Good news among the gloom from Asia's forests

Posted: 12 April 2005

Author: Henrylito Tacio

Asia's forests, covering nearly 700 million hectares - or about 18 per cent of the world's total - are being destroyed at an alarming rate. But says a new book there is also a lot of good news about forest conservation in the region.

Deforestation, Asia: Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Deforestation, Asia: Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Deforestation continues to rage in Asia.© Henrylito Tacio
The overall picture of Asia's forests is alarming. The forest area, taking in both forest losses and reforested land, declined by over 10 million hectares each year during the 1990s. Nine countries saw a loss of more than 1 per cent over the decade.

The island of Kalimantan in Indonesia has lost half its forests already "and it is still going on" says the Indonesian Forum for the Environment. "By 2015 two-thirds of Kalimantan's forest will be gone". Major fires have also been reported in Mongolia, Australia, Thailand and other parts of Indonesia.

Commercial harvesting of trees has also been more widespread in tropical Asia and the Pacific than in any other region, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation's 1997 State of the World's Forests report.

However, amid this raft of bad news, a new book from FAO and the Regional Community Forestry Training Center offers some good news for a change. "While the bad news is out there and is true in most cases, there are also lots of good news stories in the region that are not being told," said Patrick Durst, an American who has spent most of the past 25 years living and working in Asia and the Pacific.

The book, In Search of Excellence: Exemplary Forest Management in Asia and the Pacific, shatters the myth that there is no positive forestry being practiced in the region, and has been widely welcomed.

"It provides inspiring examples that show the way forward," said Dr. Neil Byron, of Australia's Productivity Commission. It shows that "excellent forest management is not only possible but already happening in places across Asia and the Pacific."

Dr. Nigel Sizer, director of the Asia-Pacific Forests Program of the Nature Conservancy, echoed the view. "The stories gathered (in the book) show that there is hope for forests where new ideas are allowed to flourish."

Examples abound in the region. In Indonesia, for instance, the Damar gardens in Sumatra represent totally original examples of sustainable and profitable management of forest resources, entirely conceived and managed by local populations (the indigenous Krui people).

"The Krui agroforests are managed in such as way that they can meet the short-term, medium-term and long-term livelihood needs of the Krui people," observes Dr. Anne Casson, a visiting scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre. "However, this unique forest management system does not only sustain the livelihoods of the Krui people; for it also conserves biological values, enhances biodiversity and maintains ecological functions."

The same approach happens in the Kalahan Forest Reserve in Pangasinan, Philippines. "It provides a compelling example of an indigenous ethnic group (the Ikalahan) using forestry practices to help maintain cultural identify," notes the book.

The system incorporates crucial aspects of Ikalahan culture, coupled with entrepreneurship and forward-looking leadership focused on maintaining a viable ethnic culture in the modern world.

Forest protection in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, India is especially interesting and innovative. The Periyar story is of a group of convicted smugglers - whose basic means of livelihood in the past was to illegally strip cinnamon bark from trees in the reserve - and their transformation into stewards of biodiversity.

In Tasmania, Australia, the Huon District Forests are managed in a policy environment characterized by intensive controversy among environmental advocacy groups, the timber industry and the state government.

"In Huon District, determining the objectives for forest management is a continuing source of controversy," the book editors noted. "However, the systems that deliver forest management, according to established government policy, are praised by many, although not necessarily by all."

Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines. One of the cases featured in the book.© Henrylito Tacio
In the Philippines, the Mount Makiling Forest Reserve - which remains as one of the country's important biodiversity areas and significant forested watersheds - is a living testimony of what people and institutions can do together to conserve a natural heritage for Filipinos and for the world.

Such approaches, but with a slightly different twist, have also taken place in the Can Gio Mangrove Forests in Vietnam. It used to be classified as productive forests, but during the Second Indochina War (1965-1969), the ecosystem was almost completely destroyed by herbicides, bombing and over-exploitation. To restore it to its former glory, the local government contracted impoverished residents to manage heavily degraded mangrove areas.

Today, Can Gio is widely known around the world because of its extensive mangrove forests and since early 2000 has been recognized as a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

These are just some of the 28 cases featured in the book published by the FAO regional office and the Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific, both based in Bangkok, Thailand.

A widespread call for nominations identified 172 forests in 21 countrie that were perceived to be 'well-managed." After careful vetting, 28 forests were selected for detailed analysis.

Durst explained: "The case studies featured in the book should not necessarily be perceived as 'the best' among the nominees. In selecting the case studies, we looked for geographic diversity, a range of management objectives, diverse forest ownerships, different sized-forests, and compelling stories."

The FAO senior forestry officer, who is also the lead editor of the book, certainly doesn't believe the outlook for Asia-Pacific forests is all doom and gloom. "My work brings me into contact with large numbers of people doing incredible work in managing the region's forests," said the FAO regional forestry officer. "The pity is that the knowledge, skill and commitment of these people are usually buried beneath the horror stories of wanton logging, purposely-set forest fires and the exchange of large envelopes stuffed with cash in dark and smoke-filled rooms."

For more information and to obtain a copy of the book, contact: Mr Patrick Durst, Senior Forestry Officer, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, 39 Phra Atit Road, Bangkok, 10200 Thailand. Tel: (66-2) 697-4139; Fax: (66-2) 697-4445; E-mail:

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