We live in a time when humanity has become the major force shaping the future evolution of all life on our planet. As our industrial culture consumes more and more of the natural wealth of the Earth, we are engaged in a gigantic, and largely unconscious, experiment in the alteration of the planet’s vitality and stability. As a result, we are endangering the fabric of life itself and the existence of all other species, most of which are experiencing a drastic reduction in their numbers or are threatened with outright extinction.
Nowhere is this diminution of biological diversity being felt more strongly than in the forests. They provide the habitat for most of the terrestrial flora and fauna, and the tropical rainforests alone are estimated to contain half of all the world’s species. The forests also play a major role in both local and global climate, through such processes as maintaining the rain cycle and the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and their removal is already contributing to fluctuations in weather patterns and the greenhouse effect.
This situation is only the culmination of what we have been doing for thousands of years as we have pushed back the forests throughout the rise of civilisation. It is only now, however, that enough people have become concerned in order for it to change. Thus, conservation groups and environmental campaigns have been proliferating in recent years and have achieved some notable successes, both in terms of raising the level of public awareness of the issues, and in specific results, such as the increase in the number of protected areas.
By necessity, most of these campaigns focus on stopping or minimising the destruction which is taking place. This alone is not enough however. Even if we could prevent any more environmental degradation from taking place, we would still be left with a world whose life-carrying capacity has been greatly reduced. Large areas of the planet are already unable to support plant, animal or human life, as a result of the destruction of the rainforests, the spread of desertification, and the death of lakes and trees from acid rain. If we are to create a sustainable future for ourselves and all other life, if we are serious about surviving on the planet, we must also reverse the process of degradation and impoverishment.
Ecological restoration, as this healing of the Earth is known, is now an emerging field of study and practice, and in simple terms it means putting the pieces back together to create the wholeness of nature which we have sundered. It involves the re-creation of the natural diversity and interconnectedness of an ecosystem which give it its stability and functionality.
On the land, this process needs to focus primarily on restoring the forests. However, the planting of trees needs to be done in a sensitive and appropriate manner to facilitate the growth of true forests. Monocultural plantations are merely another form of economic exploitation of the land, and while some may be necessary in the short term until we can reduce the demands of our industrial culture, they do little to assist the healing of the Earth. A forest on the other hand is a biological community, a complex and stable ecosystem which is the result of a natural succession in the growth of different species. Thus, restoration ecology involves following nature’s own healing process and, where appropriate, speeding this up with human assistance.
In early 1985 I saw a good example of what can be achieved in this fashion when I visited the community of Auroville in the south of India. Since 1968 the people there have been restoring land which had become badly degraded as a result of centuries of human misuse. The original forest cover was gone, and with it the topsoil and most of the vegetation, leaving bare red earth which had been baked brick-hard by the tropical sun. Severe erosion from the seasonal monsoon rains had gouged out deep canyons in the naked landscape.
Through simple techniques such as building earthen dams in the canyons to prevent the further loss of soil and rainwater, the construction of bunds or earth mounds along the contours of their fields to prevent run-off of the rainwater, and the planting of two million trees, the people of Auroville have succeeded in revitalising their environment. The trees grow quickly in the tropical climate and provide shade for plants and animals, while the water table has risen and supplies water for the irrigation of vegetables and other crops. The trees also support increased populations of native birds and animals, many of which had previously been absent from the area. These in turn bring in seeds of the native trees and vegetation, and so the restoration process has become self-sustaining.
The experience of Auroville is of profound significance as the climate there is similar to that in much of the Sahel region in Africa, where the effects of deforestation are already disastrous. It is possible to reverse this degradation and bring life back to barren lands, if we assist the earth’s natural healing process, instead of impeding it.
Similar experiments in restoration are now under way in various parts of the world. For example, in Costa Rica, in the northwest province of Guanacaste, an ambitious project is being developed to restore the dry tropical forest ecosystem which has been reduced to just 2% of its former range in Central America. In Vietnam, where more than 2 million hectares of rainforest were destroyed by bombing and defoliation during the war, a national programme has been initiated to restore the forests and the coastal mangrove ecosystems.
Here in Scotland, various groups are working to regenerate the Caledonian Forest which now covers a mere 1% of its original extent in the Highlands.
Such examples provide a good beginning and an inspiration for what can be achieved.
However, large scale restoration of the forests must become a global priority to secure the future for ourselves and the whole Earth. Experimental projects to determine the requirements for restoration should begin immediately in all ecosystems, from the boreal forests of Canada and the Soviet Union through the temperate forests to the rainforests of the tropics. These should then be followed by a major coordinated programme of ecological restoration in which all nations participate. The main financial resources for this should come from the industrialised countries, as it is they which have most severely degraded the planet. This could be achieved by diverting funds from military programmes, where the material wealth we have expropriated from the Earth is currently squandered on outdated concepts of ‘national security’. If the millions of people under arms and the billions of dollars spent on armaments were devoted instead to the common task of restoring the forests and healing the planet, we would achieve a true state of peace and security in the world, not only amongst humanity, but also with the rest of nature.
My experience in Auroville had a profound effect on my life and I returned to Scotland with a deepened commitment to the care of the Earth. My love for trees and forests has become my basis for action to help in the healing of the planet, and the Trees for Life Calendar, which was first born as an idea while I was in India, is one expression of this. I have also felt the deep calling of the land in Scotland and have initiated a project to help restore the native Caledonian Forest to a larger area in the Highlands. In doing so, I know that I am choosing to support and nourish life on Earth, and am being a conscious participant in the future evolution of the planet.
Alan Watson Featherstone
(This article featured as the introductory essay in the 1990 edition of the Trees for Life Calendar)
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