Deforestation in Eight Southeast Asian Countries:
Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Thammasack Manokham


Environmental destruction is not new to the developing Southeast Asian communities. Deforestation, or the loss of forest cover, is happening at an alarming rate in these countries as the population increases rapidly. The increasing population is accompanied by an increasing need for agricultural land. As a result, much land is deforested by slash and burn cultivators. In these developing countries, the nature preserves drawn on map are overrun by local communities whose need for subsistence overwhelms attempts to protect wildlife or the native forest. In addition to loss of forest land due to conversion to agriculture, many forest trees are over-harvested or illegally cut, resulting in less stock and inadequate reproduction. Since forest products are an important export commodity for many of these countries, loss of forests results in decreases in revenue for the country. Consequently, some countries such as Thailand and the Philippines have become importers rather than exporters of forest products.

My paper will have four sections. Section one will discuss the extent of deforestation in these eight countries and its effects. The second section will explain national policies adopted by these countries to limit deforestation and its effectiveness. A model of sustainable deforestation in Thailand will be discussed in the third section and then, applied to the other seven countries. Finally, in section four sustainable environmental polices will be recommended.

1. Extent of Deforestation.

Population and deforestation
In 1995, Asia has 60.5% of the world’s population. Although Asia has the highest recorded population (3,458,000, 000) in 1995, it does not have the greatest annual rate of increase. Africa’s annual rate of increase (2.8% between 1990 and 1995) is higher than Asia’s annual rate of increase (1.6%). However, Asia faces many environmental problems such as deforestation because of its high population.

Figure 1. Population of major areas and regions. Source: 1995 United Nations Demographic Yearbook.

Of the eight countries that were examined in this paper, Indonesia has the greatest rate of population increase (figure 2). Indonesia is home to more than half of that region’s population. Although the rate of population increase is not as high as Indonesia, the other seven countries are also increasing steadily.

Figure 2. Estimates of Midyear Population (in Thousands) for Eight Southeast Asian Countries. Source: 1996 UNESCO Statistical Yearbook.

One way to measure a country’s development is by its GDP. Generally, the higher the GDP, the more developed the country. With this in mind, the eight countries show signs of development because their gross domestic products have increased (figure 3). Malaysia has the greatest GDP. Thailand has the next greatest. The remaining six countries, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines and Myanmar, also have growth in GDP.

Figure 3. Gross domestic product: per capita for eight Southeast Asian Countries. Source: National Accounts Database of the Statistical Division of the United Nations Secretariat.

GDP is the result of many kinds of economic activities, such as agriculture production, mining and quarrying industries, manufacturing, electricity, and construction. If the agricultural sector (which includes agriculture, hunting, forestry, and fishing) contributes most to the country’s GDP, then a growth in GDP could reflect an increase in deforestation.

In two countries Myanmar and Vietnam, the agricultural sector contributes more than half of total GDP (figure 4). This large percentage for Myanmar and Vietnam indicates that the economies of Myanmar and Vietnam are dependent on agricultural production for succuss. The percentage that the agricultural sector has contributed to the total GDP has increased for Myanmar during the period of 1985 and 1992, whereas for Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam this percentage has remained stable. Although the percentage has not changed significantly for these latter countries, the percentage of agricultural contribution to total GDP is high. For Indonesia and the Philippines the percentage has been 25, and for Thailand it has stabilized to about 15. The large percentage indicates that agricultural production is important for both domestic consumption and export.

Figure 4. Gross domestic product by kind of economic activity (agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry) at current prices. Source: National Accounts Database of the Statistical Division of the United States Secretariat.

There could be a correlation between the increase in gross national product and the decease in forest cover. To validate this assumption, there must be an increase in the agricultural sector in GDP and the increase must be extensive rather than intensive. In other words, the increase in the agricultural sector must be the result of land expansion instead of increasing the net yield per land.

Deforestation Patterns
Indonesia has the greatest total land area (Map 1). Thailand and Burma come next in scale of land forest area. Vietnam and the Philippines follow behind these two countries.


Map 1. Total land area for Eight Southeast Asian Countries. Source: Summary of the Final Report of the Forest Reserves Assessment 1990 for the Tropical World, Food and Agriculture Organization, March 1993.

