Greenpeace activists work with the Deni people of the Amazon. Image: Greenpeace / Daniel Beltrá

The United Nations has labelled 2011 the International Year of Forests. The slogan is “Celebrating Forests for People”. It's a nice slogan. But does it mean anything? Will it bring us closer to protecting the forests and the people and biodiversity that depend on them? Let's hope so.

Forests are important for a number of reasons - but today it’s their role in helping to prevent climate change that gets the most attention. Simply put, forests store nearly 300 billion tonnes of carbon in their living parts. This is roughly 40 times the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels. Deforestation accounts for more climate pollution than all the world's cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships combined. So, from a climate point of view it’s better to keep the GHGs where they are by preserving and protecting the forests.

In international negotiations, primarily at the UNFCCC talks, this is known as reducing emissions from tropical deforestation and degradation – what policy experts abbreviate as “REDD”. The concept is fairly simple: rich, developed countries provide funding to help developing countries protect their forests and invest in clean, green development. In the process, the entire world benefits because forests and the ecosystems they form are beyond doubt essential for the survival of life on Earth.

Yet in our haste to mitigate climate change, we mustn’t forget the indigenous peoples and other communities who live in and depend upon forests for survival. So, most certainly lets actively pursue the slogan ‘celebrating forests for people’ whilst at the same time inspiring ‘people for forests’ – because we all need to work together to make sure forests are protected.

We must also remember the other important benefits bestowed by forests. Tropical forests are one of the greatest storehouse of nature's diversity on Earth, over half of all land-based species of plants and animals view the forest as home. Forests regulate water flow and rainfall so we depend on them to grow our crops and food. Loss of a forest in one part of the world can have severe impacts in another part of the globe - scientists have found that loss of forest in Amazonia and Central Africa can severely reduce rainfall in the US Midwest. And much, much more.

For Greenpeace, every year is a year to celebrate forests for people – and people for forests. I've been an environmental campaigner for 30 years now, and forests and their protection hold a special significance for me. I've always thought that their importance can best be summed up by an old Cree prophecy: "Only after the last tree has been cut down ... only then will you find that money cannot be eaten." We campaign to protect forests because of the vast range of amazing biodiversity they support, because they capture and contain climate changing greenhouse gases and - last but not least - because without healthy thriving forests, planet Earth cannot sustain life.

So let’s all take action to protect forests in 2011 and celebrate them this and every year.

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