In observance of Arbour month, here are five great reasons to conserve forests and plant trees.
Trees reduce our carbon footprint and mitigate the effects of climate change; trees increase biodiversity essential to human existence; trees store and purify water for agriculture and drinking; trees provide us with food, medicines and other forest produce; and trees beautify our surroundings.
So why do we destroy them? Take a walk in a healthy forest and look around you. What do you see and feel — hundreds of beautiful diverse plants, birds, wildlife, bouncy moist soil, ferns, epiphytes (plants like bromeliads which grow on others). Should this be bulldozed, set fire to or degraded by free roaming livestock?
Trees reduce our carbon footprint
Trees reduce our “footprint” and can prevent catastrophic climate change. They absorb harmful carbon dioxide; give off oxygen vital for life; shade and cool the Earth’s surface; attract and increase rainfall; prevent erosion of carbon-rich humus and topsoil.
In a healthy forest, what you are looking at is compounds of carbon, mainly cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. A 30cm/12-inch diameter tree typically contains the equivalent of 1200Kg of CO2. But this is just part of the story. In a healthy forest, most carbon is stored below the ground; often 90 per cent or more is stored in the rich humus and roots.
Trees increase biodiversity
Trees are essential in conserving biodiversity vital for human existence. For example, bees are pollinators vital to our food chain. One-third of the food we eat would not be available but for bees, but bees are declining worldwide and a major reason is the loss of biodiversity – just as you and I need a varied diet, so do bees and the loss of biodiversity is adversely affecting their immune systems.
Trees are essential for creating and sustaining biodiversity because they create a canopy which creates a shady, moist microclimate essential for life; create rich healthy, nitrogen-rich soil and humus full of micro organisms; store vast amounts of water, which they purify and release for agriculture and drinking; provide fruit, flowers, nectar, foliage and sap vital for insects, birds, bats and all wildlife; prevent erosion, despeciation (reduction in the number of species) and ultimately desertification; create an environment essential for other plants; and in coastal mangrove areas, the roots of the mangrove trees and shrubs provide a haven for many species of fishes and other marine life.
Trees store and purify water
Forests and woodlands store and purify water in many ways. Trees, through their roots, absorb fertilizers and other pollutants and store them in their leaves, limbs and root systems. This keeps pollutants from being released into waterways. Forest floors contain leaf litter that filters out phosphorous from sediment particles, also contain bacteria that convert harmful nitrates into nitrogen gas, which is harmlessly released back into the air in a process called de-nitrification. Hence, water filtering down through forested hillsides is purified for agricultural land and for drinking water.
Trees for food, medicine and other uses
Most fruit trees are now intensively farmed, but many unusual fruits can be harvested from forest trees. Trees are also used for seasoning food, flavouring drinks and medicinal purposes There is much research work to be done to explore the medicinal properties of trees and other plants so it is essential that we conserve our forests for the medicines for the future.
Trees and forests are beautiful
Just as great works of art and music have a powerful effect on the human psyche, so too does nature. A walk in a beautiful tropical forest has a wonderful impact on almost everyone. If possible, get a copy of the EAG’s field guide to the Wild Plants of Antigua and Barbuda and explore our countryside.
Take time to look closely at the beautiful harmonious shapes, colours and textures and try to learn about all the beautiful species. Look upwards to the canopy adorned with epiphytic plants, ferns, mosses and birds. Look down at the small plants, fungi, wildlife and the deep, rich leaf litter. Feel the different bark textures and smell the scent of the various woods. Take home fallen leaves, fruit, flowers and twigs as a keepsake.
So which trees should we, in Antigua & Barbuda, value the most, conserve, plant out and hug? Our most important trees are our “endemics” (trees unique to Antigua & Barbuda and a few surrounding islands) and native trees of which we have over 100 species: national endemics such as Mt Obama Lonchocarpus; regional endemics such as the West Indian Mahogany, loblolly, ducana leaf, white cedar and macaw palm; native species such as the ‘tinkin’ toe, Sandbox, turpentine tree, silk cotton.
However, there are some species which are best avoided – invasive “alien” or introduced species such as several species of cassie, logwood, wild tambrind and neem. The cassies such as Acacia tortuosa provide very little shade, but it is a mistake to bulldoze these without considering the possible inadvertent consequences – erosion, degradation and removal of other important species.
If this article has caused you to reconsider your attitude to our trees and plants, then there are things you can do to help to save them.
Firstly, much of the world’s remaining natural forests are threatened by global demand for wood, paper and for conversion to other land uses. You can help save the world’s forests by only buying wood and paper-based products certified as being from sustainably managed forests.
If you want to help conserve the trees and forests of Antigua & Barbuda, then why not contact the Environment Division and the Environmental Awareness Group who have several projects to help conserve our trees, plants and wildlife?
You can contact Environment Division on 460 7278 and the EAG on 462 6236 or from the “Contact us” page on www.eagantigua.org.