Tree Hugging

Timber is big business. In all places in the world where trees grow humanity has cropped the trees for fuel, for shelter for furniture and for the luxuries of life. When humanity was species that was few in number tree cutting had little effect, although some think that many of the great deserts of the world have been created or expanded by whole tree cutting. In my lifetime the extent of trees has shrunk on the map of the world, particularly in the Amazon basin and in equatorial Africa.

Trees are useful and have helped create the climate which we now enjoy. They attract rainfall, and the forest floor holds water, preventing too much run off. The trees sequestrate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it, until it is slowly released by rotting (in which case about half of the carbon dioxide leaches into the forest floor and forms part of the soil), or by burning, in which case the sequestrated carbon dioxide is rapidly pumped back into the atmosphere. Trees are important and if we cropped all them (perhaps keeping a few to put in a tree museum) our client would change. We would release into the air the carbon dioxide sequestrated in the soil by disturbing it, and we would inevitably burn much of the timber releasing even more. Our climate would become hotter less plentiful in oxygen and rains would wash away the topsoil from land that formerly grew trees, making it hard to grow anything there.

Today in the tropics and in the great northern forests of Canada and Russia timber is very big business run by multinational companies that owe no allegiance to humanity or the environment in which humanity lives, but only to the pursuit of wealth. They crop the trees taking into account existing laws, but no doubt they buy timber from those who know that when a tree falls in the forest in the Amazon jungle, no one hears the sound in Brasilia and many involved in the timber market across the world have also developed selective deafness.

For those business that obey the restrictions on farming trees, in tropical regions, where trees can grow very quickly, they use a cutting cycle, which in some places has been enshrined in legislation and in other places become considered as good practice, of between 30 and 40 years, which those who study forests say is too short to allow trees to grow back sufficiently to cope with demand, and this inevitably means that more and more forest is cropped and brought into this short tree growing cycle.

This is just fourth part of the problem. The second part is by their very nature not every species of tree in the tropical forest is suitable as a source of timber that can be sold. It does not take much imagination to guess what happens with trees that are unsuitable for timber. Other trees are very suitable for cropping and selling the timber from them but they grow so slowly no one replants them for crops.

The third part of the problem is that in order to crop trees in the jungle you have to get men and equipment to them. That means cropping other trees to build the access and egress roads and infrastructure to crop trees and in doing so you create roads across the jungle. Where there are roads come humans who colonise the areas that they can now access, clear jungles for villages and towns for pastureland for cattle and for cash crops, for illegal mines all of which create the need for other roads.

The fourth part of the problem is that there is so much illegal logging. It is hard to guess how much of the world’s timber is in effect black market produced, in breach of laws that are supposed to apply where the trees grow. Current estimates are between 20% and 50%.

It all adds up to a difficult problem and one that becomes less manageable every year. It is also a problem that is in nature of a slow but sure and inevitable disease. Many environmentalists are called “tree huggers”. You do not have to hug a tree in order to understand the importance of maintaining large tropical forests for the sake of the future of humanity being able to live and breathe on this increasingly shrinking planet.


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