Alarm Over Mekong Region’s Rapidly Disappearing Forests

By Rachel Vandenbrink
2013-05-02
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A newly deforested area in Laos, Jan. 16, 2011.
A newly deforested area in Laos, Jan. 16, 2011.
BIOSPHOTO

The greater Mekong region in Southeast Asia could lose nearly a third of its forests within the next two decades if governments don’t boost protection, a leading conservation group warned Thursday, saying the region’s freshwater ecosystems are also threatened by planned dams.

Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam have lost nearly one third of their forest cover over the past 35 years, leaving the region with about half of its natural forests, the report by the World Wildlife Fund said of the region centered around the Mekong River.

The forests are being overtaken by farmland and replaced with agricultural plantations growing rice, rubber, sugar, and other commodities for export, the report said.

Other areas are damaged by logging—linked to a rise in demand for timber in China, Thailand, and Vietnam—while mangrove forests have been cleared to make way for rice paddies and shrimp farms.

Using satellite imagery, the WWF’s researchers calculated that between 1973 and 2009, Cambodia lost 22 percent of its forest cover, Burma and Laos each lost 24 percent, and Thailand and Vietnam each lost 43 percent.

The “hotspots” most at risk for further deforestation include the margins of large forest blocks that remain in Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, the report said, adding that national statistics from Vietnam and China have “masked” overall losses in regional tree cover because they include large monoculture plantations that are gradually replacing natural forests.

'At a crossroads'

The region has retained forests covering a total of some half of its land area, but if current deforestation rates persist, another third could be lost, with devastating consequences for wildlife, the report said.

“The Greater Mekong is at a crossroads,” said Peter Cutter, a WWF land conservation expert.

“One path leads to further declines in biodiversity and livelihoods, but if natural resources are managed responsibly, this region can pursue a course that will secure a healthy and prosperous future for its people,” he said.

Mekong dams

The greater Mekong region, which also includes southwestern China’s Yunnan and Guangxi, is a biodiversity hotspot and supports some 70 million people depending directly on its ecosystems for food, water, and livelihood.

The region is bound together by the Mekong River, which hosts 13 unique but interconnected freshwater ecosystems, which are threatened by planned dams.

The controversial Xayaburi dam under construction in northern Laos is a “key threat” to the health and productivity to the region, and will block migratory fish and sediment flow with devastating consequences for livelihoods and food security, the WWF warned.

If all 11 planned dams on the main stem of the Mekong River are built, fish supply could be cut by 40 percent, the report said.

But because the region is still rich in natural capital, building greener economies is still “well within reach,” if regional governments coordinate properly, the WWF concluded.

"Given that the majority of the region's biological heritage and supporting ecosystems occur in landscapes that cross borders, regional collaboration is critical," Cutter said.

"Increased and more sustainable investment in maintaining ecosystem integrity must also be a priority at landscape, national, and regional scales."

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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