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Forestry’s role in climate change resilience

Fortunes Matutu, Correspondent
CLIMATE change and variability is one catastrophe facing humankind and threatening livelihoods as well as the realisation of UN Sustainable Development Goals. This phenomenon is manifesting itself in the form of changes in weather patterns and extreme weather events resulting in disasters.
The frequency and magnitude of erratic rainfall, droughts, cyclones, floods, storms, heatwaves and whirlwinds have noticeably increased. Many of these weather events have led to the loss of lives and property with an enormous impact on the fundamentals of human survival.
In Zimbabwe, climate change is a direct threat to socio-economic development and in some cases reverses development. Our agrarian and natural resources driven economy is peculiarly susceptible to the effects of climate change and made worse by our weak capacity to withstand the shocks.
Climate change has had major impacts in Zimbabwe particularly in rain-fed agriculture or dryland agriculture. The farmers are much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change affecting food security and causing poverty.
Forests play a key role in providing mitigation and adaptation solutions to addressing climate change. They act as both a cause and a solution for greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming which leads to climate change.
Trees are carbon sinks; they sequestrate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. As a result of massive deforestation, we have fewer trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and having more of it means that more heat is trapped in the atmosphere.
When trees grow, carbon is removed from the atmosphere and absorbed in wood. This stored carbon is released into the atmosphere when trees are cut down, burnt or when they decompose.
This releases greenhouse gases that accumulate in the atmosphere which in turn causes climate change. This accounts for nearly 20 percent of global emissions which is even more than the transportation industry.
Trees and plants are essential to the water cycle through evapotranspiration and the creation of favourable micro-climates for precipitation. Thus, deforestation affects rainfall patterns and ultimately contributes to climate change.
Maintaining and increasing forests is therefore essential for tackling climate change.
Forests are important in dealing with indications of climate change, whether they are heat waves, drought, flash floods, whirlwinds, frost or other extreme weather conditions.
Trees reduce the damage caused by droughts and floods. Although drought is a natural disaster, it is made worse by deforestation. Floods also become more severe if there are not enough trees around.
In addition to stabilising the climate, forests also regulate ecosystems, protect biodiversity, support livelihoods, provide goods and services that are important in climate change adaptation.
In times of climate-induced shocks when crops fail and disasters occur, forest products continue to provide the important safety-net function for survival. Forests products provide additional income and diversify food sources.
Forests help people confront challenges brought by climate change like food shortages. They provide forest-based alternative livelihoods like honey, mushrooms, vegetables, wild fruits, timber, edible root/tubers and edible insects.
In these projects, farmers can diversify their income sources, which increases their resilience to climate change.
People from a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds harvest non-timber forest products (NTFPs) consumption for household subsistence and income.
The importance of NTFPs to livelihoods can be seen at any time by visiting the market, with its array of wild fruits, honey, edible products, and mushrooms on sale.
Agroforestry is one tree practice that contributes to climate change adaptation and mitigation. It creates micro-climates that benefit both crops and livestock through enhanced agricultural resilience, storing carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Agroforestry species can survive and grow under both normal weather conditions and climate variations from climate change. Trees can be integrated with crop systems as orchards, woodlots, windbreaks and or live fences.
In cropping systems, agroforestry practices can reduce agricultural demand for water during dry periods.
Windbreaks reduce wind speed across adjacent fields, reducing evaporation losses from the soil and the transpiration of crops. This is of particular value under water-stressed conditions where they reduce moisture stress and conserve soil.
They shield buildings and roads from whirlwinds and heatwaves.
During incessant rains trees and forests control storm runoff. Their leaf canopies help reduce erosion by capturing and storing rainfall in the canopy. Roots take up water and together with dead leaves create conditions that promote soil infiltration.
Trees and ground cover also reduce the rate of soil erosion and land degradation by binding soil to their roots.
Trees can reduce heat when temperatures are hot or when heat waves occur.
They create cooler microclimates by providing shade, reducing wind speed canopies and increasing water vapour through evapotranspiration.
Conserving and maintaining the natural environment — the forests, wetlands, groundcover and riparian vegetation helps in disaster risk reduction and building community resilience against climate stressors. Along with disaster preparedness, forests go a long way in reducing the risks and vulnerabilities associated with climate-induced natural disasters.
Taking care of natural resources not only assures that future generations will be able to live but greatly reduces the hazards.
Research has shown that most outbreaks of new and emerging diseases are linked to deforestation, land-use changes, loss of biodiversity and all exacerbated by climate change.
Forests act as shields, keeping humans safe from new diseases. Loss of biodiversity and climate change provides an opportunity for pathogens to pass between animals and people.
Taking action now is more important than ever before to prevent climate change from becoming a catastrophe.
There is a need for more effort towards increasing the resilience of the community in the face of an ever-changing climate. The adoption of climate-smart practices is often limited by a lack of information, financial resources and frameworks.
This can only be accomplished by increasing people’s knowledge and awareness of climate change as well as implementing suitable mitigation and adaptation measures. All stakeholders must understand the causes and effects of climate change.
Sustainable management of forests for climate change requires responses at all levels, including the local community.
Practices like tree planting, assisted natural regeneration, land management, unlocking of forest benefits and law enforcement will address climate change and ecological predicaments simultaneously while producing goods and services needed for the people.
Save forests, save the climate!
Fortunes Matutu is a forester with the Forestry Commission and has a special interest in social forestry.
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