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Asia’s Forest Loss Leaders Skip, Challenge Global Deforestation Pact

Asia’s Forest Loss Leaders Skip, Challenge Global Deforestation Pact

Asian countries with some of the world’s largest yearly tropical forest losses have either not joined a new global pact to halt forest loss by the end of the decade or sparked doubts about their commitment after signing up.

More than 120 countries joined the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use on November 2 at the United Nations’ COP26 climate conference in Scotland.

The non-binding agreement commits them to “working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation” — a major cause of global warming — by 2030, with some $19 billion in public and private financing in the works to help developing countries follow through.

Collectively, Southeast Asia hosts nearly 15% of the world’s tropical forests, prized by climate activists for the volumes of world-warming carbon they can lock up. But most countries in the region have yet to join the COP26 pact, including Laos and Malaysia; both ranked among the top 10 countries in the world for primary tropical forest loss last year, according to the World Resources Institute, a U.S. research group. Cambodia, 11th on WRI’s list, has also not signed up.

Malaysia signals

After drawing rebuke from local opposition parties and rights groups for its absence from the pledge, Malaysia announced Friday it will be joining the deal, but did not say when.

After the declaration was announced without Malaysia on November 3, a local lawmaker, Charles Santiago, called the country’s absence a “tragedy” in a Twitter post. Speaking with VOA, he said it was crucial that the government now make good on its promise to sign up, blaming the country’s mounting forest losses for amplifying the damage from recent floods and robbing endangered wildlife of their habitat.

Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia are the world’s two largest producers of palm oil, a cash crop that takes up vast tracts of land, often over cleared forest and peatland, another rich carbon sink. WRI data show they lost a combined 343,000 hectares in 2020, an area more than twice the size of greater London.

Santiago said Malaysia’s powerful business interests were all but sure to block the country from meeting the declaration’s 2030 target, assuming it does join. But he argued that Malaysia should sign up regardless to give the country something to aim for and to tap into the international financing that could unlock.

“As a country, we have to make a decision … whether we should continue with the way we are doing it or [whether] we need to really put some control over deforestation, especially in dealing with oil palm [and] construction,” he said.

Indonesia wavers

Environmental groups fear business interests may end up undermining the declaration in Indonesia as well.

The sprawling archipelago also features on WRI’s top-10 list and cleared more primary tropical forest in 2020 than Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia combined.

President Joko Widodo signed the country up to the COP26 pact in Glasgow on November 2. A day later, though, Indonesia’s environment minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, called a commitment to zero deforestation by 2030 “inappropriate and unfair,” casting doubt on the nation’s intentions to abide by the deal.

“Forcing Indonesia to zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair,” she said in a Facebook post.

“The massive development of President Jokowi’s era must not stop in the name of carbon emissions or in the name of deforestation,” she added, referring to the president by his common nickname.

In a statement the next day, conservation group Greenpeace called the minister’s remarks “profoundly disappointing.”

“For Indonesia to have a minister for environment who supports large-scale developments with clear potential for environmental destruction is deplorable. Rather than ensuring we protect the planet for future generations, this is doing the opposite,” the head of the group’s Indonesian forest campaign, Kiki Taufik, said.

On Friday, though, a spokesperson for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told The Guardian newspaper that Indonesia’s stated goal of net zero forest loss by 2030 — replacing yearly deforestation with just as much or more new forest — was actually consistent with the COP26 pact.

Mahendra Siregar, Indonesia’s deputy foreign minister, explained the country’s net zero forest loss goal in statement Thursday.

Mixed messages

Arief Wijaya, a senior manager for WRI Indonesia, told VOA that all the back and forth was creating some confusion about what the declaration actually commits countries to.

He said the Long-Term Climate Strategy that Indonesia submitted to the United Nations in July commits the country not to net zero forest loss, but to net zero emission from forest and land use by 2030. That will let it clear more forest and peatland than it replaces or restores by the end of the decade, so long as what it replaces and restores captures at least as much carbon as what it gives off.

Arief said that will require Indonesia to make sharp cuts to its forest loss rates over the coming years and at least points the country “in the direction of the COP26 pledge” and puts it on a “trajectory toward zero deforestation.”

Indonesia and Malaysia have been bringing their annual forest losses down for the past few years. That’s not the case for all of Southeast Asia. Cambodia’s losses stayed roughly steady in 2020 after rising the year before. Losses in Laos have been rising for the past two years and were at their highest yet in 2020 since WRI started keeping track in 2001.

With research suggesting that Southeast Asia’s tropical forests on the whole are a major carbon source, Arief added, every country had a role to play.

“If we believe that the continental Southeast Asia … is actually a tropical forest belt, and it’s important for the global climate, temperature and so forth, then any country should actually commit and contribute to reduce deforestation and to manage their forests sustainably,” he said.

Laos’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment did not reply to VOA’s requests for comment.

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