The Earth has very delicate balances that ensure the continuity of life. This delicate balance is achieved through the cycles of water, carbon and nutrients. There are major actors that ensure this balance, and one of these actors is trees.
Planting even a single tree brings dozens of benefits. Trees are like the lungs of the Earth, they maintain the oxygen balance that enables us to breathe. A mature tree with leaves can meet the daily oxygen needs of two to 10 people on its own. They also help our world stay cool by absorbing carbon dioxide, which is an important greenhouse gas.
Likewise, trees offer us protection from the direct rays of the sun by making shadows in the area they're planted. They also cool the area naturally by absorbing the sunlight, offsetting the temperature in an area and preventing the formation of heat islands in city centers, one of the major problems caused by global climate change.
Through sweating, trees play an active role in the water cycle, while cooling of the environment. They are both air- and climate-friendly, preventing the spread of air pollution.
A large number of trees come together to form forests. About one-third of solid earth is covered with them. Forests are home to millions of living species and meet their nutritional and housing requirements. It is known that they host 75% of terrestrial biodiversity.
Large forests affect the regional air of the area where they are located, creating a kind of microclimate effect and supporting the formation of precipitation (like in the Amazon).
Forests prevent floods, erosion and soil loss. They absorb water like a large sponge, and excess water that is beyond their absorbing capacity mixes with groundwater through their roots, bringing aquifers to life. They also filter the soil.
Trees are a natural meditation space for humans. They make us feel better and help us rejuvenate ourselves. They are also a great source for the production of many medicines used to combat diseases. Forests, so to speak, are like a kind of pharmaceutical warehouse.
Around 300 million people, including 60 million indigenous people, are known to live in forests worldwide.
According to the data by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Forests provide jobs to more than 10 million people working in forest management and conservation.
With the production of timber and other forestry products alone, forests constitute 1% of the global gross domestic product (GDP). The total value of forestry product trade is about $250 billion globally, while the total value-added created by the forestry industry is estimated to be about $500 billion.
So, how many trees are there on Earth? The first study conducted to find an answer to this question was conducted in 2004. According to this study, based on satellite images alone, there were about 400 billion trees in the world.
The results of another study carried out 10 years later were even more gratifying. This time, the detected figure was about eight times the initial figure. According to a 2015 study in the Nature journal, the world-famous scientific journal with a 150-year history, our world is estimated to have 3 trillion trees. So, there are 400 trees per person in our world.
Around 43% of these trees are estimated to be in the tropics. According to the data supported by field research, there are 390 billion trees in the Amazon alone. Within the scope of the research, sample counts were carried out in more than 400,000 forestry lands in more than 50 countries in order to detect tree intensity. And by comparing this intensity with satellite images, quite reliable results were obtained.
The study in question was carried out under the Plant for the Planet project, which has been carried out since 2007 under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). According to the study, global woodland has expanded by 2.24 million square kilometers (864,868 square miles) since 1982. This value is three times the surface area of our country.
Although the abovementioned study says that there are 400 trees per person in the world, these trees are not homogeneously distributed. According to the State of the World’s Forests (SOFO) report for 2020 (SOFO2020), released by the FAO, more than half of the world's forests are in five countries alone – Brazil, Canada, China, Russia and the United States. Almost half of the world's forests (49%), which cover 31% of terrestrial areas, are virgin forests. Also, 80% of the forests cover an area of more than 1 million hectares (2.47 million acres).
A drop in the ocean
The greatest harm to nature is done by human beings. According to a 2015 study, it is estimated that about half of the trees (46%) that have existed since the dawn of civilization have been destroyed.
Parameters such as the type, age and width of trees are as important as the number of trees. In our recent history, 15 billion trees per year are destroyed for the production of materials such as paper and timber. Only 5 billion new trees are planted to replace them, resulting in an annual loss of 10 billion trees.
However, thanks to the Plant for the Planet organization,14.2 billion trees have been planted so far, but given the losses, this figure is like a drop in the ocean.
Although 3 trillion trees seem like a lot, this is not the case at all. According to SOFO2020 assessments, deforestation is rising at an alarming level as agricultural lands are increasing.
Since 1990, 420 million hectares of forest land has been lost due to its use for various purposes. During this time, 100 million hectares have been damaged by fires, various pests and weather factors. However, a growing sensitivity to environmental issues in recent years has had a positive impact.
In particular, forests house a very large part of terrestrial biodiversity and are one of the most effective areas for greenhouse gas absorption that lead to the current global problem, climate change.
In the last three decades, the rate of loss of forest lands has decreased due to the policies developed and joint steps taken to this end.
From 1990 to 2015, 16 million hectares were lost on an annual basis, while, from 2015 to 2020, this decreased to 10 million hectares on an annual basis.
The Turkish share
Around 29% of Turkey’s land is covered with forests with a rich composition of 185 tree species, with 22 of them being main species. According to the General Directorate of Forestry (OGM) data, forest lands in our country have soared to 21.2 million hectares in 2004 from 20.2 in 1972.
In other words, with investments made over 30 years, the country's forest cover has increased by about 1 million hectares.
