Asia is losing its rain forests faster and has less left than Africa and Latin America. Half of Asia's forest have disappeared in the last 30 years. Up until about 200 years ago nearly all of Southeast Asia was covered by diperocraps trees. Only pockets of forest survive in Indochina, mainly in southernmost Thailand, lower Burma, southern Cambodia, and parts of the Mekong plain in Vietnam. Loggers typically target only three or four high quality trees per hectare and leave the rest of the forest relatively intact.

Forest area of the Greater Mekong region of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Vietnam has been reduced from approximately 140 million hectares (73 percent of land area) in 1973 to under 100 million hectares (51 percent) in 2009, a 31 percent decrease [Source: WWF-Greater Mekong Programme based on multiple datasets.]

The Greater Mekong region of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Vietnam will lose a third of its remaining forest cover by 2030 unless regional governments improve management of natural resources and transition toward a greener growth model, warns a new report issued by WWF. The report lays out two scenarios for the Greater Mekong. The first is a business-as-usual approach which relies on continued degradation of its forests and freshwater ecosystems. The second is based on a greener economic model that emphasizes the importance of services afforded by healthy ecosystems, translating to a 50 percent drop in annual deforestation and an increase in protected and more sustainably-managed areas.[Source:, May 3, 2013]

“The Greater Mekong is at a crossroads,” said Peter Cutter, Landscape Conservation Manager with WWF-Greater Mekong. “One path leads to further declines in biodiversity and livelihoods, but if natural resources are managed responsibly, this region can pursue a course that will secure a healthy and prosperous future for its people.” Ubiquitous rice paddies across the Mekong region are dependent on abundant water resources supplied by functioning ecosystems. “The green economy approach is the choice for a viable future in the Greater Mekong. Regional leaders have already affirmed that healthy economic growth goes hand in hand with healthy and productive ecosystems, but fast and effective responses are needed now to avoid permanent environmental degradation.”

The two sharply contrasting forecasts are based on analysis of trends in the region. WWF estimates that between 1973 and 2009, the Greater Mekong countries lost nearly a third of their forest cover, led by Thailand and Vietnam which each cleared more than 40 percent of their forests. Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar lost nearly a quarter of their forests during the interval. Old-growth forests have been nearly wiped out in Vietnam, while declining steeply in other countries.

"Decision-makers in the Mekong river basin face a difficult dilemma: how can countries that share the freshwater resources of the Mekong River profit from a renewable energy source such as hydroelectric power without at the same time degrading the fisheries and ecological services that support at least 60 million people?" aks the report. "To produce energy through hydropower, up to 11 new dams are planned for the main stem of the Lower Mekong River alone. Their construction will negatively impact both wild fish populations and the many people who rely on wild fish as their major source of protein."

The report also tracks decline in regional biodiversity, including several charismatic species like the tiger, Asian elephant, Irrawaddy dolphin and the endemic saola. It says ongoing fragmentation, degradation, deforestation, and poaching could leave some wild populations of these animals on the brink of extinction in the region. WWF adds that regional governments are too often failing to maintain protected areas or take effective action against illegal logging.

“Many protected areas exist in name only,” said Cutter. “Even relatively secure protected areas are under intense pressure from poaching and timber theft, while others have been reduced in size by government’s eager to cash in on land concessions to mining companies or plantation owners.”

China’s Pressure on Southeast Asia’s Forests

Ioannis Gatsiounis wrote in the New York Times: “China's thirst for natural resources and its determination to play a larger role in Southeast Asia are overriding the effort to sponsor sustainable development in the region. China is the world's largest importer of illegally logged timber, said Kevin Conrad, director of the recently established Coalition for Rainforest Nations at Columbia University's Earth Institute in New York. "Unless they stop, there is nothing we can do about illegal logging in the region."[Source: Ioannis Gatsiounis, New York Times, December 16, 2005]

In August 2005, the Chinese government proposed to fund the conversion of 4.4 million acres, or 1.8 million hectares, of Indonesian Borneo into the world's largest palm plantation. The proposed plantation site is mountainous and not well suited for palm production, leading some, like Tom Dillon, a director at the World Wildlife Fund, to wonder whether the project is "really about oil palm, or subverting forestry laws?"

Deforestation in Indonesia

Indonesia has lost more than four million hectares of forest since 2000, according to a report by the wildlife fund.

