Without forests, no future
International Day of Forests, celebrated by the United Nations for the first time today, invites people and communities around the world to "plant a tree, plant our future".The appeal is being made to spotlight the vital importance of forests in our lives, and to rally world opinion in defence of our forests against pressures on several fronts.
Life as we know it would not be possible without trees. Best known is the job they do in capturing and storing atmospheric carbon, but forests perform a host of other services, too. They are a source of medicines, foods and fibre; they protect watersheds and the world's increasingly precious freshwater resources; they act as the world's leading repository of terrestrial biological diversity; and they provide fuel, employment and income for 350 million of the world's poorest people.
But forests are under threat. Between 2000 and 2010 the estimated deforestation rate was about 13 million hectares a year, equivalent to the size of Greece.
And other new and highly insidious threats are emerging as a consequence of globalisation and climate change.
One of these is the spread of pests and diseases, aided by the global movement of wood, seeds and soil that is part of globalised trade. Worldwide, introduced species are invading natural forests and changing ecosystems in unpredictable ways.
With climate change, another advancing menace is an increased risk of forest fires and storms intense enough to devastate huge tracts of forest.
All these threats can be met. Forests and trees have a paramount contribution to make as engines of future sustainable development. They are par excellence a renewable resource that can respond to multiple economic, social and ecological needs and challenges.
There have been recent successes. A combination of political will and socio-economic progress has reduced the rate of deforestation in recent years, especially in Asia. The UN, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation
The FAO in particular, is committed to supporting countries in their efforts to turn deforestation into forest restoration, while also assuring the empowerment, food security and social progress of forest-dependent people.
There are excellent local and national examples that can and will be scaled up and shared with others, ideally in the form of South-South cooperation.
An emerging tool known as payment for ecosystem services - at all scales, from local to global - has huge potential for generating income for forest-dwellers. It is being deployed successfully in a number of tropical countries, such as Costa Rica, a country that has emerged strongly from a deforestation phase to double its forests in just 25 years.
With the 2015 deadline fast approaching for achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, discussion has begun on a new and more ambitious set of sustainable development objectives. FAO is proposing a commitment to the Zero Hunger Challenge - the challenge of complete eradication of hunger within our lifetimes, first launched last June by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Reducing deforestation is closely linked to achieving zero hunger. In many parts of the world, deforestation is degrading ecosystems, diminishing water availability and limiting the supply of fuelwood - all of which reduce food security, especially for the poor. Significantly reducing net deforestation would do much to end hunger and bring about sustainability.
In the meantime, on the first International Day of Forests we can make a start by planting a tree and giving back to forests just a little of what we have taken. In planting a tree we plant our future. In giving to forests we give to ourselves and to our children.
Jose Graziano da Silva is director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.