Deforestation in Southeast Asia

We look at the loss of forest cover in Indonesia, Indo-China, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and other SE Asian countries. We ask what drives deforestation in the region and how it affects global warming.
Deforestation: Lumbung coal mine in Indonesia
Coal mining in central Kalimantan, Borneo, is damaging the forest environment. Image: IndoMet. CC BY 2.0

In this article, we examine the ongoing problem of deforestation in Southeast Asia, which continues to add to levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, boosting climate change around the world.

Where is SE Asia?

Geographically, Southeast Asia acts as a bridge between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The region includes the Indochinese Peninsula (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam), the Philippines, the island country of Indonesia, the island of Borneo (divided between Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia), and Timor-Leste.

It’s not easy to summarize a region like SE Asia, with 660 million inhabitants spread across 10 or more countries, including such diverse entities as the economic city-state powerhouse of Singapore, and the undeveloped agricultural states of Laos and Timor-Leste.

That said, the region as a whole is experiencing a marked demographic transition. Population growth is slowing – notably in Thailand and Singapore – bringing to an end the era of cheap labor resources, which helped the area to industrialize. Urban populations will continue to grow at the expense of rural areas, placing additional demands on the region’s energy resources.

Is SE Asia Vulnerable to Deforestation?

Yes, unfortunately. Southeast Asia contains almost 15 percent of the world’s tropical forests in which both legal and illegal deforestation are both common. Unfortunately, if the history of deforestation teaches us anything, it’s that population and poverty are the two key drivers of forest clearance. And Southeast Asia has them both.

Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world, while the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand are all in the top 20. Myanmar and Malaysia both have European-nation size populations. Meantime, the region’s poverty (excluding Singapore and Malaysia) can be gauged by the low carbon emissions per capita, which averages 1.55. (The EU 27 averages 8.7; the USA’s per capita footprint is 16.1.)

Figure 1. Population and CO2 emissions per capita in SE Asia

CountryPopulationEmissions per Capita
Cambodia16 million1.0 ton
Indonesia 270 million2.3 to
Laos 7 million1.0 ton
Malaysia 32 million7.8 ton
Myanmar 54 million0.9 ton
Philippines 108 million1.4 ton
Singapore 6 million9.1 ton
Timor-Leste 1.2 million0.3 ton
Thailand 69 million4.0 ton
Vietnam 96 million3.1 ton
Sources: Population (UN Edgar Emissions, 2019); Carbon Footprint per capita (Fossil CO2 emissions of all world countries, 2020 report).

What are the Deforestation Statistics in SE Asia?

Southeast Asia has the third largest area of rainforest after the Amazon Rainforest and the Congo Rainforest, as well as a number of locations known for their outstanding biodiversity of wildlife. The region, however, is also one of the world’s major deforestation hotspots, accounting for the bulk of forest clearance in tropical humid and low-land forests. 1

Studies indicate that habitat loss in Southeast Asia is among the highest in the world, being especially grievous in its loss of biodiversity, while deforestation rates exceed even those of Latin America. 2 See also: Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest.

Between 1990 and 2010, Southeast Asia suffered an average annual net loss of 1.6 million hectares. Scientists estimate that the region has already shed more than 50 percent of its original forest cover and that a number of primary rainforests in the region will be gone by 2022.

Given these statistics, plus the fact that only about 10 percent of the region’s forests are protected, scientists expect over 40 percent of the region’s biodiversity to disappear by 2100. 3 4

That said, governments across the region have instituted numerous afforestation and reforestation projects, with help from the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN REDD) and the voluntary REDD+ program. Sadly, rural poverty as well as a lack of good governance remain serious obstacles to long-term progress.

What Drives Deforestation in SE Asia?

The causes of deforestation in Southeast Asia are no different to anywhere else in the developing world. The region’s forests are well known as a rich source of desirable lumber products such as furniture, plywood, paper and pulp, and wood fuel. Land use is another problem, owing to demand for space for rubber and palm oil plantations, as well as food crops and grazing land for livestock. Mining for coal and precious minerals is another driver of land clearance, as is urban development. Commercial development along the coast is particularly hard on mangrove forests and other blue carbon ecosystems.

