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The forest as a lived environment

Last week in the UNFCCC climate conference in Durban, Bob Scholes from South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research was presenting on a side session on forestry.   “The next major wave of deforestation is happening in Africa. Not in the moist forests but in the adjacent dry forests,” said Scholes. “They have half as much carbon per hectare, but they have twice the area.”  The dry tropical woodland is much easier to access, much easier to clear of trees, and is therefore much more at risk of rapid transformation to agricultural land, he went on to explain.

It’s very easy to think of forests as pristine untouched wildernesses… and usually by that we mean no people. There is a copy of David Attenborough’s Secret Life of Plants on my bookshelf. It’s a great book of what was a fascinating TV series.  Great photos too. There is a proboscis monkey in Borneo. A giraffe tackling an acacia in Africa. And a honey possum in Australia. But in 308 pages of wonderful pictures, there is not a single picture of homo sapiens. The humans are there, just on the other side of the camera.  (For some reason, it becomes a different kind of TV show when we include humans in amongst the trees).  The reality is that for most forests and woodland in the world, people are not far away. The map[1] below shows the distribution of forests and woodlands worldwide (middle), and by using another map of population density (bottom) we have trimmed the forest map down to only show those forests with less than 2 people per square km (top).

It’s quite an enlightening map. The high populations of India and China mean that there are very few forests there that are far away from people. Indonesia too, has plenty of dense tropical forest, but people are not far away.  Africa is most interesting. It’s partly a result of a lower level of detail in the sampling, but it’s clear that much of the forests and woodland in Africa are where there are people.

So, forests are not always the wilderness we imagine them to be  – they  aren’t the distant untouched environments we might think – they are lived environments. The change that Bob Scholes was referring to is a result of them being lived environments. People live, hunt, eat, learn, worship, die, in amongst the trees.  Indeed, from the data above, we estimate that 1.52 billion people live close to forests (i.e. within 5km). For these 1.52 bn people the forest is not an abstract , imagined place, it is a lived environment. Realising this and understanding how it influences our scientific way of thinking about forests is going to be an important step in tackling the challenge of deforestation. As the population rises the human pressure on these unique lived environments will continue to be a serious threat to forest ecosystems worldwide.


100 free articles on the theme of forests and people at Taylor and Francis: http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/access/YearofForests.pdf

UN Year of the Forest: http://www.un.org/en/events/iyof2011/

SEDAC gridded population density: Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), Columbia University; and Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT). 2005. Gridded Population of the World, Version 3 (GPWv3): Population Density Grid. Palisades, NY: Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), Columbia University. Available at http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/gpw

GLC2000 global land cover product: Global Land Cover 2000 database. European Commission, Joint Research Centre, 2003. http://bioval.jrc.ec.europa.eu/products/glc2000/glc2000.php

[1] The map was created by Gemma Cassells, using data from the GLC2000 land cover map and SEDAC population density.




  1. Pingback: Where trees and people live | Forest Planet - December 31, 2014

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