’s moisture and heat circulation while providing 28 % of the planet’s oxygen.

Rainforests have been around for tens of millions of years and have adapted with continental drift and glaciation e.g. the Daintree rainforest in Queensland, Australia, is thought to be 135 million years old and contains about 30 % of all reptile species on the continent. It is thought that not only the excellent growth conditions, but also time, allowed for increased diversity, complexity and symbiotic relationships to form beneath the dark canopy.


Abundant life is beneath the rainforest canopy

This biodiversity in rainforests provides 25 % of all Western pharmaceutical ingredients, yet only 1 % of tree and plant species have been examined. One hectare of rainforest contains approximately 750 tree species and 1500 plant species. A quarter of all insect species are also thought to exist in these forests. We should also be most grateful for tropical forests providing 80 % of our diet…including avocados, coconuts, figs, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, guavas, pineapples, mangos and tomatoes; vegetables including corn, potatoes, rice, winter squash and yams; spices like black pepper, cayenne, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, sugar cane, tumeric, coffee, vanilla and nuts1.


Chocolate comes from cacao plant seeds, native to South American rainforests

Yet we are painfully slow to see their real value. Modern humans have only seen timber, pasture land for cattle and what potentially lies beneath the soil in the form of oil and gas. We destroy most of the real bounty and wealth to create a beefburger. Even indigenous humans who live in rainforests have suffered from this modern greed; 500 years ago there were 10 million Indians living in Amazonia, this has been reduced to less than 200 000 today. Though it is hard to call it greed when most of the value of rainforests is not used for human benefit; ignorance is a better word, yet this also fails to fully encompass repetitive and willful destruction.

The beefburger

Rainforests are often cleared for finally make a beefburger

Decisions are required by all of us. As a human the Earth forms part of our identity and so, even if implicit, the destruction of a vital organ of the Earth is an act affecting all, and requires a response. The trees around us should remind us of this; as their kin are ‘cleansed’ we should reflect on our way of life. For myself, this introversion realises itself in a project to help the Earth, and thereby hopefully ourselves.


Clearing of the rainforests (Greenpeace)


Eyeing the Landscape Ahead

Teratrees. A trillion trees. Currently we have around 400 billion trees on Earth and we are losing 50 000 – 100 000 km2 a year of primary forest, this is roughly 3 – 6 billion trees per year. Rainforests used to cover 15 % of the Earth’s surface in 1950…in 50 years we lost more than half of that, and at current rates they have 40 – 50 years left.

As more “thinking” creatures we pride ourselves on our rationality. As Thomas Berry said “To remain viable a species must establish a niche for itself that is beneficial both for itself and for the surrounding community”. This means our current behaviour should either be described as suicide or insanity.

But current is not necessarily future. We have it within our means to alter our behaviour, and a trillion trees is where Earth needs to be. This is the first blog of many exploring trees on our planet, what they give us, how they feature in our collective minds, and how, as a human, trees are synonymous with life.

This story has begun with words but in stories to come it will end with action. While the tragedy of deforestation continues there are people and organisations planting trees, but much help is needed, and the work is indeed great. I will be working on a project in this regard, but in the meanwhile I will hope to weave a memory of trees.