As a result, SE Asian countries face a constant battle to balance conservation of their natural resources, with the economic needs of industry and the public. 5

Figure 2. Amount of Natural Forest in SE Asia

CountryArea of Natural Forest (in million hectares)% of Land Area
Cambodia 7.22 42%
Indonesia93.8 50%
Laos 17.9 78%
Malaysia 20.3 87%
Myanmar 40.161%
Philippines 13.262%
Thailand19.137%
Vietnam14.550%
Source: GlobalForestWatch.org (2019)

Why is Deforestation in SE Asia Bad for Climate Change?

Trees and plants get all their energy from photosynthesis – a process that absorbs CO2 from the air. You could say that trees are the perfect example of carbon capture and storage technology at work. They play a vital role in the carbon cycle by locking up large amounts of CO2 from plant respiration.

However, when a tree is cut down, it stops removing CO2 from the atmosphere and, instead, starts to emit CO2 as it decomposes. If it is burned in the process, it emits even more CO2.

According to the latest UN Report on the Emissions Gap, deforestation and land use account for around 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions annually. 6 This makes them a major driver of global warming and therefore an important contributor to our present climate crisis.

It takes a long time before the CO2 captured by newly planted trees offsets the increase in CO2 emissions caused by cutting down and burning the original trees. One study examined data from a broad mix of forests and harvesting regimes, and discovered that most options had a payback time of more than a century, with a minimum payback time of at least 30 years. 7 For more, see: What Is the Effect of Wood Burning On Climate Change?

The Rainforest Biome

The rainforest biome is one of the most precious and biologically diverse environments in the world. Warm and wet, thanks to its own water cycle, it supports a unique collection of plants of enormous value to the medical industry.

7 Effects of Climate Change on Plants
Is More CO2 Good for Plants?

Rates & Causes of Deforestation in SE Asia

Here is a short summary of the rates and causes of deforestation in the 9 largest countries in Southeast Asia.

Deforestation in Laos (Lao PDR)

In the 1950s, forests occupied 70 percent of the total land area in Laos (more correctly known as The Lao People’s Democratic Republic). But by 1992, forest coverage had decreased by nearly 33 percent, to around 47 percent. During this period, domestic fuel needs accounted for more than three times as much deforestation as commercial needs.

During the period 2002-2019, Laos lost 773 thousand hectares of primary forest. At the same time, total area of Laotian primary forest decreased by 9.3 percent. During the same period, Laos lost 3.37 million hectares of tree cover – roughly equivalent to an 18 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000.

As in other parts of southeast Asia, deforestation is one of several environmental challenges confronting Lao PDR. The need to utilize the commercial resources of the country’s forests for the benefit of the population – so as to grow more food, build more hydroelectric power facilities, and develop a beneficial export trade – is becoming a key priority. So much so, that the United Nations Development Programme has warned that: “Protecting the environment and sustainable use of natural resources in Lao PDR is vital for poverty reduction and economic growth.”

Lao PDR has established a National Strategy on Climate Change (NSCC) involving climate change mitigation and adaptation policies in the sectors of forestry, land use change, agriculture and industry. Part of the NSCC is the National Forestry Strategy which aims to increase forest cover to 70 percent of the total land area by 2020. Significantly, nearly all Laotian large-scale electricity generation is based on renewable energy – chiefly hydroelectric power.

Deforestation in Cambodia

During the period 2002-2019, Cambodia lost 1.22 million hectares of primary forest. 8 At the same time, the total area of Cambodian primary decreased by 29 percent. During the same period, Cambodia lost 2.31 million hectares of tree cover – that’s equivalent to a 26 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000. Since 2001, Cambodia has lost a far greater percentage of its tree cover than bigger countries like Brazil and Indonesia. Cambodia’s primary forest tree cover collapsed from over 70 percent in 1970, to just 3.1 percent in 2007, when no more than 322 thousand hectares of primary forest remained. 9

Did You Know?

Primary forests are defined as mature natural humid tropical forests that have not been cleared and regrown in recent history. These mature forests serve as vital carbon reservoirs as well as habitats for hundreds of endemic species. According to research from the University of Maryland, one-third of all deforestation in southeast Asia and the rest of the tropics, occurs in areas of primary forest. See also: Does Tree Planting Stop Global Warming?