In the eight Southeast Asian countries, a large percentage of their total land area is covered by forests. In four Southeast countries, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Indonesia and Malaysia, more than 50 percent of their total land area is covered by forests (Map 2). The other four, Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand have greater than 25 percent of their land area covered by forests. The high percentage of forest cover indicates that the potential for agricultural production, commercial logging, land clearings for cultivation and settlement, and uncontrolled fuelwood collection in these countries is also high. There is a great amount of forest land to be depleted.

Map 2. Forest Cover (1990) (% of land area). Source: Summary of the Final Report of the Forest Reserves Assessment 1990 for the Tropical World, Food and Agriculture Organization, March 1993.

Deforestation is high in countries with large total land area. Because Indonesia has the greatest total land area, it plays a key role ocncerning the future of forests in Asia. While Indonesia has the largest forests, it also poses the largest deforestation (Map 3).

Map 3. Annual Deforestation for Eight Southeast Asian Countries. Source: Summary of the Final Report of the Forest Reserves Assessment 1990 for the Tropical World, Food and Agriculture Organization, March 1993.

Although Indonesia has the highest annual deforestation of all eight countries, the rate of deforestation is much lower than Thailand’s and the Philippines'. To determine which countries have the greatest amount of forest loss over the years, the change in deforestation over a ten year period was calculated. Four countries that have lost a considerable amount of land loss from 1980 to 1990 are Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. The percentage in forest area decrease over the ten year period is high in these four countries (map 4). This is especially true for countries with large-scale domestic forest-based industries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

Map 4. Percentage of Forest Area Decrease in Eight Southeast Asian Countries Between 1980 and 1990. Source: Summary of the Final Report of the Forest Reserves Assessment 1990 for the Tropical World, Food and Agriculture Organization, March 1993.

Over the ten year period, forest area has been reduced in Thailand by 28.9% and in the Philippine by 28.8%. The rate of deforestation for Thailand and the Philippines are both 4.0 x 10-2. Malaysia follows behind with its forest area reduction at 18.4%. Vietnam and Myanmar are also close behind, with forest area reduction at 14.2% and 12.2% respectively.

Reasons for Deforestation
The biggest threat to the forests is commercial logging, land clearings for cultivation and settlement, and uncontrolled fuelwood collection. High population density has contributed not only to destructions of forests by land clearings for cultivation but also overharvestings of forests for fuelwood.

In countries where a majority of the total population lives in rural areas and still earns a living principally on agriculture, such as in Thailand, agricultural products have been the major export earners for the past two decades (Phantumvanit, 10-15). Agricultural productions have increased significantly in other Southeast Asian countries as well (figure 5), such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. There is a projected increase for all eight countries. As the demand for land to grow cash crops increases, deforestation will increase.

Figure 5. Agricultural Production (all commodities). Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (Rome) in Statistical Yearbook, fortieth issue.

In order to increase agricultural output, there is expansion of cultivated areas rather than increase in the net yield per unit area of land area. As stated earlier, the increase in agricultural production is the result of extensive cultivation rather than intensive cultivation. This encroachment upon forest areas for cultivation is a major cause of deforestation. The situation is made worse by the decline in land quality. Consequently, some crop yields have shown a downward trend over the past five years in both irrigated and rain-fed areas because of soil degradation and poor management (Phantumvanit, 14).

Another cause of deforestation is the increased demand for fuel wood. In the three years since 1991, when the prices of most agricultural commodities have been stable or have fallen, the price of tropical timber has risen by more than half (Lumpur, 38). As the demand for fuel wood increases, deforestation will worsen. Annual fuel wood demand is estimated to be 15.1 million cubic meters, in comparison with the total sustainable supply of 6.3 million cubic meters (Phantumvanit, 14). If the economies of Southeast Asia continue to grow at their fast rate, the rates of consumption of forest products and services will also increase. This will be a problem for fuelwood production in plantations in maintaining a natural forest cover in the region. Consequently, deforestation will cause the Southeast Asian countries to be importers rather than exporters of forest products. Latin America will become the new exporters (figure 6) as the region’s dominance in the world trade of tropical hardwoods decline by the end of the century because of the depletion of timber resources.

Figure 6. Projected Exports of Logs and Processed Wood. Source: Granger 1987.

Other causes of deforestation include illegal logging by both loggers and farmers. When logging, although it is generally called "selective logging," is conducted with destructive methods involving heavy machinery, damage occurs to the logged area. The logged areas are not regenerated and soon abandoned by settlers, who entered the logged areas and burn down the remaining forests for farmlands, plantations, and building sites, because they have poor soil and cannot be used for long-term farming. Logging reduces the productivity of agriculture and fisheries over wide areas, robbing the environment of its capacity to sustain future generations ("Wasteful Japan," 43). In many cases of excessive and destructive logging, governments have allowed unsustainable logging in order to encourage the timber trade, support industry or earn foreign exchange for economic developing.

