The Global Impact of Forests

People in the UK are starting to take an awful lot more interest in where their goods come from, demanding that we know as much as possible about the provenance of our food, and making our choices accordingly. Most now know that eating free-range eggs and chicken at least shows you care that animals aren't tortured so we can eat.

My first expedition in Borneo with the BBC in 2006, remains the most edgy and physically demanding thing I've done in television. Over the course of a week, myself, cameraman Johnny Rogers and climbing partner Tim Fogg slogged our way up a jungle ridgeline that had never before been ascended, at times progressing no more than 10 metres an hour. On two separate occasions, Johnny fell, and was only saved from certain death by an out-thrown hand clasping at the front of his shirt. Finally when we got onto vertical rock above the trees, I pulled off a boulder the size of a fridge freezer, and missed braining Tim by mere inches. Hours later, we reached the top as conquering heroes, striding onto terrain never before charted by human beings... only for Johnny to discover an old cigarette packet and a soggy sock on the summit.

It turned out that illegal loggers who were rampaging across the country had got there first. I've never felt so utterly despondent in my life. However, the moment didn't contend with the horror at encountering gigantic trucks, stacked with ancient rare ironwood trees, each one the size of Nelson's column, or with the sadness of flying over Borneo in a light aircraft. Only a decade before, I had done the same flights, and seen below me nothing but endless jungle, ripe for exploration. Ten years of furious logging, and the landscape was now either palm oil plantations, or charred smoking dark wastelands, like those left behind by the exploding alien at the end of Predator.

There are many ways in which this generation is more educated, and making better choices than those that have gone before. Responsible and ethical products have become big business. People in the UK are starting to take an awful lot more interest in where their goods come from, demanding that we know as much as possible about the provenance of our food, and making our choices accordingly. Most now know that eating free-range eggs and chicken at least shows you care that animals aren't tortured so we can eat.

We know that products containing palm oil are leading to the devastation of Asian forests, and that buying out of season fruit and veg from New Zealand incurs a hefty carbon penalty. Much beyond that and it starts to get too depressing, and you start to wonder if there is anything we can actually munch on without feeling guilty; or without mortgaging off a kidney to buy fair-trade bunny-hugging organic food. However, at least the information is out there; much of it has to be on the packaging by law, and we are slowly learning how to interpret these labels. Many still stuff their faces with veal in Beluga caviar, but hopefully they don't enjoy it half as much, knowing their liberal waiter has just spat in their foie gras.

So, food, we are making slow but definitive progress with, but there is another issue that is even more damaging, and we Brits are a big part of the problem. Deforestation sadly wasn't solved by Sting in the 80s. The planet loses an area of forest the size of England every year, a football field-sized area every two seconds. While much of that is from slash and burn clearance for crops, Forestry is a massive part of it. We get 60% of our wood products from outside of the UK, 14.3billion pounds worth in 2013 alone, and a disturbingly high proportion of that wood and fibre has been illegally harvested. Demand for this wood is set to triple by 2050, and unless we do something massive now, then we can kiss goodbye to our planet's greatest natural resource. 'Noooooooo!!!!!' I hear you all cry, 'not something else we have to be all worthy and perpetually guilty about'! Well, read on, because this one has an easy solution, and we get to feel good about ourselves at the end.

Here is the point in the article where I'd normally wax lyrical about the paradise of the tropical rainforest, and how we should all want to save them for the wonder of standing in the gargantuan magnificence of a green cathedral, whooping gibbons hooting across the misty canopy, hornbills and toucans swooping between fig trees blah blah blah. Truth is, I spend several months of every year in jungles, and trust me, it's not always a verdant, glorious Eden. Many forests are vile bug-ridden hells for humans. I've spent weeks in sweat-soaked alluvial mangrove swamps where you need a suit of armour to deter the mosquitoes, tropical sweatboxes with crotch rot and Great War calibre trench foot, and cloud forests where you bounce hourly from soaking icy rain to furious humidity with nothing in between. I'd never suggest we should preserve forests simply so we can enjoy them.

Apart from anything else, tourists could make do with tiny remnant rainforests, little more than I'm a Celebrity jungle theme parks. But our planet cannot make do. The burning of our forests is one of the most potent contributors to climate change, and air pollution. I was in Southeast Asia in 1997 when the great burnings turned the air to smog over more than a million square miles, reducing visibility to metres for months, costing billions in respiratory illnesses. Living trees are the lungs of our planet. Remove them, and risk feedback loops that could send us spiraling into the climate change abyss. We all need sustainable and conscientious forestry, illegal logging affects everyone.

But all that seems a long way away, do we Brits really care? Well a recent nationwide poll showed that we probably do. While 79% of us assume erroneously that things like cards and furniture came from a well-managed forest, 78% also said they wouldn't buy from a manufacturer that sold products that led to forest destruction. Obviously what people say, and what they do are different things, but a whopping 87% said they would support a change in the law that prevented companies selling products from illegally logged timber. And there lies the rub.

My original ramble about food pinpoints something difficult about consumers and choices. It takes time to educate consumers about the issues. To then expect them to have the time and money to make the right choices... It's what grammatically-creative modernists would call; 'A big ask'. Surely a better option would be to take the decision out of our hands, let governments make those decisions, compel big business to make ethical choices, and then we all reap the benefits. Again to borrow from sickening vernacular; 'simples'. WWF's #saveforests campaign has powerful advocates, and is attempting to nudge our government to take action to both require and help businesses 'do the right thing' and make sure all the wood in the products they trade in are made from legal and sustainable sources.

I'm not going to go into the boring details here, if you are reading this article, you have the internet and can find out for yourself. However it's already starting to work. I recently sat at a meeting chaired by Prince Charles, where some of our biggest supermarkets, DIY chains and publishers pledged to take action to only source their timber from reputable sources. Suffice to say, if we go all out NOW, and make sure all businesses are doing the right thing, then we will be able to spend the rest of our lives without feeling guilty about where every bit of wood, paper or cardboard has come from. It's a 'No Brainer'.

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If you want to read more about my expeditions, both the triumphant and the disastrous, then my next book Mountain is out in Orion publishers in September.

Steve Backshall's Wild World tour is nationwide from 15 October-15 November 2015. For dates and tickets please visit

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