Population and prosperity are destroying Asia's forests

Posted: 1 August 2000

Population pressures and increasing prosperity - these two are "the most important drivers of demand for forest products" in Asia and the Pacific region, according to a recent report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), writes Henrylito D. Tacio.

The region accounts for 55 per cent - more than 3 billion people - of the total world population. The annual population growth rate is pegged at 1.4 per cent. "This is expected to continue through 2010," says the report.

Currently, the region accounts for 25 per cent of the world gross domestic product (GDP). Its annual growth rate has averaged 2.6 per cent since 1980.

"As populations have increased and people have become wealthier, perceptions of the forests have changed considerably," says the study, Asia-Pacific Forestry Towards 2010. "People are demanding more and more from the region's forests. Seldom are old demands relaxed; rather, new demands are simply added to the list of needs and expectations people have of the forests."

The study notes that large Asian countries like Indonesia, India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have populations more than 50 per cent of the people aged 25 years old or younger. More than 60 per cent of the population in Bangladesh and Pakistan are aged 25 or under. "During the next 15 years, these people will likely form an increasingly heavy consumption base for forest products and services," the report points out.

Services provided by forests have gained particularly attention in recent years. Among these are the maintenance and enhancement of quality water supplies. Forests also serve as "repositories of biological diversity" and "carbon storage." Likewise, forests provide recreational and educational opportunities for tourists.

The region covers one-quarter of the world's land area. It is home to 15 per cent - 807 million hectares - of the world's forest and wooded land. "This represents about 28 per cent of the region's land area but is equivalent to only a quarter of a hectare of forest or wooden land per person - the lowest ratio for any world region," the report claims.

It cites clearing for agriculture - including shifting cultivation - as a major direct cause of deforestation and forest degradation in the region. In Asia, about 30 million people are dependent on slash-and-burn agriculture. Some 75 million hectares of forests are affected by this method of farming. The areas and countries most seriously affected are Kalimantan in Indonesia, northeastern and central India, the central highlands in the Philippines and parts of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Bangladesh.

Other culprits cited include: fires, open grazing, fuelwood harvesting, mining, irrigation and hydroelectric projects, and urban expansion.

Compounding these causes is the rapid consumption of forest products. In fact, the rapid growth in the consumption of forest products, it notes, is "even faster than income and population growth."

"As a consequence of the continuous removal of forest cover in Asia," says Harold R. Watson, former director of the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center, a non-government organization based in the southern part of the Philippines, the region's forestry is now experiencing stress signs all around.

"The signs cry out for immediate attention," Watson, a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for international understanding in 1985, says specifically for the Philippines, where he had worked for more than 20 years. The "signs" he cited include the increased sedimentation of streams, lakes, and rivers; the increased severity and frequency of floods and landslides during rainy seasons and longer periods of drought in the dry season. The same scenario is happening in other Asian countries.

All is not bleak, however. The FAO report lauds the region being the world leader in tropical forest plantation development. And it praises changes in forest management objectives. "There is notable reorientation in many countries toward social and environmental objectives," it says. "Many countries are reducing their reliance on natural forests as a source of industrial roundwood and are shifting to other sources."

Henrylito D. Tacio is an award-winning Philippine journalist, based in Manila.