PARIS, Nov 28, 2011 (IPS) – When firefighters arrived to put out a blaze that was engulfing the home of Elise Inversin on the French island of Corsica, the 66-year-old grandmother told firemen to forget about her house and save a neighbouring 900-year-old Mastic tree. The house could be rebuilt, she said.
Inversin traveled from Corsica to Paris last week to receive a Tree of the Year prize on behalf of her beloved Mastic (or pistacia lentiscus), which beat 25 other trees in a competition to mark the closing weeks of the United Nations’ International Year of Forests in 2011.
“All I want now is for this tree to be recognised so that it can be protected for generations to come,” Inversin told IPS. “It has meant a lot to me and my family but it will outlast us, so the mayor’s office now has the responsibility to protect it.”
Launched by France’s first nature magazine ‘Terre Sauvage’ in association with the National Forests Office (ONF), the inaugural Tree of the Year contest asked the public to nominate the country’s most remarkable trees based on beauty, history, biodiversity and their significance to the people around them.
Individuals and community groups recommended hundreds of trees, in areas from Alsace to Martinique, and voters finally chose 26 to represent the regions of France. They included a massive 1,600-year-old yew in Normandy, and a sprawling, gnarled 1,400-year-old juniper that grows at an altitude of 1,100 meters in the Alps.
The organisers said they had to “suppress” false voting that sought to increase numbers through “computer pirating”, but a jury selected the Mastic as the overall winner.
The jury also gave a special “prix du public” to another tree: a 200-year-old, 18-metre-high Pedunculate Oak that grows in Brittany. And organisers of the contest welcomed a “guest honoree” as well, a thousand- year-old oak of Palestine, known as the Oak of Sharafat. Photos of all these trees now adorn a part of the fence around the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) here.
The competition was not just a green beauty pageant, however. Its aim was to highlight the importance of trees in the world, and the “alarming” rate at which forests are disappearing.
According to the United Nations, about 13 million hectares of forests are disappearing each year around the globe, mainly in tropical regions. The livelihoods of some 1.6 billion people are at stake, and some of the 300 million people that call forests home could become environmental refugees.
Deforestation also contributes to global warming, being responsible for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The FAO says that South America and Africa had the highest net annual loss of forests from 2000 to 2010, with four and 3.4 million hectares respectively. In Africa, the destruction of forests has led to reduced rainfall, contributing to the current drought. The FAO has started several replanting projects in an attempt to make land fertile again.
In Asia, ambitious replanting programmes in countries such as India and China have slowed deforestation, but the rate is still nearly 3 percent annually, the FAO says. In Malaysia forests are disappearing at nearly three times the combined Asian rate.
In France, forests cover more than 30 percent of the land surface, and the mission of the National Forests Office is to protect these regions as well as those in the country’s overseas territories such as French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique and Guadeloupe. It’s not an easy task, says Hervé Gaymard, president of ONF’s board of directors.
“The work for the sustainable management of these forests is very varied and wide-ranging because there’s really nothing in common in the management of forests in mainland France and in Guiana, for instance,” he told IPS.
He said the ONF was active “on the diplomatic front” in the protection of tropical forests, fighting against the trade in “Africa’s precious wood” especially in the Congo basin.
Gaymard said deforestation was not a real problem in France. But some of the country’s old trees are at risk, say environmentalists. For instance, in the Forest of Compiègne, about 50 kilometres from Paris, there is a 750-year-old oak tree known as the Chêne de Saint-Jean that has a huge gaping hole in its trunk. The hole was reportedly caused by a fire that a group of scouts started a few years ago to get rid of wasps.
“We try to do the best we can, but we cannot have a policeman beside every tree to protect it,” Gaymard told IPS. “Trees sometimes get hurt through malfeasance.”
Inversin of Corsica says that protecting the world’s forests starts with seeing and respecting individual trees. “You have to see the trees to save the forests,” she said. “When I told the firemen to save (the Mastic), it was a spontaneous reaction. I didn’t have time to think about it. But I know how many lives this tree has touched.” (END)