In May 2008 a helicopter flew over unexplored parts of the Amazon in Acre State in Brazil, near the country’s border with Peru. Onboard were officials from Funai, the Brazilian government’s Indian affairs department, on a mission to prove the existence of unknown Amazonian tribes who have never been in contact with the outside world. The few aerial pictures Funai has released show startled and intrigued people and their huts but do not reveal any landmarks which could be used to identify the exact location.

The alarming rate of deforestation in the Amazon poses a very concrete threat to such remote tribes. It does not only threaten their livelihood but also their way of life. Loggers and cattle ranchers continue clearing the forest cover and moving further into the heart of forest, inflicting often irreparable damage to the environment as well as exposing remote tribes to diseases for which they have no immunity.

Unfortunately, the Amazon and its tribes are not the only ones bearing the consequences of the growing global demand for natural resources. Five years ago Bisie was jungle. Located in the Wailikale territory, east Congo, it is now a cramped township as a result of the discovery of cassiterite, a derivative of tin that is a crucial component in the circuitry of many modern gadgets. It’s in mobile phones, laptops, digital cameras and gaming devices. Today despite the boom in mining activities in its forests, the large majority of the Congolese remains extremely poor.

Thousands of kilometres from Bisie, in the state of Orissa nestled up against the Bay of Bengal, live Gangi Bhuyan and her husband Sukru Bhuyan with their young family. This is east India, the legendary spring of India’s mineral wealth and a major source of materials for global industrial growth in the past.

For about five months of the year Gangi and Sukru feed their family from the less than half acre plot of land they cultivate on the verge of the forest that surrounds Raibada, their village. During this time they also harvest vegetables, seeds, fruit, medicine and building materials (such as grass) from the forest. For a further four months, this is their main supply of food. Without the forest they would starve. For the remaining three months they are forced to migrate to large urban areas such as Bangalore or Mumbai where they work as labourers.

For many indigenous people the forest is their lifeline, while the timber or the minerals buried beneath are sometimes a curse. Across the world, because of their relatively higher dependence on the environment, the poorest of the poor are often the most affected by environmental degradation. This damage is driven by global demand for raw materials, which in turn is driven by human consumption.

Unfortunately, such communities’ historic claim to forest resources and land has rarely been transcribed in modern society’s legal systems. Government bodies like Funai or non-governmental movements like Survival International are faced with a daunting task. To have the rights of such indigenous tribes protected fully, in the case of the Amazon and Peru, they might first have to prove the existence of these tribes.

In other cases, like in India, there has been some progress. The Forest Rights Act is now facilitating the transfer of land rights to tribal communities. Gangi and Sukru Bhuyan have not received a title to the plot of land but some of their neighbours have. These one-sided, carefully laminated pieces of paper are clutched with a mixture of pride and surprise. The success of their neighbours means that the Bhuyan family has hope.

Most of the losses in forest cover take place in developing countries and are largely caused by weak governance structures for forest conservation and management. But the pressures forests and forest communities face are not limited to developing countries.

Despite growth in forest cover and stronger forest governance structures, Europe’s forests and forest communities also feel the bite of growing demand for natural resources and environmental degradation.

We are using our planet’s resources faster than they can replenish themselves but we want to continue consuming and producing ever more. We not only risk running out of vital resources, we are actually making our home less and less habitable.

Perhaps the solution lies in recognising the fact that we are only one species among many and our wellbeing depends on harmonious interaction with all others. All living things, including us, have a rightful claim on the forests of the world, even if we live in an urban area on the other side of the planet, because the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink, and the climate we live in depend on them.

What forests do for you

Forests can provide all sorts of food: fruit, honey, mushrooms, meat and so on. If properly managed, they can also deliver a sustainable flow of resources such as wood to the economy.

Forests are also crucial in terms of the medicines they store. In India, As many as 8 000 species of plants are regularly used as medicine by the people of India with 90–95 % coming from forests. Less than 2 000 of these plants are officially documented.

But forests do a lot more. For example, trees and vegetation help ensure a healthy climate locally and globally by absorbing pollutants and greenhouse gases. Forest soils decompose wastes and purify water. And people often travel far to enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of forests, or to engage in pastimes such as hunting.

All of these services — providing food and fibre, regulating the climate and so on — are valuable. We would pay a lot for machines that could do the same thing. For that reason, we should think of ecosystems as a form of capital, which provides services to the owner but often also to other people nearby and far off (as in the case of climate regulation). Crucially, we need to maintain our natural capital — not overexploiting the ecosystem and not over-polluting — if it is to continue providing these hugely valuable services.

Reprinted from the European Environmental Agency (22 April 2011).  For further information and related material, see

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