Brandon Hamber is a South African living in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is Director of INCORE, an associate site of the United Nations University based at the University of Ulster. He is also Visiting Professor of Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand.firstname.lastname@example.org
Back in 2001, infamous tough politician from Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, admitted that he liked hugging trees. At the time, he noted: “Hugging trees has a calming affect on me. I’m talking about enormous trees that will be there when we are all dead and gone.”
This week, I was amusingly accused of being a tree hugger after I circulated a petition to save a forest in Northern Ireland known as the Prehen woodland.
By global standards, this forest is minuscule. The remaining tract of forest in Prehen, just outside Derry, covers 18.5 acres, compared to the 1.7-billion acres of the Amazon forest basin.
But this small forest is also unique. It is an ancient woodland with trees dating back to the 1600s and is one of the few ancient woodlands left on the island of Ireland. One of the last colonies of indigenous red squirrels lives in the forest and it offers local people a green area on the edge of the city.
Nonetheless, the local government and planners still allow continued encroachment on the forest, giving developers licence to chop down ageless trees to build luxury homes. The developers then have the gall to advertise the new homes as located in a forest setting.
The savagery the officials have allowed on this tiny forest over the years is disgraceful, but is also part of a bigger global problem.
Forests cover about 30% of the world’s land area. But deforestation continues at an alarming rate. Logging, mining, housing and the planting of crops for grazing, besides other practices, destroy 4 500 acres of forest worldwide every hour, according to the United Nations. It is estimated that 18-million acres of the world’s forests is lost each year.
Experts estimate that, within 40 years, the last remaining rainforests could be consumed. This will have a devastating effect on the global climate and the 1.6- billion people who rely on forest products for all or part of their livelihoods.
Yet those who fight to roll back this destruction, like veteran local Prehen campaigner George McLaughlin, are generally dismissed as troublemakers by the planning authorities while, globally, corporations and governments turn a blind eye for a quick buck or financial support for their next election campaign.
Given the gargantuan annihilation of trees around the planet, should I, or anyone for that matter, care about the Prehen woodland in Northern Ireland?
Of course, we should. We need to challenge the human delusions I have seen in relation to forest annihilation. When it comes to vast forests like the Amazon, we are tricked into thinking they are too big to be completely wiped out. When it comes to small forests like the Prehen woodland, we think they are too insignificant to matter.
However, not caring about the Prehen woodland, or any other, is like saying the extinction of a specific species of insect is not important because there are lots of other insects in the world. But, like an extinct species, once this ancient woodland is gone, you cannot grow it back.
Adams claims he likes hugging trees because he knows they will be there long after he is gone. Well, in this case, he might be wrong.
When will the authorities in Northern Ireland wake up to the reality staring them in the face? Or will they continue to sell their resources to the highest bidder for some short-term gain, just like many others worldwide?
Given the record of government and the planners in relation to the Prehen woodland and internationally, there is little prospect. But each day I hope, just as my financial adviser is prone to say, past performance is not always an indicator of future performance and, perhaps, someone with the power to stop the wanton destruction of forests like the Prehen woodland will stand up and have the courage to say: “No more.”