If a tree falls in the International Year of Forests . . .

Working to have northern Ontario woodlands declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site


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The UN General Assembly recently met in New York to declare 2011 the International Year of Forests. The idea is to raise awareness of the priceless role that forests play in keeping the planet healthy and of the need for sustainable management and conservation of all types of forests.

The International Year of Forests follows other lofty proclamations by the UN to encourage efforts to advance social justice and environmental sustainability, including the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, the 1993 International Year for the World’s Indigenous People, and the unusual naming of 2008 as the International Year of the Potato.

It’s easy to be cynical about the annual declarations made by our world leaders, especially as there’s often a lack of corresponding action. Nevertheless, the International Year of Forests marks a critical moment on our planet. Our forest ecosystems have never been at more risk from the consequences of human actions, including climate change and industrial activities. But a few events in Canada give us hope.

The world’s remaining forests, from true wilderness like Canada’s boreal forest to urban green spaces like the forested slopes that frame Vancouver, represent a Fort Knox of natural riches. Forests remain our primary source of paper and building materials and are receiving increasing attention as a source of bioenergy — all of which sustain millions of jobs in communities in Canada and around the world.

Forests provide food, clean drinking water and life-saving medicines like the rainforest- sourced cancer drug vincristine. They are also home to millions of indigenous peoples and are habitat for more than half of all known terrestrial biodiversity on the planet. And because they sequester and store billions of tonnes of carbon in their vegetation, peat, and soils, forests are a critical shield against runaway global warming.

Despite the importance of forests to biodiversity, as well as to our own health and well-being, we continue to destroy them at an alarming rate. Throughout the world and here at home, forests and woodlots are being ripped up and developed. We continue to clear-cut wilderness habitat when alternative logging methods exist. We have no national strategy to ensure our remaining rainforests are protected. At the same time, no nation is better placed to deliver on the ambitious goals of the International Year of Forests than Canada. This past year, 21 forestry companies and nine environmental groups committed to present a joint vision to federal, provincial and territorial governments and First Nations for protection and sustainable management of Canada’s boreal.

More than half of the ancient rainforests of Haida Gwaii have now been protected, thanks to the leadership of the Haida First Nation. In Central Canada, five Anishinaabeg First Nations communities in Eastern Manitoba and Northern Ontario are working to have a vast intact region of boreal forest declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area is called Pimachiowin Aki in Ojibwa, which means “the land that gives life.”

Forests sustain the very life- support systems of the planet. It’s time we recognized our interdependence with them and treated them as the biological treasures they are.

Post City Magazines’ environmental columnist, David Suzuki, is the host of the CBC’s The Nature of Things. David is also the author of more than 30 books on ecology.

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