In a village in northern Spain, a century-old oak tree has been cut down. It had a trunk almost five meters in diameter and a monumental size. It was a tree appreciated by hikers and environmentalists in the area. Some neighbors say that a local logger may have cut it down to sell it as firewood. Who knows whether he had municipal authorization or just the consent of the property owners. Whoever cut it down perhaps did so because they knew they could with total impunity. The felling of this oak is a small example of the lack of protection of trees. Rainer Maria Rilke consoled his own sense of impermanence with the certainty of “a tree on the hillside to return to every day.” Today no one could guarantee such a thing. Just look at the ‘Sycamore Gap’ tree, treacherously felled in the United Kingdom. A tree, any tree, is also all of the trees.
In an interview by videolink from his forestry center in Eifel, the German forester Peter Wohlleben, author of the best-seller The Hidden Life of Trees, recalls that the latest research is capable of measuring the ability of trees to regulate temperature and rainfall: “If you cut trees, the temperature of that area will increase an average of 10 degrees,” he says bluntly. Wohlleben and his team have monitored forests using satellite images and know that thinning cuts should not happen. And even less without control or planning. That is why he says that cutting down a tree should be a crime of the first order: “It is considered an environmental crime to pour motor oil into a river, but not to raise the temperature for thousands of people.” In his latest book, he investigates the ability of trees to adapt to climate change and the role of forests for the planet’s water balance. Wohlleben, like the Beat poet Gary Snyder, considers forests as family groups, which weave networks of mutual support and migrate with the ice ages. They are hyperorganisms that transform sunlight into sugar and produce the oxygen that other creatures on the planet need to breathe. “We must protect all primary forests and old specimens, everything that remains of ancestral forest,” he says. This, together with another mantra that he also preaches, reducing meat consumption, is “the best thing we can do” against the climate emergency. “In the Montreal agreement it was said that 30% of the landscape should be protected in the next seven years. And it is not happening like that. We need more wild nature,” he insists, recalling that 80% of the land is used to produce animal food. For him, deforestation is a land management issue. Pure civilizational confusion.
The FAO estimates that the planet loses 3.3 million hectares of forest per year. In Spain, the figures are more alarming, with a 33.6% increase in deforestation since the 1990s. Is Spain lawless territory for those with chainsaws? Antonio Ruiz Salgado, specialized in environmental law, remembers that in Spain there is no integrative vision of people’s relationship with trees: “The anthropocentric and utilitarian perspective is still very present in the view of trees and plants.” The corpus of laws barely makes room for the protection of some unique trees or certain spaces, within the Natura Network or in national parks. The national laws, the Natural Heritage and Biodiversity Law and the Forestry Law, do not provide for the protection of unique trees but do prohibit “the cutting, burning, uprooting or disabling of tree or shrubby specimens of forest species.” Regional regulations do provide for the inventory and protection of unique trees. In the cities, they can be considered better protected than in the countryside and the penalties include prison time. In rural areas, despite forest laws and different regional regulations, deforestation is cheap.
The only option to save ecosystems considered vital would be to “exclude them from the category of commodities,” says Ignacio Bachmann, an expert in environmental law. Listening to these lawyers, one gets the feeling that each forest is a disappearing territory. That we have to say goodbye to the trees until they disappear. While countries like Ecuador, with its “Pachamama law,” require full respect for the existence and evolutionary processes of the Earth, the rest of the planet’s primary forests fall with impunity to make way for extensive crops or, even worse, artificial forests of industrial species such as fir, pine or eucalyptus. Wohlleben is blunt: “We must ban artificial tree plantations. They are species that burn easily. It’s as if to protect houses from collapse, we tear them down. Crazy.” The forester insists that humanity’s problem is not being able to see. For him, we are in the era of the “great discovery”, since only 15% of species are known. We do not know most of the fungi and bacteria that are key to life.
A glance at international law barely finds any recognition of the value of entire ecosystems, from microorganisms to fungi, save for Evo Morales’ Rights of Mother Earth or New Zealand’s approaches. Meanwhile, as Wohlleben criticizes, planting trees is fashionable, but sponsored in the shadows by the logging industries, which introduce non-native or genetically modified species. And it’s not about planting, but about leaving trees alone. Even if they try to contain warming to about two degrees, undisturbed forests can do even better by creating their own microclimate and low-pressure zones that attract rainfall: “Precipitation does not decrease in large natural forests, but when they are replaced by grasses or agricultural landscapes, they can decrease by up to 90%,” says Wohlleben.
As long as a logger continues to find it easy to cut down anonymous trees and manage the forest with no other perspective than an extractive one, the lawyer Bachmann remembers an ancestral saying of the Mapuche Indians that perhaps will resonate with humans of the future: “People are part of the Earth, but the Earth does not belong to the people.”
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