Sustaining Southeast Asia’s forests

Published in East Asia Forum Quarterly Vol. 4, No.4, October-December, 2012, PAGE 18-20

by Fitrian Ardiansyah

for full East Asia Forum Quartelrly pdf, plese see EAFQ-4.4-WEB-FINAL

Sustaining Southeast Asia’s forests

Avoiding and reversing the loss and degradation of forests is a crucial element of any sustainable development and climate change solution formulated in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia’s forests contain some of the richest and most valuable resources and habitats on earth. These include the Greater Mekong Subregion that covers 60 million hectares of tropical forests and rivers in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and China, and the Heart of Borneo that comprises 24 million hectares of equatorial rainforests stretching along the borders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

These forests and terrestrial ecosystems have a vital role to play in the fight against global warming. They also have significant economic and ecological value. Hundreds of millions of people depend on the healthy productive capacity of these natural systems to sustain key ecosystem services such as clean water, food and fibre.

These forests are also home to a significant part of the world’s biodiversity and possess a high level of endemism across all groups of plants and animals. Southeast Asia’s forests are the only place on earth where orang-utans, tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses still co-exist and where forests are large enough to maintain viable populations.

Deforestation and forest degradation are making a significant contribution to environmental degradation in this region and overall global emissions of greenhouse gases. In 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization reported that deforestation rates in Southeast Asia remained high at 3.7 million hectares per annum. In general, forests and terrestrial ecosystems in Southeast Asia, including peatlands, wetlands and rivers, are in a state of rapid ecological decline due to human over-exploitation.

The degradation of forest and wetland habitats affecting hydrological regimes is threatening water supply and the viability of one of the most important freshwater fisheries in the world— including, for instance, in the Tonle Sap fishery in Cambodia where the larger migratory species have declined significantly. The biggest threat to the Mekong River’s ecological system is the long-time deforestation of the river basin.

The island of Borneo, as well as Sumatra and many other places in this region, has also experienced high deforestation rates. According to several studies, between 1985 and 2005 Borneo lost an average of 850,000 hectares of forest annually—roughly a third of the island’s total rainforests—due to indiscriminate logging and forests being cleared for timber and oil palm plantations.

The increasing frequency of forest and land fires between 1997–2007 is indicative of the pressure to deforest. It is a combination of plantation and timber companies, unresolved land tenure disputes and land clearing by a massive number of individuals are the main causes of these fires.

Because of these issues, the governments of Southeast Asia are under pressure to devise smart development strategies that not only promote economic growth but also conserve the areas’ globally important biodiversity, ecosystems and natural resources.

Regional cooperation is emerging. Initiatives include the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which coordinates the formulation and implementation of sustainable development for the Greater Mekong Subregion, and the Heart of Borneo initiative, which facilitates cooperation among parties in protecting, conserving and sustainably managing remaining forests and adjacent areas.

Since 2009, countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion have agreed to use the Biodiversity Conservation Corridors Initiative (BCCI) to accelerate efforts to address conservation and climate change. One BCCI initiative is to channel economic stimulus to the rural poor within the corridors. The aim of this initiative is to strengthen sustainable management of forest and water resources. As the people become poorer and need resources to get out of poverty, there is likely a huge pressure for further and faster natural resource extraction – hence, actions to address poverty tends to have positive results on the environment.

The Heart of Borneo recently launched a ‘green economy’ approach aimed at concretely and seriously tackling threats from unsustainable land-use activities and further improving enabling conditions like good economic policy. This will create positive incentives for stakeholders to employ sustainable practices and foster good governance, clear land tenure and reformed sectoral development.

Reports also show an increase in the private sector’s involvement in the promotion, development and application of sustainability principles in their management of key commodities including forestry (through the Forest Stewardship Council) and palm oil (through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil).

In November 2007 only 0.8 million hectares of Southeast Asia’s natural forests were certified under the Forest Stewardship Council. Now more than 2 million hectares of natural forests have been certified under a similar scheme. In mid-2011, just three years after certification commenced under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the palm oil industry reached one million hectares of certified production area globally. The biggest contributors were Malaysia and Indonesia.

ASEAN has commenced the Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative. Since 2008 ASEAN and its member countries have developed programs to improve in-countries’ capacity and have initiated demonstration projects so that stakeholders are ready to implement REDD+.

These efforts to retain the remaining forests of Southeast Asia may nevertheless be inadequate given constant pressures from global and regional demand for commodities like palm oil and timber. A 2010 UN report estimated that the illegal timber trade in Southeast Asia was worth US$3.5 billion.

There is urgent need for ASEAN countries to scale up their collaboration on deforestation so that they are seen as a strong front that can negotiate the channelling of financial and technical support to address deforestation in their region. At the United Nations Framework of Convention on Climate Change, ASEAN is not seen as a strong lobby group that can influence the negotiation of the financial and policy aspects of REDD+.

