Tackling conservation, climate change and development in Southeast Asia

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Tim Forsyth stands in a cleared section of national parkland in Sumatra, Indonesia. Courtesy Tim Forsyth

For several decades, Southeast Asia’s tracts of dense, old-growth rainforest have served as fertile ground for lumber, and much land has been converted to agriculture. Now, palm oil plantations are being planted where forests once stood.

In 2011, Indonesia, one of the region’s most prosperous countries, instituted a two-year moratorium on clearing new areas of forest, which is set to expire this May and has been criticized as having several loopholes. Other countries, including Cambodia and Myanmar, are losing forests rapidly.

Out of concern for climate change, international initiatives such as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) have aimed to promote conservation and sustainable development in countries with significant forest cover. But these efforts do not always support local needs, and can inadvertently have negative impacts.

Tim Forsyth, a Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Distinguished Fellow, speaks about the gap between conservation efforts and economic and social development in Southeast Asia. He is visiting Stanford this quarter from the London School of Economics and Political Science where he is a reader in environment and development at the Department of International Development.

What major types of forest management do we see across Southeast Asia today?

A number of countries have put laws in place to restrict illegal logging, and have established national park areas. These are usually old-growth rainforests that restrict logging and agriculture. The problem with national parks is that they put so many restrictions on land use that the vulnerable populations living around them either suffer or are forced to cut other trees. I have spent some years working in poorer villages in Indonesia and Thailand on the edge of protected forests, and usually conservation policies avoid the fact that people need to get livelihoods somehow. Government policy should acknowledge how these people are vulnerable to changes in crop prices and the availability of land, or else these people might be forced into breaking the rules of national parks.

There is also production forest, which usually includes forest plantations. These can include softwoods such as pine, or hardwoods such as teak — and increasingly oil palm for food and biofuels. Forest plantations are attractive to governments and businesses because they earn money and can provide timber for construction and exports. Sometimes, plantations also gain carbon credits, although this is not a lot of money so far. In terms of conservation, destroying old-growth forest and replacing it with a monoculture plantation is not good for biodiversity. It also does not benefit those local people who want to harvest forest products or use part of the land for agriculture.

Finally, there are community forests that are supposed to be places where people can grow food, live, and have forest cover. The definition of “community forest,” however, varies from place to place. In Thailand, for example, the way the government defines it is not very different from a conservation area, and consequently there is not much space for agriculture. The Philippines, on the other hand, is more decentralized and local people can shape the nature of the forest landscape more. Corruption, however, is a problem.

Is there an ideal model that successfully supports sustainable development? How does your research approach this issue?

There has been much progress in collaborations that involve willing governments, international advisors, and local actors — often in accordance with an international agreement such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. These collaborations are more useful than a single actor working alone, and they acknowledge a wider range of objectives.

A new initiative is Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+). This is meant to encourage governments to slow down deforestation by rewarding them financially through carbon credits. But REDD+ has a number of challenges. The main problem is that the value of the credits is so low at the moment. REDD+ also overemphasizes forest cover, rather than forest quality. This means that if a satellite image of a country shows a lot of forest cover, that is good according to REDD+. But this gives no indication as to the biodiversity or the diversity of livelihoods inside a forest. It is a green light to all of the people who want fast-growing tree plantations, which makes them money and supplies them with wood for construction. In addition, it keeps a government happy because it supplies their country with timber and tax revenue, but this is not necessarily what you would call sustainable development.

There are elements of good models in different places, and it really depends on one’s viewpoint. Nepal offers a good example of community forestry because, in principle, it aims to engage local people more effectively and equally, and so can combine local development with the protection of national forests. From a development perspective, some forms of conservation can hurt poorer people and actually undermine conservation efforts. Therefore, in my work, I try to promote policy that acknowledges the needs of the more vulnerable populations. My research tries to make climate change policy more relevant to development processes in Southeast Asia. In my current project, I am seeing how policy recommendations about forests can be reshaped and reinterpreted locally in developing countries in order to address local interests. My goal is to understand how expert knowledge about climate change can be governed more effectively in order to enhance both development and conservation in Asia with better outcomes for everybody.

What can people do in their everyday lives to help combat climate change?

The practical problem of dealing with forest destruction and climate change in Southeast Asia is also a function of social and economic trends. As countries become more prosperous, more and more people live in megacities, drive cars, live in air-conditioned apartments, and frequent shopping malls.

A couple of years ago in Bangkok, I took lots of photographs of t-shirts printed with global warming messages and of people carrying reusable bags. When I was there recently, all of these things had disappeared. In other words, there is a tendency for people to think of conservation efforts as a fashion trend.

I do not think that any city in Asia is doing enough. We have to start planning cities in ways that use fewer greenhouse gases, and also to encourage people to realize that they can be real agents of change. At the moment, many urban citizens believe they can implement climate change policy by managing rural and forested landscapes. Instead, they need to realize the problems of these approaches, and to see what they can do themselves.