The international day of forests was recently celebrated on 21 March. The UN General Assembly proclaimed 21 March the International Day of Forests in 2012. The day celebrates and raises awareness of the importance of all types of forests. On each International Day of Forests, countries and institutions are encouraged to undertake local, national and international efforts to organise activities involving forests and trees, such as tree planting and public awareness campaigns.

Forestry has become a cross-cutting field impacting on agriculture, the environment, health, economies and cultural and social issues. Forests and forest products enhance agriculture and food production directly and indirectly. For example, forest foods range from wild plant-based fruits, leaves, oils, tubers and rhizomes to mushrooms, insects particularly termites and caterpillars, and bush meat.

In addition to the socio-cultural benefits of forests, they hold more than three-quarters of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, provide many products and services that contribute to socio-economic development, and are particularly important for hundreds of millions of people in rural areas, including many of the world’s poorest. Forests play a fundamental role in combating rural poverty, ensuring food security and providing decent livelihoods.

As underscored at the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, forests and trees play a crucial role in determining the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. Acting as carbon sinks, they absorb the equivalent of roughly 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. Forests and trees outside forests – especially those on farms and grazing and common lands – also play a vital role as safety nets to increase the resilience of the poor to major disasters and climate change.

This year, the international Day of Forests addressed the theme ‘Forests and Education’ and focused on promoting the role of education and research as cornerstones for sustainable forest management. This theme underlines the importance of improved forestry education and the roles of educational establishments and research centres in advancing sustainable forest management. The theme is significant for Africa, considering the continuous decline of investment in forestry education in many parts of the continent. We need to reverse this trend in order to ensure the sustainable management of our forests and related natural resources for sustainable development. – Prof Paxie W Chirwa and Opeyemi Adeyemi, University of Pretoria