Effects of Deforestation
Although deforestation is the result of small scale decisions such as subsistence farming, ranching or lumbering for profit, consequences of deforestation are on the large scale such as alteration of hydrological patterns, effects on global climate, or reduction of biodiversity (Katzman,827).

Soil erosion, frequent floods, droughts, and forest fires are the local results of this loss of tropical forest. Without the protection of trees, exposed topsoil is easily eroded away by wind and rain. The erosion sparks floods and mud slides and the silting of rivers.

Secondly, tropical rain forests are home to over 80,000 different species of plants and 20 million species of animals. The loss of species is accompanied by the diminishing of the genetic pool. In addition, forests are a source of valuable products such as rattan, bamboo, natural rubber, and medicinal plants. Its disappearance also translates into the loss of cure.

Lastly, deforestation can lead to global warming. The increase in carbon dioxide and other gases from industries causes global warming through the greenhouse effect. Trees, as the biggest plants, play a crucial role in maintaining the earth's oxygen/carbon balance. They take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Burning trees contribute to the greenhouse effect by emitting carbon dioxide. These burned-out forests can no longer remove the carbon dioxide ("Saving the Rain Forests," 11).

National Policies Adopted by Countries and Its Effectiveness.

Malaysia and Indonesia
When the international communities have placed a limit on imports of tropical hardwood, Malaysia and Indonesia have led a counterattack. In Malaysia, lobbyists who were hired by the timber trade argued that limits were another form of protectionism designed to keep the poor countries poor. They argued that when rich countries want to negotiate agreements to limit deforestation, they express no interest in how temperate timber is grown. In other words, rich countries did not want to help pay for the expenses of reforestation.

The Malaysian government has allowed the police and army to round up illegal loggers and to impose much higher fines. In Indonesia, the government requires those who are granted logging concessions to replant where they fell. Both countries have also imposed a ban on log exports. Although these actions may suggest that the government is trying to curb illegal logging, this is really not the case. These actions disguise their economic interest. Both governments want to create an industry that uses the wood on the spot rather than one that simply sells the unprocessed logs. By processing the timber on the spot, they squeeze Japan's wood processing industries and attract Japanese investments for themselves.

These two countries also used certification, a process which cuts out middlemen and puts timber importers in close touch with producers. By certifying that logs have been produced by sustainable methods of forestry, these two countries are taking a short-cut to moral high ground because certification might improve forest management and ensure that the government gets its proper share of logging revenues. Without certification, there is a risk of losing market share in Europe and America, which are the main markets for the high-value timber products. Although some may be reluctant to pay extra, timber producers could still gain, according to rough sums by World Bank economists. They reckon that this, plus regaining those lost green markets, might eventually bring producers an extra $100m-120m a year in revenues. The Indonesian forestry ministry has already established a group to study the possibilities of eco-labeling and Malaysia is also beginning to investigate certification.(The Economist, 39)

Since the government of Malaysia and Indonesia own the forests, they are able to increase their own political power by distributing concessions to certain groups. When concessions to exploit the forests are issued to the holder, they are usually too short and this gives them no incentive to conserve resources. To avoid this, the government might auction concessions with a reserve price that reflects the cost of replacement. The chance of this actually happening is rare because concessions are important for political alliances. It is reported that timber magnates pay small sums to the officers and evade quotas, levies, and rules ("Trees Not Timber," 36).

Philippines have banned the export of logs (at the start of the Aquino administration in 1986) and sawed lumber. Extensive illegal logging and exports, nevertheless, systematically undermine these measures. Price-fixing schemes, which prevent the producer countries from gaining the proper economic benefit from timber exports, also undermine these measures ("Wasteful Japan," 43).

To address the rapid destruction of Laos' forests, the Lao government held Laos' first National Conference on Forestry where they issued a resolution that sets forth strategic directives to manage Laos' forests and identified urgent measures to protect these forests. Subsequently, they issued a decree which entrusted the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry with protecting the forests and discussed land use by villagers, as well as conversion for development in the form of roads, mining and construction for hydroelectricity. A national logging ban was subsequently issued in 1991 that prohibited tree felling for the sale of wood as raw material or as construction material, and only allowed processed wood to be exported.

