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Forests cover a third of the earth’s land mass and play a vital role in the survival and health of our islands’ ecosystems and their people. Sustainable forest management and the sustainable use of forest and tree resources are key to combating climate change, as well as contributing to the prosperity and well-being of current and future generations here in the Pacific. Forests and trees also play a crucial role in poverty alleviation and in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet despite all these invaluable ecological, economic, social and health benefits, forests and trees are endangered by fires, pests, droughts, and unprecedented deforestation.
In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly declared 21 March the ‘International Day of Forests (IDF) ’. This day allows countries and their communities to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of forests. The theme for each International Day of Forests (IDF) is chosen by the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, with this year’s theme chosen as “Forests and Health”.
IDF provides countries with the opportunity to join local, national, and international celebrations by organising activities involving forests and trees. In past years, the Pacific Community (SPC), through its Sustainable Forest and Landscape Management Programme at the Land Resources Division, has supported its member countries through the provision of scientific and technical support in tree planting campaigns and awareness programmes. This year, SPC, through the invitation of the Fiji Ministry of Forestry, will be supporting the planned IDF campaign to be held at the Navuso Agriculture Technical Institute in Fiji
Forests and trees contribute much more than vital climate change mitigation efforts. They also provide ecosystem services such as medicinal plants, purification of our water and river systems, cleaning of our air, food, wood for shelter, a home for animals, and fuel, all of which directly and indirectly impact environmental and human health. In 2020, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported that in some impoverished communities, up to 50 per cent of a woman’s total daily energy intake is sourced from wild forest foods. Studies have also proved that a visit to a forest environment lowers blood pressure and pulse rate and reduces cortisol levels.
The World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) report Vitality of Forests found that forests play a vital role in supporting human health across several dimensions, including infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, mental health issues, nutrition and food security, and physical hazards. The authors detail how deforestation drives the emergence and spread of zoonotic pathogens – infectious diseases that pass from animals to humans. These pathogens account for the majority of recent epidemics, including COVID-19, the Zika virus, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the H1N1 flu, and the Ebola virus. The report states that by shrinking and fragmenting forests, deforestation can concentrate interactions between animals and the diseases they carry, resulting in more opportunities for disease transmission among animal species and people.
Public health and forests are linked, which is why SPC is addressing public health challenges vs forest health issues through its “Planetary Health” (One Health) programme. One Health takes a holistic look at environmental and human health in an integrated, unifying approach to balance and optimize the health of people, animals, and the environment. This programme is spearheaded through a collaboration between the SPC’s Public Health and Land Resources Divisions.
Forests and trees are a pillar of all life on earth, including in the Pacific. It is up to us, as beneficiaries of forest services, to maintain those forests and promote sustainable forest management and conservation programs for the sake of our health and the health of future generations.