The destruction of Asia’s forests continues at an alarming pace, averaging 1.8 million hectares a year or 5,000 hectares a day. Frantic governments are instituting measures to arrest the rapid decline but, so far, the success has been very limited.
This is the grim assessment of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO) after a comprehensive survey of Asia’s forest resources. UNFAO conducted the survey with the United Nations Development Program or UNDP.
Deforestation is heaviest in Southeast Asia which produces some of the world’s best timber. According to the survey, Indonesia’s annual deforestation rate of 500,000 hectares is the highest in the region. Second is Thailand with 333,000 hectares; the range of between 100,000 to 150,000 for West Papua, Malaysia, India, Laos, Philippines and, Burma.
These countries were among the Asian and Pacific nations covered in the study. The others are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Kampuchea, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam.
The End of Virgin Forests
The ravaging is felt most by Asia’s closed or virgin forests which totals over 300 million hectares. The survey said that fom 1976 to 1980 alone, the total closed forest ravaged was more than nine million hectares.
The figure leveled off in the next five years to 1.82 million hectares per year.
But even at this rate, Asia’s virgin forests were reduced to just more than 270,000 million hectares after year 2000. The region’s annual rate of deforestation of closed forests is between 0.60 to 1.2 percent.
From 1981 t0 1985, the deforestation rate was its worst in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, Kampuchea, Philippines; while there was a decrease in Thailand, Laos, Brunei and India.
The other Asian countries had either slight deforestation increases. But other countries turned from being wood exporters to timber importers.
Take the case of Thailand, to keep its sawmill industry rolling, the country has become increasingly dependent on log exports.
From a net exporter, with depletion of forest resources, ban on exports and growing demand for wood, Thailand has become a net importer.
Sizable import of logs started in 1977 and increased even after 2000, mostly from Malaysia and Indonesia.
Loggers No Longer Are the Only Culprits
The UNFAO-UNDP study said unlike before, loggers are no longer mainly to blame for the rapid destruction of forests. The report noted that forest resources were ravaged faster in areas with high population density and where shifting cultivation have not been effectively stopped.
Population pressure on Asia’s existing forest resources, is undeniable, unorganized and spontaneous encroachments, squatting, migration b y lowlanders–manifestations of increasing demand for cultivable land by the landless and unemployed rural poor–are already accounting for considerable for deforestation, warned the UN bodies.
This form of deforestation is more prevalent in the Philippines where almost all the culprits are landless tenants, farm laborers or just plain land speculators.
In Nepal, the population pressure on the hills has caused people to migrate to the plains or terai and encroach into forest land.
Over in Thailand, unrest in neighboring countries has let loose a flood of refugees contributing heavily to deforestation.
Slash and burn agriculture or shifting cultivation also wrecks havoc to Asia’s forest resources. The practice is variously known throughout the region as kaingin, jhum, chena or podu. Available figures indicate that more than 75 million Asians depend on shifting cultivation for livelihood. The extent of forests affected is over 200 million hectares.
Examples abound: In Bangladesh, jhuming is practiced by 26 tribes living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region involving almost a million people. The overall effects are loss of timber, water, and soil and the decline of the capacity of the land to produce agricultural crops.
In India, shifting cultivation is practiced in 12 states where some 7 million people are involved in an area of more than one million hectares; the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Mhegalaya account 80 percent of India’s shifting cultivation population.
Shifting cultivation is also practiced by more than 20 million Indonesians. However, it is confined in the islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku and Nusatenggara. Over 20 million hectares of forest have been adversely affected from the viewpoint of soil cover and soil fertility.
Timber… More Timber
As Asia’s population increases, so does the demand for timber and fuelwood. And this in no small measure, contributes to the destruction of forest resources. Estimates are that of all wood cut in Asia, over half for timber, one third for fuel, most of which are consumed by the region’s poor. The oil price hikes yearly is exacerbating the situation.
Logging operations particularly in Southeast Asia has been merciless plus the fact that millions of hectares are being cleared of trees in Indonesia to accommodate palm oil plantations.
The UNFAO-UNDP study said that forests are major foreign exchange earners by many cash-strapped developing Asian countries but also asks ” Is it worth it?”
“No”, it concluded because,”the full amount of export value cannot be viewed as representing a benefit to the exporting country.”
Simply said, no amount of money can ever compensate for the destruction done to the contribution forests do for humanity and the whole of creation.