Because forests are crucial for the survival and wellbeing of current and future generations, the United Nations General Assembly decreed every 21 March to be the International Day of Forests (IDF). For the 5th IDF, on 21 March 2017, the theme is “Forests and Energy”.
This theme resonates deeply. Trees have always been central to my life, from camping in California’s redwood forests, to chopping wood for cooking and heating (and cold smoking freshly caught trout!), to caring for the walnut, cherry, apple, pear, plum and peach trees that populated my parents and siblings’ homes and orchards. In my secondary school agriculture classes, I was trained to prune fruit trees and to safely handle chainsaws. As children, we were trained to identify – and enjoy! – edible wood products. A scholarship from a US timber company partly funded my first degree in agriculture economics. Forests have been a source of so much energy in my life – warmth, nutrition, beauty, friendship, personal development, income and social action.
Forests in Bangladesh, like elsewhere in the world, provide four important types of services: “provisioning services” (e.g., fuelwood, timber, food, medicine and freshwater); “regulating services” (e.g., moderation of climatic events, erosion control and carbon sequestration); “supporting services” (e.g., biodiversity conservation); and (my personal favorite), “cultural services” such as recreation, tourism and spiritual services.
Wood was the world’s very first source of energy. Today, it remains the most important single source of renewable energy used for cooking, heating and generating electricity, not only in Bangladesh but also in many other countries. Globally, about one-half of all wood that is produced generates nearly 40% of the world’s total renewable energy. In Bangladesh, where reliance on wood energy is above global averages, the country produced some 27 million m3 of roundwood in 2015. With 7 million m3 of industrial roundwood produced annually, up to 20 million m3 of roundwood – or two-thirds of national production - was used for energy in 2015.
Worldwide, some 2.4 billion people rely on wood for cooking and heating. Most rural and many urban dwellers are dependent on wood for energy. Current research estimates that between 85 percent and 92 percent households in rural Bangladesh use biomass as an energy source, predominantly from forests and trees. The average annual fuelwood consumed for cooking by rural households is approximately 4 tonnes. In line with global averages, 35 percent of Bangladesh’s population is primarily dependent on wood for cooking.
The development of Bangladesh represents both an opportunity and a threat to the nation’s forests; looking ahead, forests are key to the nation’s realisation of the ambitions of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Forest Department estimates that the combined value of timber and fuelwood produced is a minimum of USD 2.4 billion per annum, of which 30 percent (USD 751 million) is attributable to fuelwood. The forest sector formally employs nearly 1.5 million people in Bangladesh including 6 lakh women (i.e., 40 percent of total employment in the sector). Many more work in the informal and private sectors; Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) estimated that nearly 6 million people were employed in operations related to homestead forestry and private plantations in 2014.
Bangladesh is characterised as a low forest cover country, with cover well below the global average of 30.6 percent. The natural forests are highly degraded and diminishing. According to the latest figures, only 17 percent of the country’s total geographical area is covered by forests. Deforestation averaged 0.2 percent per annum between 1990 and 2015, principally in Government-owned natural forests. The main drivers of deforestation and forest degradation in Bangladesh include a high dependence by large populations on forest resources for livelihoods, intense land-use competition associated with rapid economic development, population growth and illegal logging are.
There are promising trends as well. Despite high deforestation in natural forests, the area under tree outside forests in Bangladesh is increasing. Homestead forests, i.e. tree gardens around the houses in rural areas, which are privately owned, and strip plantations raised along roads, railway lines and canals under the social forestry program host majority of trees outside forests in the country. A moratorium on timber harvesting in natural forests in the country means that the demand for timber and fuelwood is met by homestead forests and social forestry.
In addition, the increasing availability of alternative energy sources for cooking (gas, electricity) is decreasing per capita fuelwood consumption and reducing the proportion of population primarily reliant on fuelwood for cooking. BBS (2014) reported that this proportion fell by nearly 10 percent between 1991 and 2011. At this rate, only one-quarter of Bangladesh’s population will be reliant on fuelwood as the primary source of energy for cooking by 2030.
Such decreasing fuelwood demand will translate into lower pressure on forests and trees, allowing them to regenerate, regain vigor and restore health. Moreover, if sustainably managed, increasingly larger quantities of wood will become available. This resource can be used for the development of bioenergy and other wood-based industries. This will create new job opportunities, contribute to sustainable economic growth on the pathway to middle income status, and complement Bangladesh’s effort to combat climate change. Moreover, the development of bioenergy and other wood-based industries, in turn, will increase the likelihood of greater investment in sustainable forest management. Strong, visionary leadership and a sound policy and institutional enabling environment are crucial for these aspirations to be translated into realities.
There is immense scope in Bangladesh to plant more trees in large cities and urban areas and exciting opportunities for greater engagements by urban dwellers in the greening of cities. FAO, in partnership with the DAE, is working in Dhaka and Chittagong to increase the number and quality of rooftop gardens. Trees in urban areas, if planted strategically, can cool the air by between two to eight degrees. Thus more trees mean cooler air in cities and urban areas of Bangladesh, healthier living environments, and reduced outlays for energy and health costs for the citizens. The model of social forestry, which has been successful in the rural areas, is the way forward for urban areas.
FAO is providing technical assistance to the forestry sector in three areas: (i) Strengthening the National Forest Inventory and Satellite Land Monitoring System in support of REDD+ in Bangladesh (with USAID support); (ii) Strengthening the Environment, Forestry and Climate Change Capacities of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and its agencies (with USAID support), and (iii) UNREDD Project Bangladesh (implemented jointly with UNDP and UNEP).
Best wishes for a beautiful International Day of Forests!
The writer is Representative, UN FAO, Bangladesh