Can Southeast Asia achieve zero deforestation by 2030?

About 15 per cent of the world’s primary forests is concentrated in the region, but in the last 20 years, an area the size of Thailand has been lost to deforestation, which is now increasing in mountain regions. Indonesia pledges to stop expanding palm oil plantations, which are a major factor in deforestation; but to do this while maintaining high production levels, it needs billions in investment.

Jakarta (AsiaNews/Agencies) – More than one hundred countries attending the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland have signed an agreement yesterday that includes a commitment to stop deforestation by 2030.

The signatories include a number of countries from Southeast Asia, a region of ​​the world with almost 15 per cent of the world's tropical forests.

Such a pledge goes against what has been happening for years. For this reason, there are serious doubts about the real commitment to turn words on paper into actual actions.

Southeast Asia is one of the regions where deforestation is advancing more rapidly, fuelled by the race for intensive farming and the exploitation of its vast mineral resources.

According to a multidisciplinary study carried out by experts at the universities of Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Chiang Mai and Leeds and published a few months ago, between 2001 and 2019, Southeast Asia lost a total of about 610,000 sq km of forests, an area larger than Thailand.

About 31 per cent of this loss occurred in mountainous areas, where 189,100 sq km of highland forests were turned into cropland and plantations in less than two decades.

The study also found that the process is accelerating in recent years. By 2019, 42 per cent of total annual forest loss occurred at higher elevations, with the frontier of forest loss moving upslope at a rate of about 15 metres a year.

The loss is particularly serious in northern Laos, north-eastern Myanmar and Indonesia’s eastern Sumatra and Kalimantan regions.

More generally, Indonesia – which is among the signatories of yesterday’s agreement at COP26 in Glasgow – is the Southeast Asian country with the highest level of deforestation.

According to Global Forest Watch, Indonesia could still count on 93.8 million hectares of humid primary forests in 2000, covering about 50 per cent of its territory. Over the past 20 years, some 9.75 million hectares of this forest was lost, or about 10 per cent.

Deforestation has been led by the growth of the palm oil industry, of which Indonesia is a leading world producer, together with Malaysia.

Most doubts touch precisely how governments can reconcile the commitment made in Glasgow to reduce deforestation to zero by 2030 with such economic activity in Southeast Asia.

The Indonesian government has pledged to respect its commitment by encouraging new farming methods that would increase yields without the need for more forest land. In particular, this would entail helping smallholder farms, whose holdings cover 75 per cent of total palm oil plantations.

According to the Indonesian Palm Oil Board, new crops could yield as much 22 tonnes per hectare per year compared to 9.2 currently.

About 2.78 million hectares of plantations belonging to smallholders are over 25 years old and need to be replanted, according to the Indonesian Agriculture Ministry.

However, this kind of transformation requires large-scale investments and one wonders how US$ 19 billion pledged at Glasgow can reach that goal.