Turkey has made great progress in all areas, including environmental investments and afforestation activities, since 2002.
According to the Turkish Forest Presence report released by the OGM, Turkey’s forest cover rose to 22.7 million hectares in 2019.
So, during the 15-year period from 2004 to 2019, the forest cover skyrocketed by 1.5 million hectares. In the same way, the area of woodlands categorized as groves rose to 56% in 2019 from 42% in 2004.
One of the most notable endeavors in this area was made in the period from 2008 to 2012. As part of the action plan for reforestation and erosion control mobilization initiated by the abolished Ministry of Environment and Forestry (the current Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry) an area, the size of Thrace or three times the size of the Istanbul metropolis was reforested.
As part of the efforts exerted since 2002, 4.7 billion seedlings have been planted to produce a breath for the future. Annual sapling production increased from 75 million to 350 million, marking a fivefold increase.
Our forests, which are one of the most important areas for carbon absorption, also play an active role in combating climate change by storing greenhouse gases that lead to climate change and thus preventing their release into the atmosphere.
In this respect, according to the 2018 Turkey National Emission Inventory report, our forests made a great contribution to the environment by eliminating 16% of the greenhouse gases released. Our forest presence is also a source of life for 7 million forest villagers.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has changed the fate of the environment in Turkey. During his time as the mayor of Istanbul, the prime minister and president of Turkey, he broke fresh ground in environmental investments. These investments were carried out under the "Breath for the Future” campaign last year.
A nationwide mobilization campaign was launched under his leadership, aiming to plant the greatest number of trees in a day.
In addition to bearing fruits, offering shadow and wood, these trees would absorb the harmful carbon dioxide and release oxygen, an essential element for life on the planet.
At 11.11 a.m., Nov. 11, 2019, millions gathered for the massive forestation campaign “Breath for the Future,” which was also joined by Erdoğan who planted a sapling. The initiative was instrumental in the planting of more than 13 million trees by millions of people all over the country. He also declared that day as National Afforestation Day.
An inspiring life story
Fires are the primary threats to the country's forests. Most fires are caused by sabotage. The fires that broke out in the southern province of Hatay recently tore our hearts out and resulted in the death of many creatures inhabiting the forests.
While we witness such sorrowful incidents from time to time, there are other events that make us proud and reflect our true identity. Among such initiatives are those carried out by Rahim Demirbaş, known as Orman Dede (Grandfather Forest).
Demirbaş was born in 1940 in the Beyören village in the Ereğli town, central Anatolian province of Konya. He is the oldest child in a family of seven children. As he had to help the family financially during his childhood, he could not study much.
At a school built in their village in 1956, his teachers informed him that he could study at an open education faculty. He studied there and eventually became a teacher.
He mentored his students with a focus on specific teaching models, rather than just explaining things. He loved his students very much, and his students loved him back. He trained hundreds of students.
He acknowledged the importance of educating people and teaching them the value of a healthy life. He had a special place in his heart for the nature surrounding his village. As a child, he understood that the mountains around him were covered with forests which had many benefits, from preventing floods to improving water quality.
He also saw that the most important benefit of forests was one of the greatest remedies for global climate change, the biggest problem facing humanity today.
The forests were even more valuable for him as they were home to numerous creatures. In this respect, he intended to build a forest. He was instrumental in the flourishing of an oasis in the quasi-desert parts of Konya.
He created his first forest in Turkey in 1998. He added new trees to it every year. He spent all his earnings on it. He did all this with the idea of sadaqah jariyah (continuous charity). He believed that using the land efficiently would be a service equivalent to the land conquests as our ancestors did in the past.
His strong faith kept him going. In his 80-year life, he taught hundreds of students and grew 40,000 trees. He continues to plant trees, but the lack of water interrupted his mission.
Pointing to the maxim “no pain, no gain,” he says that just lip service does not help. You have to prove your love for your country through your actions. That is why despite his age, he continues to work. He says that the best way of rebellion against burning and destroying forests is to plant new trees to replace them.
He says that the best legacy one could leave behind is the people that are raised right and the trees planted to secure the future of the country. This is exactly what he has been doing. Thank you, Grandfather Forest.
Have a tree in this life
Throughout history, our ancestors have respected the environment and nature and even issued edicts for its protection.
In one of his hadiths, Prophet Muhammed highlights the importance of trees, saying: “If the Resurrection were established upon one of you while he has in his hand a sapling, then let him plant it.”
Trees that offer a resting area with their shadow, give amazing nutrients with their fruits, prevent soil erosion and flooding and clean the air. They also turn into fuel as a clean source of energy when they die.
The preservation of such a precious treasure is so crucial that Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, who marked the beginning of a new era, said, “I will decapitate anyone who cuts a branch in my forests.”
Certainly, it is not easy to grow a forest. This process takes decades, depending on tree species, growing conditions and possibilities. It is the most effective and most inexpensive means of combating climate change today. But we know that this will not be enough on its own. Yet it offers countless benefits.
This is why we must plant a tree in this world in our life that will serve with its shadow, food and wood. Let it be a nest for birds and insects. Let it be a breath for the future.
*Deputy minister in the Republic of Turkey's Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, chief climate change envoy