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.

Clearing up the region’s hazy future

Fitrian Ardiansyah, Climate Solutions Column, The Jakarta Post | Tue, 10/26/2010 10:58 AM | Environment

Forest and land fires break out again. Last week, Singaporean and Malaysian governments contacted the Indonesian government to “register their concerns” over the recurring haze problem.

According to news in the region, a number of schools in Malaysia were advised to temporarily close because the haze reached a “hazardous” level and the air pollution index in Singapore also reached unhealthy levels with cases of respiratory problems including asthma increasing significantly.

Fires and the associated haze have not only affected Singapore and Malaysia. Dumai airport in Riau province, in the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, was closed last Wednesday due to limited visibility.

The residents of Pekanbaru, the capital city of Riau, as reported by this paper, have complained about a thick haze blanketing the city as it has caused a number of health problems, ranging from eye irritations to respiratory infections.

Some Indonesian officials suggested traditional farmers practicing slash-and-burn agriculture were the major culprits of this year’s forest and land fires.

However, as detected by the Modis Terra Aqua satellite, 172 hotspots which were found in Riau during the period between Oct. 18-21 occurred mainly on pulpwood concessions and oil palm oil plantations. Only a small number of hotspots were found in forest and other land.

Forest and land fires occur in many countries around the world such as in the US (in California), Australia, Turkey, Spain, Russia, Greece and countries in Southeast Asia.

When discussing Southeast Asian fires, especially in Sumatra and Borneo, nevertheless, most studies and peer-reviewed journal articles agree that these fires were human induced.

These studies conclude that a combination of plantation and timber companies, unresolved land tenure disputes as well as land clearing by a massive number of individuals are believed to be the main causes of the fires.

Fires and the associated smog are not a new issue in Southeast Asia. Serious fires and haze seasons have recurred, mainly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, in 1982-1983, 1987, 1991, 1994, 1997-1998, 2005 and 2006-2007.

At the peak of massive forest and land fires, the amount of hotspots could reach 25,000 to 35,000 in a month. The highest occurred in August 1997 when 37,938 were counted.

This year’s hotspots may be nowhere near the amount of those in 1997-1998, 2005 or 2006-2007, but the manner in which the Indonesian government tackles this problem would indicate its willingness, power, assertiveness and capacity in dealing with bigger challenges of deforestation and peat land conversion.

“Extinguishing” fires in Indonesia is not a simple matter. Conventional suppression approaches — extinguishing fires after they occur — have been proven inadequate.

There is a pressing need for more comprehensive solutions and to address a wider range of concerns that cut to the heart of political-economy and administrative reforms in the country.

The first critical approach is prevention measures that can minimize the risks of destructive fires, which include a moratorium — i.e. the government stops granting licenses for land clearing on forest and peat lands — and a zero burning policy.

Since deforestation and peat lands clearing and drainage — for logging or to establish plantations and other land uses — very often give way to fires during the dry months, the moratorium is perceived to be an urgent solution to tackle deforestation and fires.

Following the agreement between Norway and Indonesia on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation plus (REDD+), the Indonesian government appears to be seriously preparing a moratorium on clearing forest and peat lands for two years starting next January.

However, with this year’s fires, the government is required to speed up this process so that the country can have clear regulations, an incentives mechanism, operational guidelines and technical guidance to implement, monitor and enforce the moratorium.

This clarity is needed because policy on a moratorium ought to be translated by different ministries — especially those influential in land use — at the national level and different layers of governments at the provincial or district level.

Some people may take advantage of unclear translation of policies and division of authorities on a moratorium among ministries and different layers of governments. If this is the case, deforestation, peat lands conversion and drainage, and forest and land fires are likely to continue to occur.

This pressure would be alleviated if investors and the private sector could work with the Indonesian authorities and other stakeholders to ensure sustainable practices such as by increasing productivity on existing plantations and developing non-forested land and non-peat land for timber and oil palm plantation expansion.

Timber concessions and oil palm plantations (owned not only by Indonesians but also Malaysians and Singaporeans) can further promote, adopt and implement zero-burning practices and help smallholders to follow suit.

Financial institutions, for instance, could develop robust investment screening policies to discourage high-risk investment patterns leading to deforestation or forest and land fires.

The consumer market can also help by favoring goods which are produced through guaranteed sustainable operations.

Jakarta will host the eighth Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) next month. The RSPO has incorporated the above important interventions in its principles and criteria (P&C) on sustainable palm oil.

RSPO and its members have, therefore, a momentous opportunity to demonstrate: that their P&C, when effectively implemented, can indeed help alleviate the problems of deforestation and fires on the ground.

Finally, the Indonesian government needs to lead swift actions on forest and land fires. However, Indonesia cannot and should not be expected to solve this problem alone.

Collaborative efforts between key countries, partners and players is the key to putting an end to the region’s widespread and recurring haze problems, and keeping its sky clear in the future.

The writer is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, recipient of the Australian Leadership Award and Allison Sudradjat Award and advisor to WWF-Indonesia on climate and energy. He can be reached at

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