Extra Virgin - August

Environment



Changing Earth - Much of Europe has razed its forests. Now the developing world is being asked to save its trees, and Africa is at the centre of the solution, writes Leonie Joubert.

“Here,” our driver said, the road dipping fractionally, “this is where the seashore used to be.”

The change was so subtle, you’d have missed it if you didn’t know better. The road carried on, winding between farmhouses, fields, and copses of typical Scandinavian trees. At that point on the road, the waves of the Baltic Sea once lapped at the coast near the Danish town of Vallekilde, about an hours’ drive west of Copenhagen. Some 200 years ago, this valley was a sea floor.

The story of Lammefjord is remarkable. Denmark needed more land, so they threw a dyke up across the mouth of a shallow fjord, and spent seven years pumping the water out. The muddy seabed was settled on, large stretches converted to agriculture and planted with trees.

The transformation has been wholesale, and it’s typical of how thousands of years of settlement, agriculture and modernisation have changed the face of many of our continents. Driving across Denmark, the country that will host the all-important United Nations Climate Summit this December, the reminder is stark. Virtually nothing of the original forest remains – patches of woodland are mostly attempts at reforestation. Like so much of Europe, the denuding of the forests here is virtually complete.


 


But straddling the African equator, in parts of Latin America and Asia, giant forests still stand. The big question now, is how to keep them standing? These trees trap tons of carbon that would otherwise be transported back up into the atmosphere, and stabilise carbon trapped in the soils around their roots. They help regulate rainwater catchment and river flow, and support biodiversity. But as developing world countries continue to exploit these forests for timber and charcoal, or clear-fell to make way for agriculture, their carbon absorbing potential is eroded.

Climate scientists estimates that about 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from degrading or clear-felling forests, which is why there's a massive attempt being made to curb deforestation. The basis of the initiative is to make it financially viable for countries with big forests to keep those trees standing, rather than cutting them down to sell or to make room for agriculture. So poor countries need financial compensation for keeping their forests intact, or managed sustainably.

History is riddled with examples of civilisations that have risen on the back of their forests (pre-industrial Europe, for one), and some that have fallen because they've over-used their forests (Easter Island). The next big push is to get developing countries to stop deforestation before they go the route of so many countries before them.

It's not just a transformed landscape of Lammefjord, that we're trying to avoid…it's not even the localised changes to a clear-felled forest-scape. It's about avoiding the kind of shifts to our climate that will bring about planet-scale landscape changes, the kind of which the engineers behind Denmark's reclaimed fjords would never have dreamed possible.

The trees of the planet are worth more to the world standing, than falling.

   

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