Forest Medicine, Micro and Macro Doses

Living in Bali, it can be easy to forget urban life. We take our constant access to gardens, trees, rice fields and forests for granted.

There are plenty of studies to support our instinctive awareness that we feel better when near nature. Yet humans have never been so far from merging with the natural world or so divorced from nature. By 2050, 66% of the world’s population will be living in cities. The health of urban dwellers will continue to decline due to increasingly sedentary occupations and lifestyles, mental stress related to urban living and contemporary work practices and hazardous urban environmental conditions such as crowding, heat, stress, and noise and air-pollution.

In the west we’re beginning to hear about forest therapy. Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term that means ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ or ‘forest bathing.’ Developed in Japan during the 1980s, it’s become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers in Japan and South Korea have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest. These include boosted immune system function, reduced blood pressure and stress, improved mood, sleep and energy levels, faster recovery from illness or surgery and increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD.

This is not exercise, hiking or jogging but simply being quietly in nature, connecting with it through our senses. No phones, no camera, no devices. Follow your nose, your ears, your eyes. You’re not going anywhere. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Breathe in the fragrance of the forest. Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Expand your senses. Take an hour. Take two. There are still plenty of forests in Bali. You don’t even need a forest. Once you’ve learned how to do it, you can do shinrin-yoku anywhere – in a nearby park or in your own garden.

Finding a forest to bathe in may be increasingly challenging. The definition of a forest is a large area covered chiefly with trees and undergrowth. We are rapidly losing them. Greed drives deforestation. Wood is valuable. Land is valuable. We’ve all seen the statistics and maps of devastating forest loss. In 2017 alone, for example, Earth lost about 39 million acres (15.8 million hectares) of tropical tree cover, which is like losing 40 football fields of trees every minute for a year.

Melting icecaps and glaciers, massive forest fires, increasing temperatures and rising sea levels… we are in big, probably irreversible, trouble. Young people have rightly forced our attention to their damaged birthright. By confronting collective denial, Extinction Rebellion has kicked new energy into finding solutions. Suddenly, it seems, people are realizing the importance of trees, lots of trees. Not just for our psychological wellbeing in forest bathing, but as imperative elements in saving the planet as we know it.

In 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests stated that forests represent one of the largest, most cost-effective climate solutions available today. We desperately need trees, and they are being cut down much faster than they’re being replanted. Trees sequester carbon, provide a habitat for animals, purify water sources, control flooding and erosion, maintain water tables and help to replenish the soil with nutrients needed for farming. They are also the source of non-timber forest products for local people such as honey, fruits and nuts, vegetables, fish and game, medicinal plants, resins, essences and a range of barks and fibres such as bamboo, rattans and a host of other palms and grasses. Eighty percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests. Planting canopy trees in cities brings temperatures down.

Politicians are waking up to the potential of ‘natural climate solutions’ – reforestation and other ecological restoration. Global forests are estimated to hold more CO2 than the atmosphere. According to a study from the University of Oxford, trees are the best technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fix it into soils and biomass, reversing global warming. Half a tree’s biomass is carbon which remains stored, acting as a ‘carbon sink’, unless the tree decays or is burned.

Widespread reforestation could provide 37% of the greenhouse gas mitigation required to provide a better chance of stabilising global heating below the critical 2C threshold.

In March the United Nations announced a Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and has set a target to restore 350m hectares – an area bigger than India – by 2030. Countries like India and China are pledging to plant millions of hectares of trees. Whether or not this actually happens remains to be seen.

It’s not all bad news. According to the World Resources Institute report in February 2019, Indonesia was a rare bright spot in the otherwise bleak landscape of 2017 tree cover loss. While most countries in the tropics contributed to another year of record-breaking losses, Indonesia experienced a 60 percent drop in primary forest loss compared to 2016. This program was financially supported by Norway.

The Indonesian government has strengthened forest protection through new policies and enhanced enforcement. For example, a 2016 presidential regulation imposed a moratorium on the commercial development of carbon-rich peat lands even in areas already licensed for conversion to oil palm or timber plantations.

Mangroves are a critical part of the tropical ecosystem. They protect human communities from coastal floods, filter river flows out to sea and prevent soil washing into the ocean and destroying coral reefs. They serve as important nurseries for juvenile fish. Most importantly, perhaps, studies suggest they can sequester four times more carbon than rainforest.

In the last three decades Indonesia has lost over 40% of its mangrove forests. This affects not only the environment and the species that rely on them but also the communities that depend on this ecosystem for survival. Eden Reforestation Projects is working with local villagers on Biak Island in Papua to restore, replant, and protect mangrove forest systems. The Eden team in Biak planted almost 2,500,000 mangroves in the first year of the project.

Those of us lucky enough to have land under our stewardship can plant trees on it. If we can’t plant trees ourselves, we can support one of the excellent reforestation projects like TreeSisters or WeForest.

Don’t just sit there, plant something!

By Ibu Kat
Copyright © 2019 Greenspeak
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