Podium discussion: The value of forests

Start Date & Time: 15/11/2017 6:00 pm

End: 15/11/2017 9:00 pm

Different views on the value of forests, in an evening with a lively exchange and insights.



On November 15, 2107,  Reforestation World and our partner Sustinova organised a panel discussion on the value of forests. Thanks to our panel experts and the attendants, we had a lively exchange with interesting insights from different perspectives, which are presented below.

After the opening remarks by the founder of Reforestation World, our moderator and guest speakers took us through different questions as seen by science, politics, business and NGOs. Due to the overall length of the discussion, we’ve selected and summarized some of the key points. The full session included many more interesting details and questions, presented in the audio record and the transcript of the main discussion. Both are available below in German, the language of the event.

Our appreciation goes to the Sustinova team for co-organising the event and, in particular, to Jessica Fenger for preparing the notes during and after the event, with editorial support from Paulo Morais.


  • Opening Remarks by the Founder of Reforestation World, Verena Guran-Fierz (En/De)
  • Key Points (En/De)
  • Transcript + Audio recording (De only)

Panel members:

  • NGO: Loredana Sorg, Program manager, Stiftung Biovision (external link)
  • Research: Andreas Rigling, Head of Research Unit Forest Dynamics, WSL (external link)
  • Politics: Thomas Wirth, Kantonsrat Zürich, Grünliberale (external link)
  • Business: Petra Heid,Head of Sustainability, Chocolats Halba (external link)
  • Moderated by Olivia Bosshart, KION (external link)

“Thank you for joining us tonight.

I would like to briefly describe how Reforestation World came into existence. We were able to present ourselves for the first time during the “Going Wild” event in September 2017 at the Zürich Zoo (Facebook link). We invited those visiting our stand to draw a tree and choose an organisation from our list, so we would have a real tree planted with them.

2003 was one of the first unnaturally hot Summers. At the time, I read an article at the NZZ (Neuer Zürcher Zeitung) about so-called carbon sinks, regions where more CO2 is captured than released into the atmosphere. All these regions were forests. As such, I came to believe that we could compensate the global CO2 emissions with forests. The loss of forests, animals and plants in the last 60 years has reached a historically unparalleled level. Population numbers and the need for resources keep on increasing. Since a large number of people cook with wood, which releases CO2, the destruction of Nature, desertification and water scarcity keep on advancing. Zoological and botanical gardens can work hard to protect species, but this becomes irrelevant if their natural habitats are lost.

Erosion by wind and flash floods, amplified by a lack of plant cover, floods and increasing temperature are other problems to contend with. The temperature difference between a bare, rocky surface and a forested area can reach 20 degrees. Since the ruined forests cannot regrow with human help, except in the unpopulated northern regions, the situation will become increasingly worse.. But it is possible to recover these lost forests!

Since NGOs seem to have little collaboration with each other and occupy themselves mostly with sustaining people but not their natural resources, I founded the internet portal Reforestation World. Now maintained together with Paulo Morais and Sustinova, this portal allows organisations in this field to present themselves, exchange experiences, divulge forestation efforts and attract supporters.

CO2 as such is not bad; it is the food for the growth of plants. However, it is in the wrong place, in the air instead of in the soil and plant cover. Even though a growing forest retains a huge amount of Co2, I hardly hear the word “tree” in any of the expensive climate conferences. With the money that is spent there, it would be possible to re-green the entire Sahel region! If you look at the photos of the organisations we list, you can see the tremendous work ahead of us to overcome this catastrophe.

For now, we want to listen to what our guest speakers have to say on these topics. Thank you.”

Olivia Bosshart: What do we mean when we talk about forests?

Andreas Rigling: From a scientific perspective, it’s necessary to first define which type of forest we are talking about as there are many different types . In Europe, we have mostly secondary forests with some plantations and very few primary forests. There are however almost no virgin, old-growth forests left.

Thomas Wirth: In everyday life, in the Swiss context, forests are seen by most people as a recreational space. In Swiss politics, forests remain a marginal topic. Under the Swiss Forest Law, these have a protected status and cannot be cleared (Rodungsverbot). However, since the forested area has been growing and there is an interest in preserving agricultural land, the discussion about how much forest can be converted into urban areas is becoming more frequent.

Petra Heid: For me, forests are the source of the cocoa plant, originally from the Amazon area and adjusted to highly diverse ecosystems. This was the case for centuries but, when you look at the current production systems, they have nothing to do with forests.

OB: What is the value of forests in your field of work?

AR: 32% of Switzerland’s surface is covered with forests. Forests are a key element of the landscape and – together with the mountains and nice villages – part of the national identity. They are a living space for animals, plant and people and a regular place of recovery and leisure for many inhabitants. Forests also filter 40% of Switzerland’s potable water and protect from natural hazards (landslides, avalanches, erosion, etc.), a central issue here. In addition, they remove carbon dioxide and reduce the amount of pollutants and dust in the air, purifying it while producing oxygen. And last but not least, they produce wood, one of the few renewable resources of Switzerland. Each of us has a different perception, a different requirement, and part of the challenge is to reconcile all these.

