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Saving Mekong forests must remain a focus for slowing climate change

Mekong Eye

As the IPCC readies its Special Report on Global Warming at 1.5 °C, scientists warn forest protection is paramount. How will the Mekong Region respond? Ask China.

Produced in cooperation with The Nation

Forty of the world’s leading scientists issued a stern warning last night that there’s no hope to stop global warming 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, even accelerating in some regions like 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.

As the world awaits Monday’s much-anticipated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C, to lay out urgent actions needed to address climate change, the scientists caution that if forests don’t stay standing, “the climate—and people living near and far from felled or burned forests—will suffer.”

Dr. Somsak Sukwong, founder of the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), wonders why it took these scientists so long to act. “Here in Thailand, we have been fighting deforestation for sixty years, trees are still being logged out of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries,” Somsak says.

Meanwhile, he adds, all the attention around global warming is wrapped-up in promoting renewable energy and other greenhouse gas reduction strategies, when this 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 says.

A report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) 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 eleven “Deforestation Fronts” that could be responsible for 80 percent to 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 forest, only to seek virgin timber from its neighbors. Thailand too imports raw logs over its borders as it has already lost most of its 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, say Somsak and Sasin, is China.

“It’s not necessarily that we only see truckloads of logs heading north into China, but often its finished goods, like high-value furniture so it’s undocumented where the wood came from,” Somsak says.

There’s so much demand, primarily from China, for rosewood, and so little resources being located 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 both Somsak and the scientists speaking out yesterday. It’s feared that the upcoming IPCC Report will push to accelerate un-tested so-called bioenergy strategies known as carbon capture and storage, that would risks 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, could 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, possibly signal that China might warm to cutting back on its appetite for Mekong forests?