Ioannis Gatsiounis wrote in the New York Times: “Several Indonesian timber barons have been arrested, and their operations shut, since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected on an anti-corruption mandate last year. But many of these operations have quietly been restarted, said Jessica Lawrence, executive director of Borneo Project, an environmentalist and human rights group based in Berkeley, California.

Legal and illegal deforestation will continue unless alternative forms of livelihood are created, said Dana Clark, president of the International Accountability Project, another Berkeley-based environmental and human rights organization.

Malaysia and Deforestation in Indonesia

Ioannis Gatsiounis wrote in the New York Times: “Ironically a major abettor in Indonesia's deforestation is its neighbor, Malaysia. Lawrence said the Malaysian government had worked hard to develop a regulated and apparently law abiding logging industry, with a reputation for legitimacy that has allowed it to sell wood to multinationals leery of buying Indonesian timber. But, for a small bribe, illegal loggers in Indonesia can haul logs across the Borneo border to be stamped with a Malaysian seal and sold on to China and beyond. [Source: Ioannis Gatsiounis, New York Times, December 16, 2005]

Malaysian companies handle 75 percent of the wood exported from Indonesia, Conrad said. Malaysian forestry officials say the scale of illegal imports from Indonesia has been exaggerated, but concede that the border in Borneo is porous, and local officials may have been bribed.

"We don't condone corruption," said an official of the Sarawak, Malaysia, state forestry corporation. "But it is difficult to monitor illegal activity." "There is very little actual evidence of corruption," agreed Chen Hin Keong, senior forestry adviser in Kuala Lumpur of the environmental group Traffic International. "This isn't to say it's not happening."

World Bank and Asian Development Bank Help Save Southeast Asian Forests?

Ioannis Gatsiounis wrote in the New York Times: “Nowhere are the contradictory challenges of sustainable development more evident than in Southeast Asia, where export-driven economies and infrastructure improvements have lifted people out of poverty, but up to 90 percent of the region's primary forests have been lost. International donors acknowledge that their funding practices have sometimes fueled both development and destruction, and have begun to attach environmental criteria to their funding policies.[Source: Ioannis Gatsiounis, New York Times, December 16, 2005]

The Asian Development Bank, for instance, says it will no longer finance any rural infrastructure or other public investment project that significantly contributes to deforestation. The World Bank says it is increasing lending to local conservation agencies. "Resources will be provided to countries that improve governance," said James Adams, the World Bank's vice president for operational policy and country services.

The World Bank and the ADB are working with rights groups to pressure governments in the region to adopt legal frameworks that deter logging. Still, legal frameworks achieve little without political will for change, which has often been lacking in the region.But even if the lenders threaten to revoke substantial funding- the World Bank for instance committed $300 million to 48 biodiversity conservation projects in Southeast Asia from 1999 to 2004 - they have less leverage than they did in the past because of Asia's new wealth. "Before, the developed world drove issues," Adams said. "Now what you see are financial surpluses" in Asia.

The banks, too, have sometimes ignored failures to meet forest management conditions set for their loans. The World Bank released $15 million of a structural adjustment credit for Cambodia last year, despite illegal logging that continued unabated - mostly to the benefit of a small group of companies and individuals with close ties to senior politicians.

The World Bank is seeking to address that problem in part through a prototype carbon fund set up in 2000 to encourage the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and provide finance for sustainable development. It is also helping to finance construction of a $1.3 billion dam in Laos, the Nam Theun 2 hydroelectric project, which will provide one of the world's poorest countries with a steady stream of revenue from electricity sales to neighboring Thailand. A Laotian presidential decree outlaws the export of timber from the flooded reservoir area. "That's the law," said Thayer Scudder, an anthropology professor at the California Institute of Technology and an expert on the social impact of large dams. "But will it be implemented? Or will Laos export both timber and power?"

Illegal Logging in Indonesia

Since the fall of Suharto the rate of illegal logging has increased dramatically. By some estimates illegal logging accounts for four fifths of all the harvested timber in Indonesia and 70 percent of all the sawmills in Indonesia are illegal. Since 1996, legal and illegal logging in Indonesia consumes about 5 million acres of rain forest a year. The Rain Forest Network estimated in 2003 that illegal logging in Indonesia produces about 50 million cubic meters of wood per year which has a value of around $3.5 billion.

The rain forests in Borneo and Sumatra are particularly threatened by illegal logging. Illegal logging in Indonesia has caused, according to one scientific report, a “biological catastrophe.” Much of the wood from illegally harvested hardwoods ends up in the United States, Europe, Japan and China.