In setting up a monitoring system for deforestation, countries in the region can learn from Brazil, which is considered to have an advanced deforestation monitoring system. The Brazilian system combines real-time satellite observation and regular ground checking. Using an ASEAN platform, countries in Southeast Asia have the opportunity to replicate such a system in a cost-effective and transparent way.

Stronger collaborative efforts among countries, state and non-state actors in Southeast Asia is the key to significantly reducing deforestation and mitigating its impacts. Further involvement of producers in the REDD+ initiatives through timber concessions and incentives for oil palm plantations could accelerate the implementation of sustainable practices.

Financial institutions in the region and at global level also have a significant role to play. They must develop robust investment screening policies to discourage high-risk investment patterns leading to deforestation. Consumers of related commodities can also help by favoring goods that are produced through certified sustainable operations.

If done properly, efforts like these would lead to fundamental changes in how Southeast Asians manage, protect and sustain their forests. The impact of those efforts will be felt by the global community in the form of emissions reductions, and by people in Southeast Asia through their ability to maintain timber and non-timber forest production, water supply, and other ecosystem goods and services.

Fitrian Ardiansyah is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University and the recipient of Australian Leadership Award and Allison Sudradjat Award.


Vol.4 No.4: October – December, 2012
Energy, resources and food
About this issue
In this issue we address one of the most important concerns in Asia: security over natural resources or about how to ensure we have sufficient food, water, energy, and other resources at an accessible cost and within tolerable levels of risk now and into the future. Managing resource risks in an insecure world will differ by country, the type and possible magnitude of the risks, and national, regional vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, the multidimensional nature of resource security demands that critically important natural capital stocks be conserved at a regional and global level and that special consideration be given to the particular vulnerabilities of poor countries while following market-based approaches to ensure adequate resource supplies. Whatever the national approach adopted towards resource security, we stress that promoting resource security is not a zero-sum game. All countries can benefit from a multilateral and a sustainable market framework that provides incentives for producers and delivers reliable supply to consumers.

Revisiting the global role of tropical forest nations

The Strategic Review Journal, Volumen 2, No. 1, Jan-Mar 2012.

Author: Fitrian Ardiansyah is a Climate and Sustainability Specialist Based in Canberra, Australia. He spent 14 years working in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, including as the Adviser and Program Director for climate and energy at World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia.

Please find the link to the first part of this article here: (the complete article can be purchased by subscribing to the journal). This first part of the can also be found below:

Revisiting the global role of tropical forest nations

Rapid development of tropical forest nations has led not only to economic growth but also to environmental degradation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Situated between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, these nations are home to peatlands, savannas and half of the world’s forests, which are considered among the most valuable ecosystems in the world.

The trade of timber and other products derived from these ecosystems provides substantial foreign exchange earnings for these nations and contributes to global wealth. Such economic gains, however, are accompanied by a high rate of forest loss, which is turn has been identified as a crucial factor in causing flooding, droughts, wildfires and recently, climate change. Striking the right balance between economic development and environmental protection, therefore, is an immediate challenge for these nations and the world.

Tropical forest nations, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), include 23 countries in the Americas, 37 in Africa and 16 in Asia. Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Indonesia are the three largest tropical forest nations, each representing a different continent (Figure 1). The combined total estimated forest area of these three nations in 2010, as reported by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), is 771.5 million hectares – more than half of the world’s tropical forests. For decades, government policies and private investment in these three nations have been viewed as the root causes of the exploitation of their forests and terrestrial ecosystems. These policies and investments have yielded considerable economic returns. Forests play an important role in the national economies of these three countries and provide livelihoods for local communities.

Figure 1: The Map of Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia

click picture for bigger size

Source: The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), 2011

In Brazil, a study written by Eustáquio J Reis and Fernando A Blanco and published in 2000 revealed that macroeconomic and regional policies implemented after the 1960s played a decisive role in driving forest exploitation and clearance. For instance, credit and fiscal subsidies to agriculture, supported by an expanded road network, pushed the agricultural frontier, particularly cattle ranching, further into the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest. In recent decades, however, multiple factors and actors have been considered as the driving forces. These include road, railway and other infrastructure construction, government policies on colonization and subsidies for agro-pastoral projects (mainly cattle ranching), agricultural modernization (associated with the diversification of output towards commercial crops such as soybeans), timber extraction and mining, and charcoal production.

To read the complete article: Subscribe now

About Strategic Review:

The Strategic Review is the Indonesian Journal of Leadership, Policy and World Affairs with its editorial board led by Dr Hassan Wirajuda (Former Minister of Foreign Affairs) and its advisory board consists of Prof Juwono Sudarsono (Former Minister of Defense), Let Gen (Ret) Agus Widjojo (Executive Board in the Partnership for Governance Reform), Prof. John Thomas (Harvard Kennedy School of Government USA), Prof. Erhard Friedberg (Sciences Po France) and Prof Arne Westad (London School of Economics UK).