Commodity production – notably of rubber – is the biggest cause of tree cover loss in Cambodia. Between 2001 and 2015, for example, almost a quarter of all forest clearance in Cambodia was done to plant rubber plantations. Unfortunately, replacing primary forest with rubber trees dramatically changes the ecosystem, greatly reducing its biological diversity. 10

Illegal timber extraction is another major problem affecting Cambodia’s forests. Much of the illegal timber – including rare rosewood – is smuggled into neighboring Vietnam.

Since 2001, the Royal Government of Cambodia has halted all forest concession activities and published a sustainable forest management plan which meets international standards. 11 However, the government has been dogged by continuing accusations of corruption from environmentalists and NGOs.

Deforestation in Vietnam

After decades of deforestation and concentrated defoliation by Agent Orange and other herbicides, followed by several ups and downs since 2000, Vietnam’s forests seem to be slowly on the mend. But it’s a relative improvement only: annual loss of forest cover has reduced from 353 thousand hectares (2016) to 217 thousand hectares (2019).

However, back in 2005, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization recorded that Vietnam had the second highest rate of deforestation of primary forests in the world – only Nigeria was worse.

In fact, during the years 2002-2019, Vietnam lost 657 thousand hectares of primary forest with the total area of primary forest decreasing by 9.8 percent. During the same period, Vietnam lost 2.86 million hectares of tree cover – equivalent to a 17 percent decrease in tree cover since about 2000.

Vietnamese authorities now see reforestation as a means of protecting the country against climate change. Priority has also been given to replanting mangrove trees in estuarine and coastal areas to combat the effects of sea level rise caused by extreme weather events like tropical cyclones and other storms. For example, the Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve, southeast of Ho Chi Minh City in the Mekong Delta, has been fully restored thanks to replanting efforts by researchers and locals

Despite these promising trends, forest coverage continues to decline, largely – it is said – due to illegal logging and also subsistence-level extraction of fuelwood and other resources, such as rubber and cassava. More than 27,000 instances of deforestation were reported each year during the 4-year period 2011-2015.

In 2016 Vietnamese authorities in 58 locations shut down their natural forests and banned logging altogether, in order to reverse growing deforestation. In addition, a total of 628 thousand hectares of forest were planted. As a result, for the first time in 45 years, the Central Highlands, reported an increase in forest area, standing at 2.5 million hectares in 2018. The country’s forest coverage increased to nearly 42 per cent by the end of 2018, according to the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD).

But illegal logging – often done by or in conjunction with local people – endures. The latest craze concerns fokienia – a rare and much-prized native tree that typically grows only at altitude – usually above 1,500m. Fokienia forests have been heavily targeted, despite the harsh terrain.

As always, poverty, along with rising global demand for forest products like rubber, timber, coffee, and other cash crops, exerts a huge influence on how many trees are felled and how quickly forests degrade or recover.

Deforestation in The Philippines

Although at one time the Philippine islands were completely forested, significant areas had been cleared for sugar plantations and other types of agriculture by World War II. Then, during the 60s, 70s and 80s, the country witnessed a surge in logging as numerous permits were granted to cronies of President Marcos, and other corrupt officials. The corruption continued under later regimes, resulting in deforestation occurring at three times the global rate. 12

Later, during the period 2002-2019, the Philippines lost another 143 thousand hectares of primary forest. At the same time, the total area of primary forest decreased by 3.1 percent. During the same period, the Philippines lost 1.23 million hectares of tree cover – roughly equivalent to a 6.6 percent decrease in tree cover since the beginning of the century.

The principal causes of deforestation in the Philippines are logging, mining, naturally occurring forest fires, and slash-and-burn agriculture (known as “kaingin” farming). Set against a background of political corruption, the usual combination of poverty (in the form of subsistence farmers) and greed (in the form of multinational plantation or mine owner) eat away at the country’s precious natural resources. See also: Effects of Deforestation.

Deforestation in Indonesia

At the beginning of the 20th century, Indonesia was a densely forested country, whose forests occupied over 80 percent of the country’s total land area. But agricultural and commercial development gradually took hold, and by the 70s was making serious inroads into the amount of primary forest and tree cover. By the year 2000, tree cover had fallen by 40 percent. In 2008, observers expected the Indonesian tropical rainforests to be logged out within a decade.

In fact, during the period 2002-2019, Indonesia lost 9.48 million hectares of primary forest, while the total area of Indonesian primary forest decreased by 10 percent. At the same time, the country shed another 26.8 million hectares of tree cover – roughly equivalent to a 17 percent decrease in tree cover since the beginning of the century.

Did You Know?

“Tree cover loss” is not the same as loss of trees or deforestation. This is because “tree cover” can refer to trees in plantations as well as natural forests. “Tree cover loss” is simply the loss of tree canopy due to human or natural causes, including fire. Thus, if an area loses a thousand hectares of forest it won’t necessarily lose a thousand hectares of tree cover. It could, for instance, plant 450 hectares of rubber trees, and graze cattle on the rest, in which case the loss of tree cover is 550 hectares.

And yet, in recent years, Indonesia seems to be turning things around. The secret seems to be increased law enforcement to reduce or prevent forest fires and forest clearance, combined with a permanent moratorium on clearing forest land for oil palm plantations and logging.

Papua and West Papua – home to more than a third of Indonesia’s remaining primary forest – are also experiencing low levels of tree loss, thanks to the new sustainable policies promoted by their governors. 13

Deforestation in Malaysia

Since its independence in 1957, Malaysia has experienced significant economic growth, much of which is down to its forests. Due to its profitability, deforestation for timber and agricultural purposes was encouraged until the late 1980s, when the consequences first began to be appreciated.

During the period 2002-2019, the country lost 2.63 million hectares of primary forest. At the same time, total area of Malaysian primary forest decreased by 17 percent. During the same period, Malaysia lost 8.12 million hectares of tree cover – roughly equivalent to a 28 percent decrease in tree cover since the year 2000. The top two regions who between them accounted for 56 percent of all tree cover loss between 2001 and 2019, were Sarawak (3 million hectares) and Sabah (1.6 million hectares).

Rainforest logging has been an important export revenue earner both in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) and in the northern areas of Peninsular Malaysia. By 2000, Malaysia was producing 22 million cubic meters of sawed logs for export and was one of the biggest global suppliers of hardwood.

In addition to logging, one of the main drivers of deforestation in Malaysia has been the expansion of agricultural output. Agriculture is an important sector of Malaysia’s economy, earning 12 percent of GDP and providing employment for 1 in 7 of the work force.

The British built up large-scale plantations and introduced three new cash crops – rubber in the year 1876, palm oil in 1917, and cocoa around 1950. These crops have dominated the country’s agriculture ever since. In 2009, Malaysia and Indonesia between them accounted for 85 percent of the global supply of palm oil. The harvesting of non-timber forest products – like bamboo and rattan, exotic fruits and medicinal plants – is another driver.

Urbanization and infrastructure development are another important contributor to forest clearance. In coastal areas, such developments are causing severe damage to Malaysia’s mangrove forests (mangals).

Deforestation in Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar has the largest amount of tropical forest in mainland Southeast Asia. Although it has steadily lost trees for decades, the rate of deforestation has varied. The annual average forest loss was 1.27 million hectares during the period 1988–1992; 2.4 million hectares 1992–1996; 3.5 million hectares 1996-2000; and 357 thousand hectares during the period 2004–2008. The average annual loss 2000-2011 was 150,000 hectares. 14

During the period 2002-2019, the country lost 577 thousand hectares of primary forest. At the same time, the total area of Myanmar’s primary forest decreased by 4.1 percent. During the same period, Myanmar lost 3.69 million hectares of tree cover – that’s roughly equivalent to a 8.6 percent decrease in tree cover since around 2000.

The main causes of deforestation in Myanmar are: illegal, unsustainable logging (notably on the Thai-Myanmar border and along the border with China in the province of Kachin); and agricultural development. Corrupt enforcement of conservation rules is not uncommon. 15

Mangrove deforestation in Myanmar is another major concern in at least 3 areas: Ayeyarwady, Mega Delta, Rakhine State, and Tanintharyi Division. The causes of this include the development of the aquaculture industry, expansion of agriculture (for rice paddies and palm oil plantations). Other drivers include urban development and mining.

Deforestation in Thailand

Since World war II, Thailand has lost around 70 percent of its tree cover. The process began in earnest when roads were constructed in the late 1940s to enable rural farmers to transport food to urban markets. In more recent times, during the period 2002-2019, the country shed another 122 thousand hectares of primary forest, decreasing the total area of primary forest in Thailand by 2.1 percent. During the same period, the country lost 2.06 million hectares of tree cover – roughly equivalent to a 10 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000.

The main causes of forest clearance in Thailand are the same as those driving deforestation in southeast Asia as a whole. They include: (a) Population growth, particularly in areas with unproductive soils such as the northeast region of the country. (b) Agricultural diversification and expansion due to the imposition of price controls on rice, and other policies. (c) Restricted ownership of land. With something like 80 percent of land in the hands of 10 percent of the population, many Thais find it impossible to acquire property. As a result, they turn to forests for the space to farm. (d) Illegal logging, aided and abetted by corrupt authorities, is also rife, not least because it can be far more profitable than small-scale farming. Even supposedly protected national park areas – for example, in Nan Province in the north of Thailand – have been deforested.

Deforestation in Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste – the eastern half of Timor island – comprises a low-income subsistence-farming economy (average daily income less than US$1). Its living standards remain depressed following the decades-long independence struggle against Indonesia, during which essential infrastructure was destroyed and thousands of civilians made homeless. Agriculture accounts for one quarter of GDP and roughly three-quarters of all jobs. Illiteracy affects half the population, educational resources are limited, and poverty is widespread throughout the country. Meanwhile, insufficiency of food has resulted in a dependency on imports.

In 1975, something like half the land in Timor-Leste was forested. By 1989, this had declined to about 40 percent, and by 1999 to less than 10 percent. From 2001 to 2019, Timor-Leste lost about 27.3 thousand hectares of tree cover. In 2018, the decline was around 2 percent a year. 16

Without foreign investment, this level of deforestation is unlikely to reduce. If anything, it will get worse. People need land to grow food and if none is available, they’ll turn to the forest, or what remains of it.

Building economic security for rural inhabitants is essential to future prosperity. Because one of the most damaging consequences of rural poverty is the flight of people into the cities. Investment must be made to help keep families on the land, and to create incomes that can provide for their children’s future. The secret to reducing deforestation in Southeast Asia (and elsewhere) is to reduce the local poverty that sustains it.

References

  1. “The future of Southeast Asia’s forests.” Estoque, R.C., Ooba, M., Avitabile, V. et al. Nat Commun 10, 1829 (2019). []
  2. Hansen, M. C. et al. High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science 342, 850–853 (2013) []
  3. Sodhi, N. S., Koh, L. P., Brook, B. W. & Ng, P. K. L. Southeast Asian biodiversity: an impending disaster. Trends. Ecol. Evol. 19, 654–660 (2004). []
  4. See also: “The last frontiers of wilderness: tracking loss of intact forest landscapes from 2000 to 2013.” Potapov, P. et al. Sci. Adv. 3, e1600821 (2017). []
  5. “Deforestation – a modern-day plague in Southeast Asia.” The ASEAN Post, Sept 2017. []
  6. UN Emissions Gap Report (2019) []
  7. “Carbon debt and carbon sequestration parity in forest bioenergy production.” Stephen R. Mitchell et al; 2012. []
  8. For these and other SE Asian primary forest and tree-cover statistics in this article, I am indebted to “Global Forest Watch.” []
  9. “Cambodia’s Forests Are Disappearing.” NASA. []
  10. Grogan, K., Pflugmacher, D., Hostert, P. et al. Unravelling the link between global rubber price and tropical deforestation in Cambodia. Nature Plants 5, 47–53 (2019). []
  11. National Forest Programme 2010-2029. Cambodia: Royal Government of Cambodia. 2010 []
  12. Homer-Dixon, Thomas F. (2010). Environment, Scarcity, and Violence. Princeton University Press. p. 66. ISBN 978-1-4008-2299-7. []
  13. “We Lost a Football Pitch of Primary Rainforest Every 6 Seconds in 2019.” []
  14. “Analysis of Forest Deforestation and its Driving Factors in Myanmar from 1988 to 2017.” Rongfeng Yang. Sustainability 2019, 11(11), 3047 []
  15. “Myanmar: A Political Economy Analysis.” Stokke, Kristian; Vakulchuk, Roman and Indra Overland (2018) Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). []
  16. WithOneSeed Community Forestry Program (2019) []
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