Forests and people

With today's modern cities and their urban sprawl, it is sometimes easy to forget about mankind's relationship with the forest and the different ways in which we still rely on it.

Woman collecting cork planks during harvest. Portugal
© Sebastian Rich / WWF


A stormy relationship

Humankind's earliest home is under threat worldwide. Plants and tree species which have been around for millions of years face an uncertain future due to unsustainable use.
Evolution of humans

It is widely believed that early human species evolved in and around the African rainforests roughly 4 million years ago. The forest offered them food in the form of plants and animals, and water.

After the discovery of fire, wood was used for burning, and later on for making tools. As life evolved, humans started clearing land for agriculture and to set up more and more advanced settlements.

Today, the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people depend on forests and almost all forests on Earth are inhabited. Large scale agricultural conversion can have significant impacts on communities dependent on the forest, destroying critical stocks of fuel, fodder, food and building materials.
 / ©: Brent Stirton / Getty Images
Members of the Digo people sing a traditional song as part of the Kaya Kinondo ecotourism project. Kaya Kinondo is one of the sacred forests scattered along the coast in Kenya; a remnant of the coastal forest that once formed a fringe of green stretching from Somalia in the North to South Africa. It is home to the Digo people who build homes deep in the forest. Their culture is based around individual trees and the forest itself.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images

An emotional bond?

Human beings and forests have always had a complex relationship.

We have depended on forests as long as we have inhabited the planet – getting clean air to breathe, food and water from it, fuel, shade and shelter, and now we need it for economic gain as well.

Early humans were known to worship trees, and even today, in some parts of the world, forests are regarded as places of awe, with spirits attributed to be living there.

The worship of forests, plants and animals, and appeasing of animal and tree spirits are still quite common in some cultures, and the forest is treated with the kind of respect reserved for divine objects.

Yet we have been taking continuously from the forest to feed the ever – growing need for wood, and wood and non-wood products, to provide land for the burgeoning population for housing and cultivation.
 / ©: Fritz Pölking / WWF
The ancient forests of Europe, most of which are now gone, played a strong role in folklore as have trees and forests in cultural myths around the world. Bayerischer Wald National Park, Bavaria, Germany.
© Fritz Pölking / WWF

WWF's work

The forests of the world are under severe threat. Early humans were hunter-gatherers, and later farmers, and because the population was small, the impact on the environment was minimal.

But in the past couple of thousand years, the growing demands of an ever increasing human population has halved the Earth's original forest cover. Deforestation continues at an alarming rate with around 13 million hectares of forest converted or lost each year.

WWF works with local communities to help conserve forests. Often, indigenous people use traditional methods to sustainably manage natural resources, with vital knowledge passed from generation to generation. WWF works with these groups on projects around the world. For example:

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The perfect partnership?

People of the Mediterranean have been working with the endangered cork forests for hundreds of years.

These forests cover nearly 2.7 million hectares across Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia and France. The harvesting of cork oak offers the perfect model for sustainable land use. As these forests provide a vital source of income for thousands of people they are in turn protected and looked after by local people.

The cork forests also offer vital habitat to other species such as Iberian lynx, Iberian imperial eagle, the barbary deer and play a key role in maintaining watersheds, preventing erosion and keeping soils healthy.

Graphic of a cork stopper as the stem of a tree. / ©: WWF
Put a cork in it! Help support the cork forests by purchasing wine with cork stoppers rather than screw top or plastic stoppers.

Did you know?

    • Around 10 million people are employed in forest management and conservation.
    • Brazil has designated more than one fifth of its forest area for protection of culture and way of life for forest-dependent people.

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