Loredana Sorg: In the regions of East Africa where Biovision works, people live in and from forests. This makes it hard to protect forests without giving people a direct advantage. Forests are very valuable for them and the basis of their existence: a source of food, firewood, work and also a space of leisure.

OB: For some people, forests are more valuable when they’re gone. What is your view on this?

PH: Currently, there are circa 10million ha of cocoa plantations around the world, mostly in equatorial regions where rainforests used to exist. This replacement was not direct however. Originally, these forests were explored for precious woods by colonial powers. This allowed the intensification of cocoa cultivation: where cocoa trees already existed, new ones were planted. Over time, these clearings were expanded and cultivation became a monoculture, leading to the current tragic situation. The lack of biodiversity is not an advantage, neither for the plant nor for us. In our business as a chocolate producer, we work to bring back diversity and forest into the cultivation of cocoa.

TW: If I had to quantify the global value of forests, it would simple: priceless. We all depend on it. It’s the largest producer of oxygen, without which we don’t exist. But politics is usually more focused on local issues and even though questions about ecosystem services come up, these are not followed through. It often seems that forests are taken as God-given.

OB: Do we have any reason to be concerned about the state of forests?

AR: Globally, it’s correct to say that forests are decreasing strongly but, sometimes, some other type of forest replaces them. Still, one has to consider that it’s not the same to replace forests with palm oil plantations or removing old-growth forests and let secondary ones grow over time. Clearing primary forests, with 800- or 900-year old trees like in the coast of British Columbia or the Amazon, also changes the soil itself and the whole system. Some of these can take up to 1000 years to recover fully.
There are also regional differences: China planted the so-called Green Wall, the largest forestation effort worldwide, to combat massive erosion problems; still, most tropical and sub-tropical forests elsewhere remain under immense pressure.
But Loredana’s (LS) point is important: you cannot decide without involving the local people since they are the ones that live there and depend on the forest.

OB: Who can do what, in concrete terms? In your area of work, who can have some impact?

LS: This is a complex point. Biovision does not produce and is not a business. We depend on the farmers and the local interests to advance. Despite seeing the problem and the will to collaborate, not everyone is on board. We propose alternatives to “business as usual”, link with science and other actors and bring local solutions to global issues. “Long-term” is a challenge, especially when people cannot count on their dinner that same day, so we work to build a secure outlook. The political dimension is also critical to secure results: we worked for about 10 years with a village to protect their forest. In 3 days, all was cleared when lumbering was approved – and nothing could be done about it.

PH: The needs of small farmers must be understood and addressed, also politically. The (lack of) land rights and the short-time horizon of farmers need to be incorporated in any concept. For example, we integrate long-term plantations with food crops so both dimensions can be addressed.

TW: Politics is a central dimension of the discussion and responsible for setting the conditions so that a forest becomes more valuable than a non-forest. Otherwise, deforestation is just a natural consequence of the system.

AR: In addition to the clearing of forests, there is also wood production to consider. It’s not a black and white issue and a global perspective needs to be linked with local solutions. The demand for wood increases worldwide and we have to consider where and how it is produced. Switzerland, for example, is not self-sufficient despite being a model case of forest management. An ecologically sustainable production is necessary to guarantee the resource and biodiversity protection goals.

OB: Last question: what can we do as individuals, so that the current situation does not worsen?

PH: It is important to know which businesses take their responsibility serious and which do not. External certifications and auditing are important. Cheap chocolate cannot exclude child labour or the destruction of protected forests and the chocolate industry is also responsible for this. The business has options to implement; the consumer should know where the product comes from and demand transparency.

TW: In the Canton of Zürich, public petitions have to be addressed by law but the response to these is not always very smart. Since we can’t influence politics in other countries, we are left with our role as consumers. One can buy certified products but should be critical of labels, which have their own challenge: if they’re too stringent, no one fulfils them; if they’re too easy, they’re useless.

AR: When buying wood products, I always choose certified products and local materials whenever possible. However, local wood production has to be ecologically integrated; it would be a mistake to put it above everything else.

LS: Sustainable consumption is very important, as was said. Supporting NGOs and choosing politicians that address these issues is also important. Above all, it is necessary that people, adults and kids, go out and enjoy the forest. Building an emotional connection to the forest increases the interest in protecting them.

Note: Please note that this section is only available in German, the language of the event. Some of the content was edited for clarity or partly summarized, due to the overall duration of the session.
The audio record includes all the details except for the initial introduction, which could not be properly recorded.

The location:

The event will be hosted as a podium session, with a Q&A session and aperitif.

The Volkshaus is easily accessible with public transportation.

External links: