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Forests at Risk in Southeast Asia's Lower Mekong Region

  • Daniel Schearf
  • VOA

A Laotian fisherman casts his net in the Mekong river in Luang Prabang, (File photo).

A Laotian fisherman casts his net in the Mekong river in Luang Prabang, (File photo).

Southeast Asia's Lower Mekong region is set to lose a third of its natural forests in the next two decades, according to a report by the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Forestry experts blame the current pace of deforestation on governments’ undervaluing forestry resources.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature report, titled "Ecosystems in the Greater Mekong," said between 1973 and 2009 lower Mekong countries chopped down almost a third of their forests for timber and to clear land for agriculture.

Burma and Laos lost 24 percent of their forest cover. Cambodia lost 22 percent of their forests, while Thailand and Vietnam cleared 43 percent of their trees.

"Core forests," a three-kilometer square area of uninterrupted forest, have dropped from 70 to 20 percent of total forest area.

The conservation group says the pace of deforestation is accelerating, and countries risk losing a third of their remaining trees by 2030.

Geoffrey Blate is a regional advisor on ecology for the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Bangkok and contributor to the report. He said it appears the overall highest amount of forest clearing happened where there were the most trees -- in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"It appears that Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos are really, you know, sort of the hot spots for deforestation right now," he said. "That's where most of the remaining large expanses of forest are and that's where we have seen the highest deforestation rates as well."

The report's findings were based on analysis of satellite data and are in contrast to some official figures from those countries.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported official country figures in the region show that deforestation rates slowed from 2000-2010.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature says those figures could be misleading, because some countries label agriculture plantations for rubber trees, cassava and palm oil as forested areas.

Such practices could be responsible for Vietnam’s claimed increase in forest coverage.

Forestry experts said countries in the region fail to place enough value on their forests and look only at the market price for extracted or harvested resources.

Thomas Enters is a U.N. regional coordinator for the Asia Pacific.

He said a political commitment is needed at the highest level because the economic incentive is to bring in investors that clear forests.

"What they do not value is the biodiversity that is in there and the various ecosystem services, such as soil protection, watershed protection -- basically keeping the water cleaner, keeping sediments in the uplands instead of having them come down, washed into the rivers and into the reservoirs that are basically constructed behind dams," stated Enters.

Enters said restrictions on logging in the region only came into place after devastating floods, indicating that natural forest cover is likely to continue going down until countries realize they have lost too much.