Forests are one of the richest forms of expression of the earth’s three million years of evolution. They contain about 90 percent of all living animal and plant species on the planet and cover an area of 3.9 billion hectares, equal to 30 percent of the Earth’s surface. Tropical and subtropical forests account for 56 percent of the world’s forests, while temperate and boreal forests account for 44 percent. Forests are therefore essential for protecting the planet’s biodiversity. Altogether, tropical, temperate and boreal forests offer a multitude of habitats for plants, animals and microorganisms, hosting the vast majority of the earth’s species.
They provide a wide range of goods and services, from wood products to non-wood products, and they also provide livelihoods and jobs for hundreds of millions of people around the world. The biological diversity of forests has an important economic, social and cultural role to play in the lives of many indigenous communities, and they also fill a fundamental role in global climate dynamics, playing a significant role in climate mitigation as carbon sinks. When forests are destroyed, especially as a result of tropical deforestation, they release large amounts of carbon, which reaches the atmosphere and contributes massively to the greenhouse effect. As human society has evolved, the perception of the relationship between man and nature has changed enormously. In the Middle Ages, and even before, man was afraid of the forest.
In the collective imagination, the forestrepresented the fear of the unconscious, of the unknown, and was represented in many paintings and stories as a place of mysterious presences (fauns, elves, witches and orcs) or dangerous animals, dreamlike and legendary creatures (dragons, griffins and centaurs). Many well-known fairy tales and legends still evoke that representation, witness the tale of Snow White. Over the last 50 years, however, men have altered ecosystems more quickly and more intensely than at any other time in human history, so much so that we can say we are no longer afraid of forests, indeed we have learned to destroy them even in the most remote corners of the planet. What artists and writers like Chretien de Troyes, Ariosto and Collodi saw, always paying great respect and attention to forests and nature, no longer exists today.
The speed with which man has appropriated nature has led to a substantial and irreversible loss of many of his functions. More land has been converted to agriculture since the 1950s than in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at the expense of the planet’s natural capital, and we have gone from around 15 billion hectares of forests in the 1950s to four billion today. Population growth from 2.5 to 7.5 billion inhabitants in just 60 years and the consequent food requirement have resulted in our using 73 percent of dry land (with the exception of that covered by ice), putting a heavy burden on future generations, who will have only the remaining 27 percent of land available, an area insufficient to meet expected further population growth of around 2 billion by 2050 (IPCC-SRCCL, 2019).