The UN General Assembly recently met in New York to declare 2011 the International Year of Forests. The idea is to raise awareness of the priceless role that forests play in keeping the planet healthy and of the need for sustainable management and conservation of all types of forests. The International Year of Forests follows other lofty proclamations by the UN to encourage efforts to advance social justice and environmental sustainability, including the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, the 1993 International Year for the World's Indigenous People, and the somewhat unusual naming of 2008 as the International Year of the Potato.
It's easy to be cynical about the annual declarations made by our world leaders, especially as there's often a lack of corresponding action. Nevertheless, the International Year of Forests marks a critical moment on our planet. Our forest ecosystems have never been at more risk from the consequences of human actions, including climate change and industrial activities. But a few events in Canada, including the recent signing of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, give us some hope that 2011 will truly be the Year of Forests.
The world's remaining forests, from true wilderness like Canada's boreal forest to urban green spaces like the forested slopes that frame Vancouver, represent a Fort Knox of natural riches. Forests remain our primary source of paper and building materials and are receiving increasing attention as a source of bio-energy — all of which sustain millions of jobs in resource-based communities in Canada and around the world.
Forests provide food, clean drinking water, and life-saving medicines like the rainforest-sourced cancer drug vincristine. They are also home to millions of indigenous peoples and are habitat for over half of all known terrestrial biodiversity on the planet. And because they sequester and store billions of tonnes of carbon in their vegetation, peat, and soils, forests are a critical shield against runaway global warming. Canada's boreal forest alone stores an estimated 208 billion tonnes of carbon, the equivalent of 26 years worth of global greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning.
Despite the importance of forests to biodiversity, as well as to our own health and well-being, we continue to destroy them at an alarming rate. Throughout the world and here at home, forests and woodlots are being ripped up and developed, degraded by free-for-all oil and gas development, and mined and logged at a blistering pace. Less than a fifth of the world's original intact forests remain, and although much of the best of what's left is found within our own borders, Canada is falling down when it comes to looking after our national natural heritage. We continue to clear-cut wilderness habitat when alternative logging methods exist, we have no national strategy to ensure our remaining ancient temperate rainforests are protected, and provinces like B.C. continue to export millions of raw logs to be processed out of the country.
At the same time, no nation is better placed to deliver on the ambitious goals of the International Year of Forests than Canada. This past year, 21 forestry companies and nine environmental groups committed to present a joint vision to federal, provincial, and territorial governments and First Nations for protection and sustainable management of Canada's boreal. This includes new protected areas, world-class forestry practices, and promotion of environmentally sustainable Canadian forest products in the marketplace.
The success of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement will depend on whether Aboriginal people and their governments are involved and their rights as decision-makers respected. Where indigenous peoples have come together with environmental groups and other stakeholders, stunning victories have been achieved.
More than half of the ancient rainforests of Haida Gwaii have now been protected, thanks to the leadership of the Haida First Nation. In Central Canada, five Anishinaabeg First Nations communities in Eastern Manitoba and Northern Ontario are working to have a vast intact region of boreal forest declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Covering no less than 43,000 square kilometres, the area is called Pimachiowin Aki in Ojibwa, which means "the land that gives life".
Forests sustain the very life-support systems of the planet — clean air, pure drinking water, productive soil, and healthy wildlife populations. It's time we recognized our interdependence with them and treated them as the biological treasures they are.