The value of woodlands and forests

As noted above, woodlands and forests cover between 30-35% of the world's land surface. Agriculture covers another 40% but since wooded areas are structurally bigger (i.e. taller and more complex), it is the wooded land that holds most living material of all the land vegetation types. Global wooded land holds in excess of 422 billion (109) tonnes of biomass just in the wood. Because they are so large and extensive, with many niches, it is inevitable that the world's forests are among the most important repositories of terrestrial biodiversity.

Forests also provide a wide array of goods and services. Forest products play a central role in the life of many rural communities: timber and fuel (in the

1990s, 3.5 billionm3 of wood were consumed globally each year, with more than half used as fuelwood), food, animal fodder and medicines. Forests also play an important cultural role, in many ways defining some cultures such as in indigenous peoples of rain forests; without the forest their culture is diminished. Forests are also important in reducing soil erosion and in water conservation (see Chapters 2 and 6).

Urban dwellers benefit tremendously from forests. Global trade in primary forest products such as logs, sawn wood, panels, pulp and paper reached nearly $273 billion in 1997. It is not just timber; a large number of fruits and spices we use come from trees and woodland plants. Wild forests are still a valuable source of some of these. For example, almost all the Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) we eat (around 40 000 tonnes a year - Mori and Prance, 1990) are still collected in the wild (see Section 6.3.4 also). Forest plantations can also be a rich source of edible fungi; Chilean radiata pine plantations are already exploited in this way. At least 46 types of mushroom and nine types of truffle grow in forests and are potentially a most valuable food source. Wooded areas also have a large part to play in global carbon storage and sequestration (see Chapter 11).

On an individual level, trees and urban woodlands are beneficial to people. To name a few examples, they:

* Produce oxygen (a mature beech Fagus sylvatica produces sufficient oxygen over a year for ten people).

* Release many compounds into the atmosphere including monoterpenes which seem likely to have positive health effects (see Maloof, 2005).

* Absorb noise, dust, pollution and carbon dioxide.

* Reduce skin cancer (by blocking out sunlight), ironically in the mid-twentieth century the medical profession in the western world advocated extensive sunbathing to increase vitamin D levels.

* Reduce mental health problems by improving our moods and outlook.

* Improve post-surgery recovery rates in hospital wards which overlook wooded settings.

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