Humanity has been receiving warning signs for some time that our home, the Earth, is in peril. The concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) is increasing and the global average temperature is rising. Thousands of species are threatened with extinction. Vast areas of land have become degraded, ten million hectares of forest are being cleared each year, and more than 800 million people are malnourished.

Lately we have received another message from the planet – the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it is unclear how this disease transferred from animals to humans, it is not the first zoonotic disease to emerge recently, and scientists say it will not be the last. There are strong links between disease emergence and major ecosystem alterations such as deforestation.

The combination of the pandemic and the obvious signs of global warming – such as increases in storm intensity, droughts, and wildfires – has opened the eyes of almost everyone to the huge risks posed by ecological imbalance. It has become apparent that we need greener, more sustainable pathways to avoid destroying the future, not only for those who will come after us, but maybe even for ourselves.

We know we need to change but – so far – we have failed to change enough.

This was the prevailing view at the XV World Forestry Congress, co-organized by the Republic of Korea and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), which was held last week in Seoul. The Congress was the world’s biggest-ever gathering (online and in person) of forest stakeholders from governments, industry, scientists, students, Indigenous Peoples, environmentalists, and smallholders.

Despite the wide diversity of views expressed, the Congress outcome, the Seoul Forest Declaration, highlights strong consensus that forests, trees, and forestry can help restore the Earth’s environmental balance. The Declaration also underlines the huge potential of forests to drive forward the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, helping achieve the SDGs, including life on land (Goal 15), climate action (Goal 13), good health and well-being (Goal 3), sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11), responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), no poverty (Goal 1), and zero hunger (Goal 2).

Forestry has always been about sustainability, the basic notion of which is to use a resource without destroying it. Given the dangerous path we are on at the moment, it seems obvious that this notion should guide us, not only in forestry but in everything we do.

The principles of sustainable forest management (SFM) need to be applied beyond forests in the quest to develop greener, more circular bioeconomies. We are convinced we have lessons to share with other sectors.

But forestry should also learn from other sectors and work with them in forest landscapes. Restoring millions of hectares of degraded lands with trees and other forest plants will provide more habitat for wildlife, protect water catchments, boost agricultural productivity, and capture and store carbon.

When sustainably produced, wood (and many other forest products) is renewable, recyclable, climate friendly and incredibly versatile. It has the potential to transform the building sector, provide sustainable renewable energy, and help us move towards a more circular bioeconomy.

Healthy, well-managed forests also decrease the risk of outbreaks of infectious diseases and have measurable psychological benefits.

Achieving such positive outcomes and rebalancing our relationship with nature will require fundamental changes in thinking, attitudes, and economic systems.

In existing economic systems, financial returns may always be higher from agriculture than forests. But structural changes in the way agriculture and forests are financed could help increase agricultural production while also increasing forest cover. The Congress recognized the enormous potential of such “green” financing to benefit the environment, people on the land, and investors.

Indigenous and traditional forest knowledge and customary governance systems have been overlooked or overridden in the past, and scientific research is chronically underfunded. Yet combining traditional and scientific knowledge will be essential for managing landscapes sustainably in an era of rapid change. We will never cease to need more information and knowledge and to apply it well.

We all depend on forest goods and services in some way. Healthy forests, therefore, should be everyone’s expectation and responsibility. Governments and international organizations have important roles to play in ensuring a sustainable future with forests, but on-the-ground action must be locally based – among the women, men, and youth living in rural areas, villages, towns, and cities across the planet.

Inspiring examples abound. The Republic of Korea, which hosted the Congress, was largely denuded of forests in the 1960s and suffered from appalling erosion, a loss of water quality, and declining agricultural productivity. Today, after an extraordinary whole-of-nation effort, the country has doubled its forest cover while enhancing food security and producing an enviable quality of life for its citizens.

There are millions of individual examples as well, such as the latest winner of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) Wangari Maathai Forest Champions Award, the Cameroonian activist Cécile Ndjebet, who has spent more than three decades promoting women’s involvement in forest management and equal rights for women to forest land and resources.

This is the way we will make the changes needed to avoid catastrophe. Collectively, we have enormous power to restore planetary health. Given our common responsibility for the planet and the future, each of us needs to be a champion of forests.

By Eunsik Park, Secretary-General of the XV World Forestry Congress, and Peter Csoka, Associate Secretary-General of the XV World Forestry Congress, FAO