Will Mekong region policymakers heed the clarion call by global scientists? Ask China.
Forty of the world’s leading scientists recently issued a stern warning that there’s no hope to stop climate change without forest protection. This natural carbon removal technology, they stress, is one of humanity’s most powerful tools to stop runaway climate change.
However, global deforestation continues, and is even accelerating in some regions, such as the Mekong Basin. Equally distressing, the scientists stress, is the pittance allocated to forest protection and rehabilitation within climate adaptation budgets relative to far less effective measures.
The world awaits Monday’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Though the report is to lay out urgent actions needed to address climate change, the scientists have cautioned that if forests are not saved, “the climate – and people living near and far from felled or burned forests – will suffer.”
Somsak Sukwong, founder of the Centre for People and Forests (RECOFTC), wonders why it took these scientists so long to act. “Here in Thailand, we have been fighting deforestation for 60 years, but trees are still being logged out of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries,” Somsak said
Meanwhile, he adds, all the attention around global warming seems focused on promoting renewable energy and other greenhouse gas reduction strategies, when a core part of the solution has been under our nose all along.
The Mekong region has been blessed with extensive forest resources, notes forest activist Sasin Chalermlarp of Seub Nakhasathien Foundation. “But we continue to lose them at an alarming rate to fuel economic growth,” he said.
A report by the World Wildlife Fund released in July found that the Greater Mekong was the world’s most densely forested areas in the 1970s, but has since lost a third of its tree cover. The region is on course to lose another third between 2010 and 2030. WWF includes the Mekong countries amongst 11 “Deforestation Fronts” that could be responsible for 80 per cent of the world’s deforestation in the coming decade.
Much of the current decline is occurring in Cambodia, along with Laos and Myanmar. Vietnam is turning the tide on managing its forests, only to seek virgin timber from its neighbours. Thailand, too imports raw logs over its borders as it has already lost most of its own primary forest, and struggles with local communities on measures to equitably manage what’s left.
But the real player in the Mekong region’s forestry loss, agree Somsak and Sasin, is China.
“It’s not necessarily that we only see truckloads of logs heading north into China, but it’s also often finished goods like high-value furniture, so it’s undocumented where the wood came from,” Somsak explained.
There’s so much demand for rosewood, primarily from China, and so few resources are being allocated for forest protection, that it’s been a losing battle for decades, stresses Somsak.
There’s also an ongoing problem of forests being cleared for plantations, be it rubber, palm oil, bananas or fast-growing trees. Such transformations create a net-loss of both stored carbon and future carbon sequestration, but continue to nibble away at the region’s forests.
This trend is particularly worrisome to Somsak – and to the scientists speaking out yesterday. It’s feared that the upcoming IPCC Report will push to accelerate untested so-called “bioenergy strategies” known as carbon capture and storage, that would risk wiping out huge areas of forest in order to make way for plantation timber for energy.
Further deforestation also comes with extensive social impacts on communities that historically have relied on and managed these forest. As recent studies have pointed out, the best way to ensure forest integrity and their perpetual regeneration, is to leave them in local control.
With China exerting so much political influence over Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, and members of these countries’ militaries benefiting from the ongoing deforestation, it seems very unlikely that the region will see the kind of change on the horizon that scientists are calling for, fears Somsak.
“Just like buyers of ivory products are not deterred by global conservation campaigns, precious-woods consumers are also unlikely to heed our efforts to stop timber smuggling from the Mekong region,” Somsak adds. “It will continue to be an uphill battle.”
Then again, there is the recent news that China may be gaining traction curbing illegal ivory sales, and thus slowing the poaching of elephants from some of the same forests that eventually may get cut down. Could that possibly signal that China might warm to cutting back on its appetite for Mekong forests?