Thailand in the 1950s had adopted a national policy which stipulated that 50%, later changed to 40%, of the national area was to remain under forest (Hirsch, 171). It halted legal logging since the decision in 1989 to cancel all concessions.

It has also mounted a national campaign in response to illegal logging. Log poachers include innumerable subsistence farmers who find illegal logging more economically rewarding than other alternative means of employment (Phantumvanit, 15).

Although farmers occupy and work this previously forested land or forest reserve land, they are in a marginal position economically, ecologically, and politically because they have no legal title to it. Without proper land titles, they do not have incentives to invest in their farms. They also face obstacles in applying for loan credits from any formal financial institutions. Lack of access to credit as a result of inability to provide collateral in the form of land title means that farmers do not have the means to make improvements. Consequently, they have abandoned their older cultivated land for new land because they cannot get money for fertilizers and other items. The latter reason is the more important factor inhibiting sustainable management of land in forest reserve areas because most farmers working the land, despite the insecurity of forest reserve status, regard it as their own in much the same way as do those with legal title (Hirsch, 171). Problems of tenancy and landlessness will increase as the population and ensuing intensification of agriculture increase (Phantumvanit, 14).

Although all such land is state land, policy practices lead to ambiguity over legal status of forest reserve land. The Lands Department of the Ministry of the Interior collects agricultural land taxes on this land, and these tax receipts are used in place of land titles between farmers and in negotiations with state authorities when prior occupancy needs to be established. The government has been in the past reluctant to move settlers off the land in fear of alienating those who are among the poorest of Thailand's rural poor. In addition, forest settlement has been the principal means of agricultural expansion at a national level and of peasant household strategy at a local level. The Public Welfare Department, Agricultural Land Reform Office, and a host of other agencies has granted legal tenures to many of those who in the past illegally occupied forest reserves. Thus, many expect that "sitting tight" will be enough to eventually achieve such legal status (Hirsch, 171).

The government has attempted to rehabilitate the forest itself by implementing programmes that reforest encroached forest reserve land, mainly with fast-growing species. These programmes include 'forest villages,' where farmers are moved off their land and hired full time to plant trees and social forestry, where agriculture is supplemented by reforestation on private and community woodlots. The emphasis is on privatizing reforestation, which involves the granting of 30-year leases to concessionaires on forest reserve land. The state land under lease to concessionaires is often alienated from poor farmers who have been working the land for a number of years. As a result, many reforestation schemes have led to confrontation between local people, state officials, and private concessionaires.

To solve the problem of land tenure in forest reserve area and to stabilize forest reserve areas so that poor farmers do not encroach on forested land, the Thai government implemented the sor tor kor, or usufructory license in 1982. It grants limited land rights (such as the right to occupy and farm up to 2.4 hectares of forest reserve land for an initial period of five years) to the more than one million families occupying forest reserve land illegally. This length can be extended if certain rules are adhered to. However, these farmers are called squatters and have had few rights under law. They can be subject to arrest for oppositions to various government schemes, nominally on the charge of forest encroachment. They are also required to give up some land because their average farm size is about 5 hectares. The strict plot limit is inadequate to make a livelihood under existing practices. Surplus land is then reforested with the participation of usufructory license holders. The license is passed on to descendants but is not sold or used as collateral with commercial banks. Other problems include that ambitious targets have not been met. By 1985, only 1 million hectares had been licensed, which represents approximately one-tenth of denuded land. Lastly, the assumption that land will not be brought and sold is false. Tax receipts are used instead of title deed because there is little perceive risk for large landowners who purchase land from small landowners, and for creditors who wish to foreclose on informal loans (Hirsch, 171).

Model of Sustainable Deforestation in Thailand and Its Applications.

One succussful project of sustainable deforestation that was established by the Forest Industry Organization in Thailand in 1967 was the Forest Village System. The program promoted commercialization of timber harvest, reforestation, and forest research. It attempted to solve the problems of land degradation, lack of land for peasants, and the need for reforestation of valuable timber species. By combining subsistence and commercial agriculture with reforestation, the program created new forest villages for the growing rural population with limited income opportunites. It achieved its objective of settling landless people and assuring a source of labour for plantation work.

By implementing the Forest Village System, the seven countries would stop the migration of the landless who have encroached on forest lands and intensified shifting cultivation. This program will not only prevent them from degrading their forests, but will also prevent them from crowding out forest-dependent communities from their traditional forest farming land. This will prevent violence between the two groups in the long run because the forest-dependent communities will not feel that their rights, identity and culture have been endangered by the landless farmers.

