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The silky oak (Grevillea robusta), resistant to wood rot, has long been prized in furniture-making.
© FAO/Luis Tato

Foundation of past and future

Forests have sustained society and the economy for millennia and will continue to do so.

Trees of life

Timber for housing and shelter. Fruit, berries and bark for sustenance and health. Wood for heating and cooking, shipbuilding, and arts and crafts. Without trees, there would be no society as we know it. And the more society advances technologically, the more apparent its innate connection to the forest, and the more evident the related benefits.

Recognizing an unbreakable link to human existence, Indigenous Peoples have long bestowed the “tree of life” honorific on local species of vital significance. In southern Africa, it is the baobab (Adansonia sp.), with its nutrient-packed “superfruit” that ripens even when all else is dry. For the Kakawaka’wakw people of British Columbia, it is the western redcedar (Thuja plicata), with its reliability for roofing and construction. The Hawaiian koa (Acacia koa), now one of the world’s most valuable species, and the neem of India (Azadirachta indica), with its antiseptic properties, also bear this distinction. Much traditional wisdom about trees is borne out by modern science. Quinine, extracted from the bark of the cinchona (Cinchona calisaya), has been used to treat malaria, lupus and arthritis. Overall, the United States Forest Service estimates that 40 percent of patent medicines in current use are derived from plants, including the top 20 prescription drugs sold by US chemists.

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Forest product data: the roots of sustainability

As a changing climate mandates the slashing of carbon emissions, natural solutions such as agroforestry can help feed the planet while sustaining ecosystems. And as researchers delve deeper into the properties that give wood its strength and versatility, new forest products will revolutionize our cities and energy systems. Mass timber will construct wooden skyscrapers. Lignin will power electric vehicles.

More sustainable management of forests and smarter use, consumption and reuse of forest products will contribute to the kind of future that we at FAO express as “the four betters”: better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life.

This leap will be powered by data. Data reveal where policies are succeeding or need improving. Data may tell us if, where and how the manufacturing of forest products is lifting communities out of poverty and fostering opportunities for trade. Data could help us ascertain that products are sustainably sourced rather than criminally trafficked. In short, better data accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), humanity’s blueprint for a more resilient and equitable future.

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