Seeing the forest for the trees

Danial Norjidi

In 2012, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly proclaimed March 21 the International Day of Forests to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests.

The theme of International Day of Forests for 2021 is ‘Forest restoration: A path to recovery and well-being’.

According to the UN website, “The restoration and sustainable management of forests help address the climate-change and biodiversity crises. It also produces goods and services for sustainable development, fostering an economic activity that creates jobs and improves lives.”

In conjunction with this year’s occasion, ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) Executive Director Dr Theresa Mundita S Lim issued a press statement saying, “The ASEAN region is fortunate to have healthy biodiversity-rich forest ecosystems with actual cover constituting 46 per cent of the region’s total land area.

“Considered one of the world’s most biologically rich and diverse ecosystems, forests are among its natural capital that sustains the region’s growth, especially now as we collectively aim to speed up recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The executive director shared that since the start of this health crisis, the ACB has been stressing the role of biodiversity in regulating climate and diseases.

Dr Lim said that on International Day of Forests, the ACB highlights the central role of these complex ecological systems in our efforts to build a healthy region, which she added is aptly resonant with the theme of this year’s celebration.

She also noted that under these unprecedented times, there is a growing recognition of forests, along with other types of natural ecosystems, as integral components of a country’s total wealth, which provide life support and basic human needs, such as food, fresh and clean, water, medicine, shelter, and fuel.

“While we have seen a decline of the ASEAN forest cover in the past decades, the good news is that the overall rate of forestry loss in ASEAN slowed from 1.2 per cent per year from 2000 to 2010, to 0.26 per cent per year from 2011 to 2015, according to 2020 ASEAN-European Union (EU) report Investing in Sustainable Capital in ASEAN. While this is an important progress, it is also worthy to note the need to continue improving genetic, species, and habitat diversity in our remaining forests,” she said.

The executive director shared that with habitat fragmentation being one of the biggest threats to biodiversity in forest ecosystems, big land mammals like tigers, elephants, and rhinoceros are among the species most affected. On the other hand, Philippine eagles, one of the largest raptors in the world, need about 133 square kilometres of forest to successfully breed and raise their young. She said their dwindling populations would have significant effects on other species they interact with and the landscapes they live in.

“Bearing these in mind, we are pleased to share some of the recent developments taking place on the ground,” continued Dr Lim.

“First, our heartfelt congratulations to the Indonesian government, the management of Gunung Leuser National Park, a designated ASEAN Heritage Park, assisted by VESSWIC through the Small Grants Programme of the ACB and the German Development Bank (KfW), for the birth of a healthy elephant calf last month. We wish that ‘Boni’ will stay healthy to continue inspiring us to protect wildlife and their habitats.”

Meanwhile, in Lao PDR, the Department of Forestry with support from the ACB and the EU under the Biodiversity Conservation and Management of Protected Areas in ASEAN (BCAMP) Project has completed the five-year management plan of Nam Poui National Protected Area.

The executive director explained that the plan involves working closely with 19 villages including ethnic groups for long-term solutions, which include carving out areas to serve as habitats for elephants, white-handed gibbons, and other species thriving in the protected area, and promoting alternative livelihood activities and establishing clear and measurable links between livelihood improvement and conservation outcomes.

“All these efforts are aligned with our main thrust of working with the ASEAN member states in integrating biodiversity and nature into development plans and recovery efforts.

“For these endeavours, we take guidance from the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework and the Brunei Darussalam’s leadership as ASEAN Chair,” she said.

The press statement also took note of the remarks of Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN for Socio-Cultural Community Kung Phoak at the recent partnership conference on the region’s post-COVID-19 recovery on March 15, where he said, “The region’s recovery efforts must be done in a systematic and coordinated way, in concert with stakeholders and partners.”

Dr Lim proceeded to highlight: “The challenges we are currently facing only compel us to work more closely with all sectors and industries, especially as they directly benefit from healthy and thriving biodiversity, including our forest ecosystems.

“Indeed, we have tremendous work ahead of us. As we celebrate the International Day of Forests this year, let us be reminded of the true value of our forests in the ASEAN. Protected, these ecosystems can effectively contribute to the wealth of our nations, as the backbone of our growth and prosperity, and our protectors against the impacts of climate change and emergence of new and deadly diseases.”