The participants of this Forest Village System will now have incentives to harness and manage the renewable and reproductive capacities of forest resources because they are resettled on a permanent basis. They are working on their own land. Supplied with facilities such as health clinics, schools, and agricultural credits and other forms of economic and social assistance, they will be content with the system and will want to give up their nomadic existence. While rehabilitating degraded forest reserves and increasing the timber production in these areas, they also improve their standard of living.

Recommended Environmental Policies.

If the current rates of deforestation continue, WRI predicts that by the year 2000, the 33 net exporter countries will drop to below 10, and export earnings will shrink to about US $2 billion at current prices. This prediction is being manifested in two countries: Thailand, who has gone from an exporter to an importer, and the Philippines, whose timber trade is down to a trickle.

In response, the international community’s has responded by creating two global initiatives: the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO), which attacks the problem through the logging industry, and the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP), a task force made up of the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Resource Institute. Funds to these initiatives and investments designed to slow the rate of deforestation have doubled in the past three years to US $1 billion, but the rate of deforestation has never been greater.

Tropical deforestation is closely related to the development policies of tropical nations and the weak legal restrictions in developed countries such as Japan and Thailand. Japan, the greatest importer of world tropical timber, imports most of the wood in the form of raw logs, not processed wood products ("Wasteful Japan, 43). Developed and developing countries, whose excessive demand for tropical timber, must help solve the problem of tropical deforestation. For instance, the Japanese government recently had a basic policy regarding the conservation of tropical rain forests, and the Japanese timber industry has expressed no support for these changes. So far, for example, the Japanese industry has taken a negative position on the European Industry's proposal to impose a levy on imports of tropical timber and to use the proceeds to promote sustainable forestry projects through the International Tropical Timber Organization ("Wasteful Japan, 43).

My proposals require participation from both developed and developing countries. They are as follow:

1. Governments of both developing and developed countries must conduct a wide ranging reform of its basic policies on trade, investment, corporation conduct, the domestic consumption of timber products, and foreign aid instead of settling with a handful of small-scale tree-plantation projects such as those it has been promoting.

2. Developed countries should reform its foreign aid policies, which has been directly and indirectly linked to tropical forest destruction, such as construction roads, dams, port facilities, and large-scale agricultural schemes. a. They should also stop all official and private financing of projects for which the World Bank and other development organizations have canceled loans or grants as a result of the project's potential for environmental destruction. The construction of roads in or through forest lands by legal concessionaires, public highway departments and other public investment programs (dams, railways) provides increasing to forest lands. Instead, they should introduce an environmental-impact assessment system, including alternative proposals, for all foreign-aid projects that could have a negative impact on the environment and on the local societies of the recipient countries.

3. They should also establish a committee of government agencies, the timber industries, and non-governmental organizations to formulate a plan for conserving tropical forests.

4. Lastly, they should establish a domestic and international code of conduct for forestry operations, as well as regulations that restrict the trade and use of tropical timber to supplies obtained, with proper management, from sustainable sources (Wasteful Japan, 43).

The underlying theme is that the developed and developing countries must recognize the economic basis of these decisions and change the incentive structure that generates them (Katzman, ). In particular, producer countries should increase the price of timber products to reflect their replacement cost rather than their extraction costs and create financial incentives for conservation. They should should reevaluate land-use decisions (because they have undervalued their forests and thus, must change their policy accordingly, especially those agreements that regulate the timber industry). To meet the demand of forest products on a sustainable basis without destroying forest, more efficient wood extraction and processing techniques can be practices. Increasing the use of wood substitutes should also be encouraged. On the other hand, consumer countries must subsidize forest preservation or revamp the timber trade and increase prices because these tropical countries need timber export earnings, land to plant cash crops and land to settle rising populations. Producer countries do not have the luxury to leave their remaining forests untouched because the land transformed to other uses can provide cash, jobs and a home (Hirsch, 171).


Although Southeast Asia forests are currently able to supply growing demands for both domestic consumption and export, they will not be able to retain this exporting position in the future as their forest reserves get depleted. This region as a whole faces a widening deficit between production and consumption of traditional forest products. In conclusion,these eight countries, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, created large-scale forest domestic forest-based industries that promoted economic development but simultaneously decreased their high forest covers. Clearly, deforestation was essential to that country's socio-economic development.

Works Cited