Even in Indonesia’s 376 national park and conservation areas centuries-old trees are being felled just as quickly as chainsaws can be turned loose on them. Some parks have been so devastated they can no longer be regarded as nature reserves.

Illegal Logging Trade in Indonesia

Eighteen timber barons are reportedly responsible for most of the illegal logging in Indonesia . They generally work with local politicians and military officers, all of who reap huge profits. The logging is usually carried out by men employed by syndicates who provide chainsaws and tell the loggers where to go. One of the biggest losers is the government that loses an estimated $1 billion in lost tax revenues from the practice each year.

Under Suharto, the logging industry was controlled by a few Suharto cronies and the central government. After Suharto was ousted more power was given to the local and regional governments, who opened up forest in their jurisdictions to logging. Some of the money trickles down. Local police and soldiers are often bribed to look the other way when trucks loaded with illegal logs come passing through their turf. An atmosphere of bad governance has been created and in this atmosphere illegal logging thrives. Once logs have been processed, it is impossible to determine whether they are legal or illegal. It is sort of like laundering money. In some case, illegal timber is processed and then exported as legal finished goods. But in Indonesia this is hardly necessary. Even though there is a ban on the export of raw logs from Indonesia dozens of ships carry such logs to Malaysia, Singapore and other places that processes the wood for re-export to the United States, Europe and other destinations.


Illegal Tree Cutters in Indonesia

Illegal logging is not something that is difficult to do. It requires relatively little manpower and overhead. The only expenses are labor, chainsaws and hiring trucks to carry the logs. The syndicates have no trouble finding cutters who are willing to work to earn money for a motorbikes and other desired things. Many have cutters have a choice of illegally cutting timber or facing poverty.

Illegal tree cutters usually work in teams of four, living in jungle camps when they work. During the day they cut logs and send them floating down rivers or attach them metal tracks which bring them to the rivers. Eventuality the logs reach sawmills on the rivers. At night the cutters sleep on platforms six or so feet off the ground for protection from snakes and tigers.

One illegal logger told the Los Angeles Times, “What we do is illegal. The forests belong to the people. All the people here are tree cutters. That’s how we survive — on logs.” The loggers face many dangers and tend to be superstitious and obey jungle taboos such as bathing naked and dangling one leg over the edge of the platform they sleep on.

Asian Market for Tropical Wood

The main importers in Asia are Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. New markets have opened up for tropical woods in China.

Japan has traditionally been the world's largest consumer of tropical rain forest wood. Much of the rain forest in Borneo has been cut down to meet the demands of the Japanese market. In the 1980s Japan received the vast majority of its tropical timber from Sarawak and Sabah in Malaysia. These days much of the timber imported to Japan with a Malaysian label is actually from trees that have been illegally logged in Indonesia. Japan provided aid money to build roads in rainforest area that were later exploited by Japanese timber companies.

The furniture industry in China gobbles up large amounts of Chinese timber as well as illegally-logged tropical rain forest timber from Indonesia and other places. The use of disposable chopsticks uses up 1.3 million cubic meters of timber a year according to China’s environment ministry.

Between the mid 1990s and mid 2000s China went from being a country that imported much of its wood products to one of the world’s leading exporters of furniture, plywood and flooring. China is also a leading consumer of paper. While many paper products are made with recycled paper China still has built a number of new pulp mills and in the future they will need trees to keep them going.

Chinese demand for wood is consuming foorests around the globe. The rain forest of the Congo and Cameroon in central Africa, the Amazon basin and the islands of Indonesia are all being heavily logged to supply China’s growing demand for wood and its rapidly-growing furniture industry.

Palm Oil Trees and Rainforest Deforestation

Native to West Guinea in Africa, the oil palm tree produces a nut or kernel that is pressed to produce palm-kernel oil and endosperm — the pulp around the kernel of the mahogany-red fruit that hangs below the palm fronds like bananas — that produces oil which is used in making a number of foods.

Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand are the world’s largest palm oil producers. The oil palm tree was introduced to Malaysia in 1870, with commercial production beginning in 1917. Many tropical rain forests have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantation which are comprised of endless rows of palm oil trees. On the largest palm oil plantations the fruit is moved to the processing plants by light railways that run along dirt roads that run across the plantations.

Much of the world’s palm oil is produced on land formally occupied by rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia. Much of the destruction is in Indonesia, where the United Nations Environment Program warned in 2007 that 98 percent of the forests in Sumatra and Borneo could be gone by 2022. In neighboring Malaysia, which is also a major palm oil producer, much of the low-lying forest has already vanished.

