The Asian region makes up about one-quarter of Earth's land area, but holds almost 60 percent of the world's population. Tremendous population pressures throughout the region have contributed to the region's substantial forest loss. Additionally, many Asian countries have entered a period of sustained spectacular economic growth in the past few years, resulting in the increased consumption of forest resources.
|Forest cover, end of period|
|Average annual loss|
|Average annual loss|
Source: FAO. Data for 1980-1990 is extrapolated from disparate FAO sources.
Since the close of the 1990s, the rate of deforestation in tropical Asia has climbed by more than 20 percent, from 0.8 percent per year to almost 1 percent per year. This jump is largely due to the economic slowdown that affected the region in the late 1990s and depressed logging and development (see explanation below).
Of commercial activities, logging takes a dominant role in forest loss, followed distantly by mining and hydroelectric projects. Commercial logging in this region has been more widespread and intensive than in other regions, and poor harvesting techniques have led to severe ecological degradation. Before World War I and during the early postwar years, most tropical timber entering the world market came from countries bordering the Atlantic. Foreign demand for Asian rainforest timbers was limited to certain specialty species and timber consumption was mostly domestic in nature. Since the 1950s, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea have exported large amounts of timber to Japan for its postwar reconstruction and economic boom. Initially most logging occurred in Peninsular Malaysia and the Philippines, but in the 1970s Indonesia became the timber king when it began granting concessions to multinational corporations. The market share of nonconiferous tropical timber exports of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei increased from 17 percent in 1965 to 30 percent in 1973 to over 70 percent in the 1980s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with falling timber stocks and log prices, many traditional log exporters placed moratoria on log exports and began to restrict timber harvesting. Today timber from new markets (Laos, Cambodia, New Guinea) is taking over for the Philippines and Malaysia.
Several countries in Asia have extensive mineral endowments on their rainforest lands, the exploitation of which is generally detrimental to the environment.
A few governments, most notably Indonesia, have promoted the settlement of outer area to relieve some of the population pressures of major cities and islands. The colonists arrive on outer islands and proceed to cut forests for agricultural sites, fuelwood, and grazing lands. These myopic resettlement policies have already had serious ecological consequences and threaten the future economic vitality of the region.
Today much of Asia's remaining forest is degraded, making it more susceptible to drying out during dry spells. The El Niño conditions of 1997-98 facilitated the spread of land-clearing fires set by plantations owners and subsistence farmers. These fires rapidly spread into massive conflagrations that burned expansive tracts of bush and rainforest in Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi, New Guinea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. Health advocates warn that the regional health effects may last for years.
There is hope for the rainforests of the Asian realm. Many governments and middle-class citizens are increasingly environmentally conscious and recognizing the importance of conserving their forests, and many are showing interest in reforming their environmental policies. Governments and local conservation organizations are looking towards new ways to promote sustainable use of rainforests in a way that benefits impoverished farmers, conserves biodiversity and forest resources, and helps to sustain the region's current economic growth. Community-based forest management is on the increase as is eco-tourism, which in many areas is over-developed and devastating to the local environment.
The Asian realm has the most plantations of any tropical region, with around 80 percent of tropical plantations. Though many of these have been planted on forest lands specifically cleared for the purpose, more plantations are being planted on previously degraded lands. Plantations are effective in that they both provide the product they are designated for, but also are used as a source of wood for small farmers after harvesting.
One of the biggest concerns facing the Asian region in the new few years is what will become of countries that still have abundant forest reserves. These tend to be poorer countries, yet to reach the economic development of the others in the region, conservationists fear they will use their forest resources as a stepping stone towards development.
The Asian economic slowdown produced some good news, from a conservation standpoint: the higher prices of imports like the equipment necessary for logging and mining meant that many firms had to suspend operations. Higher production costs, coupled with lower demand from a drop in construction, meant that less timber was taken from Southeast Asian forests than anticipated. In addition, in order to reduce spending, the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia had to reduce subsidies for and shelve some development projects that would have resulted in more deforestation.
|Total land area|
|Country||(1000 ha)||(1000 ha)||% of total|
|(1000 ha)||% of total|
|% of 1990|
|Lao People's Dem. Rep.||23,680||16,142||69.9||1,490||6.3||-6.8||0.0|
|Total South and|
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Suggested reading - Books
- The State of Environment in Asia : 2005/2006 (The State of Environment in Asia)
- Southeast Asia: An Environmental History
- Changes and Disturbance in Tropical Rainforest in South-East Asia
- Shadows in the Forest: Japan and the Politics of Timber in Southeast Asia
- Timber Booms and Institutional Breakdown in Southeast Asia
Unless otherwise specified, this article was written by Rhett A. Butler [Bibliographic citation for this page]
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Last updated: 5 Feb 2006