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Deforestation of Southeast Asia – urgent action needed

Updated On: Oct 19, 2007

Southeast Asia must answer the global call for environmental protection.

The Asia-Pacific region is facing increasing demand from the world over for forest products and Southeast Asia is dependent on this export. Over the past 15 years, the region has lost about 10 million hectares of forest cover, an area roughly half the size of Laos or equal in size to the US state of Pennsylvania, said Patrick Durst, a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) senior forestry official. "We are living in a borderless world and what happens in forests and forestry in one country is very much dependent on what happens in other countries," FAO forestry boss Jan Heino said.

Throughout Southeast Asia, environmental destruction takes place. Truckloads of illegal timber cross the Myanmar border to sawmills in China, while markets along the Thai border openly sell bear paws, tiger skins and elephant tusks. Myanmar needs such trade to feed its military of 400,000 soldiers in a number-doubling process. "Given the high demand and extent of the trade in Myanmar, many species will be lost," said Chris Shepherd, a senior program officer for conservation group Traffic. "Rhinos in Myanmar are probably already extinct due to trade. Tigers are on a huge decline. Elephants are in huge decline. The list goes on and on."

In Indonesia, a country characterized by its far-flung archipelago and rapidly decentralizing political structure, the government is drafting a presidential decree on peatland management to help combat global warming as peatlands store a huge amount of greenhouse gases and prohibit the use of fire to clear vegetation in peatland areas.

"Under the decree, the central government will control the use of and permits for peatlands in the country," Senior advisor to the forestry minister on partnership affairs, Sunaryo said. "However, these activities must avoid the use of fire in clearing the vegetation in peatland areas," Sunaryo said. "In doing so, we can control the hefty stock of carbon dioxide (CO2) stored in the peatlands while reaping the economic benefits of the land," he said.

A report from Wetlands International in 2006 said Indonesia's peatlands emit around 2 billion tons of CO2 a year, far higher than the country's emissions from energy, agriculture and waste, which together amount to 451 million tons. It places Indonesia as the world's third largest emitter. "In Kalimantan, peatlands are the main source of water retention. Peatland damage could pose serious problems to the water supply," Sunaryo said. He said the government would in the future ban the use of peatland for residential purposes, particularly in areas where residents rely on wood for cooking. "There are many residential areas in Kalimantan located near peatlands, such as in BanjarmasinSouth Kalimantan. The area is actually prone to fires," he said.

The viability of this decree is dependent on the often complex and contradictory nature of the Indonesian political scene. For example, the administration and the House of Representatives remain at loggerheads over illegal logging in Riau, causing legal and investment uncertainty in the country. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's decision to set up a joint team led by Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Widodo A.S. to deal with the issue only seems to have complicated the issue as tensions broke out between the Forestry Ministry and the National Police over illegal logging in Riau.

The ministry defended its decision to give forest concessions to Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP) and Indah Kiat Pulp and Paper (IKPP), while the police accused the two companies of getting illegal logs from partner companies. Azis Syamsuddin, chairman of the House's working committee assigned to investigate illegal logging cases, slammed the government and the House commissions for becoming locked in a "battle of egos".

"To settle the case, the conflicting commissions should sit down together to put the case on the table and seek a comprehensive recommendation," he said. "The friction between the Forestry Ministry and the police in the government camp and between the House's environmental commission and the commissions overseeing legal and forestry affairs is rooted in the conflicting Law No. 41/1999 on forestry and Law No. 23/1997 on the environment."

Rampant illegal logging has seen Riau top the list of provinces with the highest rate of illegal timber exports, ahead of Kalimantan and Papua with some 126,000 cubic meters of illegal timber exported toMalaysia on a monthly basis and hundreds of more cubic meters are believed to be supplied to local plywood industries and pulp mills. (18 October 2007)

Sources:

UN warns of Asian forestry challenges (Bangkok Post, 17 October 2007)

Environmental Problems Loom in Myanmar (AP, 17 October 2007)

RI drafting regulation on peatland use (Jakarta Post, 17 October 2007)