Disposable Chopsticks in China and Japan Strip Asian Forests

Rachel Nuwer wrote in the New York Times, Though the chopstick is the quintessential cutlery choice throughout most of Asia, Japan and China in particular seem prone to using the disposable variety. In China, smaller restaurants prefer disposables while larger ones tend to go with plastic. In Japan, disposables are found even at nicer sit-down establishments. [Source: Rachel Nuwer, New York Times, October 24, 2011]

“Each year, the equivalent of 3.8 million trees go into the manufacture of about 57 billion disposable pairs of chopsticks in China, according to statistics from that nation’s national forest bureau. About 45 percent of disposable chopsticks are made from trees like cotton wood, birch, and spruce, while the remainder are made from bamboo. Half of the disposables are consumed within China. Of the other half, 77 percent is exported to Japan, 21 percent to South Korea and 2 percent to the United States. Chopsticks add to a plague of regional deforestation. According to a 2008 United Nations report, 10,800 square miles of Asian forest are disappearing each year, a trend that must be arrested to fight climate change, given the vital role trees play in absorbing carbon dioxide. “Donna Keiko Ozawa, a San Francisco activist and artist, told the New York Times,”Japanese restaurants in particular have a tendency to use disposables. They weren’t composting or recycling. For a country otherwise obsessed with recycling — a typical Japanese kitchen often devotes half its space to multiple trash bins for meticulously sorting recyclables — the chopstick phenomenon may seem puzzling. Cost isn’t the driver: restaurants investing in reusable chopsticks at $1.17 a pop actually save money in cost-per-use by comparison with disposables. Restaurant reusables normally have a life span of about 130 meals. Disposables cost about 2 cents in Japan, so the equivalent 130 disposable pairs cost about $2.60.

“Of course, some customers may balk at eating with reusables, citing sanitary concerns. But disposable chopsticks pose risks of their own for consumers and the environment, Greenpeace says. While production standards exist in China, it says, supervision is sometimes nonexistent, especially in small factories. Industrial-grade sulfur, paraffin, hydrogen peroxide and insect repellent are among the harmful chemicals that Chinese media investigations have exposed during production. Paraffin is a known carcinogen, and hydrogen peroxide can harm the digestive system. Chopsticks irresponsibly disposed of can contaminate water and soil quality.

Efforts to Break the Wooden Chopstick Habit in Japan and China

Activists argue that the disposable chopstick habit could gradually be phased out on an individual basis. Chopstick sets complete with a simple or decorative case are sold at many stores and are easy to put in a purse, knapsack or briefcase, they note. In China, organizations like Greenpeace East Asia are trying to raise awareness of the issue. In December, 200 students from 20 Chinese universities collected 82,000 pairs of used disposable chopsticks from Beijing restaurants. With the discarded utensils, they built four trees, each 16 feet high, to create a “disposable forest.” [Source: Rachel Nuwer, New York Times, October 24, 2011]

“The project was featured in a busy pedestrian mall in Beijing, and the students encouraged 40,000 passersby to sign a petition rejecting disposable chopsticks. “Imagine thousands of people passing by that area every day,” said Aihong Li, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace in Beijing. “It was quite shocking for people to see these images.”

“In 2007, China imposed a tax on wooden chopsticks with the goal of helping the environment. After that, Japan — which boasts one of the world’s highest forest coverage rates at 69 percent — simply began relying more on other suppliers like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Russia rather than phasing out disposables.

“While there has been no Japanese legislation to address the issue, a few on-the-ground changes are gaining popularity. Some restaurants now stock plastic chopsticks, although they keep a stash of disposables on hand in case customers request them. At the ubiquitous convenience stores throughout Japan, cashiers now ask if customers need chopsticks rather than sticking them into checkout bags by default. Certain restaurants also offer discounts or free tea for people who bring their own utensils.

“In China, 2,000 Beijing and Guangzhou restaurants have sworn off wooden chopsticks, and the Web site Fantong reports which restaurants are committed to reusables. Last year, the Chinese government issued a notice urging restaurants to go green, although Greenpeace said that the notice did not include specific measures for reaching that goal. “Generally speaking, more and more college students and white-collar workers are bringing their own chopsticks for meals,” Ms. Li of Greepeace says, “though in the greater sense this is still a big problem.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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