Along with my article, there are other articles published in this edition including those written by Christine Lagarde (Managing Director of the IMF), Dr Dino Patti Djalal (The Ambassador of Indonesia to the US), Dr Muhammad Chatib Basri (the Vice Chairman  of the National Economic Committee of the President  of the Republic of Indonesia) and Sydney Jones (International Crisis Group). The complete journal can be found at

Iniciativa de la Mesa Redonda sobre Aceite de Palma Sostenible: principios y criterios

By Fitrian Adiansyah, Andrew Ng, Si-Siew Lim, published in Palmas Journal, Vol. 28 No Especial, Tomo 2, 2007, pp. 297-318. For a full article (in Spanish) please click here: RSPO_Spanish_Palmas_Vol28_2007_FitrianArdiansyah


La Mesa Redonda sobre el Aceite de Palma Sostenible fue establecida el 8 de abril de 2004 bajo el Artículo 60 del Código Suizo con una estructura organizacional que garantiza una representación justa de sus protagonistas a través de toda la cadena de suministro. Su Secretariado tiene domicilio en Kuala Lampur, cuenta con 103 miembros ordinarios y 38 miembros afiliados (un total de 141 miembros a mayo 22 de 2006), lo que representa aproximadamente de 25 a 30% de la oferta global de aceite de palma. La Mesa Redonda sobre el Aceite de Palma Sostenible (RSPO, por su sigla en inglés), es reconocida como la principal fuente para las organizaciones ampliamente aceptadas y creíbles de aceite de palma. La Mesa Redonda o RSPO fue creada como una plataforma de múltiples protagonistas, participativa, incluyente, voluntaria y orientada hacia la acción que se convertiría en el vehículo de una discusión constructiva hacia un propósito común que es aquel de “promover el crecimiento y uso sostenible del aceite de palma a través de la cooperación dentro de la cadena de suministro y de un diálogo abierto con sus partes interesadas”. Con este propósito en mente, la RSPO ha logrado grandes pasos, tal como se puede ver por el interés en la misma, en los principios y criterios de la RSPO para el aceite de palma sostenible (P/C) y en otras iniciativas. Sin embargo, esto no quiere decir que la RSPO no ha estado libre de desafíos y problemas. Esta ponencia resalta los logros clave, su importancia para el comercio del aceite de palma y cómo la RSPO se ha convertido cada vez más en un símbolo de sostenibilidad con reconocimiento global para tener una industria sostenible del aceite de palma. Al rastrear los eventos clave y la cronología del desarrollo y la evolución, este documento tiene como objetivo presentar el contexto esencial sobre el argumento central para el curso actual de la RSPO, articulado a través de programas de acción y de la participación activa de los protagonistas. Aún se cuestiona la eficacia y la función de la RSPO entre los diferentes grupos de partes interesadas que participan en la misma como plataforma para tener un diálogo constructivo para la solución de los  problemas más difíciles que enfrenta la industria del aceite de palma. Sin embargo, por el solo hecho que la RSPO ofrece lo anterior, eso ha facilitado la comprensión de la industria del aceite de palma por parte de sus actores y críticos y ha sacado a relucir problemas enfrentados por aquellos que están impactados por el desarrollo del aceite de palma y la arista cortante en las acciones y el pensamiento sobre el aceite de palma sostenible en los años venideros.


The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was established on 8 April 2004 under Article 60 of the Swiss Civil Code with a governance structure that ensures fair representation of all stakeholders throughout the entire supply chain. With a Secretariat based in Kuala Lumpur, 103 Ordinary and 38 Affiliate Members (totalling 141 total members as of 22 May 2006), that translates to approximately 25%-30% of the global palm oil supply, RSPO is recognised as the primary source for the most widely accepted and credible organisation for sustainable palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO was formed on the basis a multi-stakeholder, participatory, inclusive, voluntary and action oriented platform that would be the vehicle for the constructive discussion towards a common goal of “promoting the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through co-operation within the supply chain and open dialogue with its stakeholders”. To this end, RSPO has made big strides, as demonstrated by the level of interest in RSPO, the RSPO Principles & Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production (P&C) and other initiatives. However, RSPO has not been without its fair share of challenges and setbacks. This paper would highlight the key achievements, their significance to the palm oil trade and how RSPO is steadily becoming a globally recognised symbol for sustainability in the palm oil industry. Tracing key events and the chronology of RSPO’s development and evolution, this paper lays down the essential context for the central argument for the present course of RSPO, articulated through programmes of action and active engagement of stakeholders. While the jury is still out as to the effectiveness and role of RSPO amongst all the different stakeholder groups present in RSPO, the unique platform for constructive dialogue towards addressing some of the most difficult problems posed to the palm oil industry. The very fact RSPO provides this has facilitated better understanding of the palm oil industry by stakeholders and critiques, brought to light issues faced by those impacted by palm oil development and will bring about the cutting edge in thinking and action on sustainable palm oil for some time to come.