This story was originally published on The Jakarta Post as part of our collaborative journalism project on Southeast Asia forest restoration supported by the Rainforest Journalism Fund and Pulitzer Center.
Being one of the three regions with the largest tropical rainforests in the world, Southeast Asia is actually losing large parts of its forests, mostly from human activities.
But people living around and in the woodland across the region have been leading efforts to protect and restore them to return their function amid the worsening climate crisis.
In most cases, the economic factor has become the main driver of deforestation in Southeast Asia.
Villagers living around the forest of the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia, for example, have blurred the lines between the protected forest and their land, causing deforestation in the mountain range.
Located in Southern Cambodia, the 800,000-hectare monsoon and mangrove forest in the mountain range is the second-largest virgin rainforest in Southeast Asia and home to at least 60 endangered species, such as Asian elephants and sun bears. But the forest has been threatened by deforestation as more than 148,000 ha — or 8.6 percent — of tree cover were lost between 2001 and 2019, according to Global Forest Watch.
With limited access to sources of livelihood, the local people depend on selling high-value timber and endangered animals to make ends meet. Around 16 percent of people living the remote areas in the mountain range are living below the poverty line.
Over the years, organizations and local authorities have been inviting the forest people to look for alternative sources of livelihood, one of which is butterfly farming. While the effort has led to the return of local butterfly populations, it also helps the villagers as they can sell any excess butterfly to a center in Siem Reap that will release them in other forests across the country.
“We know that when the forest is healthy, the people are healthy,” local farmer Suon Sareth said. “The butterflies are showing my community how we can live harmoniously with the environment again.”
A similar case can be observed in Indonesia. Villagers in Jember and Banyuwangi, East Java, have been illegal logging for decades in the protected Meru Betiri forests, one of the last tropical rainforests in Indonesia’s most populous island of Java. The 52,626 ha lush national park was the location of a tropical forest rehabilitation project between 2013 and 2014.
But recently, some have come to their senses and decided to stop cutting down trees in the forest illegally. They have turned their attention to various businesses, thanks to the support of local authorities, such as mushroom cultivation, duck farming and ecotourism. At the same time, authorities also required them to replant the trees they once cut down.
“I plant new trees and make sure each one of them grows to absolve me of my sins,” said Sutinggal, a former illegal logger from Jember.
Former illegal loggers in Pekalongan, Central Java, have also left their old lives and are now making a living out of wild coffees growing among trees in the nearby forest. Now, the villagers are busy learning how to process the harvested coffee beans in order to raise their value in the market.
Work with authorities
In most countries, forest people are working together with authorities in restoring the forest; sometimes, in exchange for financial compensation for their decades of hard work.
Villagers in Mamuyao, Rizal province, the Philippines have left their traditional slash-and-burn approach in planting rice and ginger. Now, they are planting trees whose products can be harvested and sold to markets, such as cacao and coffee.
The plantations guaranteed the community’s food security and provide alternative sources of income, while the villagers succeeded in rehabilitating the forest. They have succeeded in maintaining the tree seedlings’ survival rate at up to 86 percent in two projects that cover nearly 130 ha of forests in the province.
The Philippines has an ambitious goal of restoring all unproductive and degraded forests across the country whose area could reach up to 7.1 million ha by 2028.
In Vietnam, a community suffering from forest degradation from the United States military’s bombing in the 1970s had been working for decades to restore the Can Gio mangrove ecosystem located in the middle of Ho Chi Minh, the country’s largest city.
Its efforts have borne fruit as the villagers resurrected 27,000 ha of mangrove forests between 1978 and 2000, achieving 135 percent of its initial target of 20,000 ha.
For their hardworking efforts, the city administration initiated the Payment for Forest Environmental Services (PFES) program to reimburse locals for protecting the forests. Forest planters can be paid around 1.2 million Vietnam dong (US$52.22) per ha per year for replanting and maintaining the forests. The fund has been a stable source of income for local residents and helped them survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marketing, illegal logging challenges persist
But the efforts to restore forests once and for all do not always go as smoothly as planned.
For forest people who are working on alternative sources of income, marketing their products to potential buyers and markets has always been a big challenge. Most of them live in remote locations that have only small roads connecting them and bigger towns nearby.
Some villagers said this obstacle had hindered them from getting the steady income necessary to fund their next batch of production.
“We are always looking for assistance. We want to do many things, we want to implement many projects, but our funding is limited,” said Arnel Silao, an official of Mamuyao village.
He added that a local farmers association had been actively looking for various sources of funding to expand their cacao and coffee plantations without destroying the forests.
Meanwhile, in Pekalongan, local farmers have been working with coffee experts and baristas on how to process their coffee beans, so they can add value to their products upon selling them to customers and potential markets. Rather than sell the beans for Rp 3,500 (24 US cents) per kilogram, farmers can sell their products for Rp 40,000 per kg after they sort and roast the beans.
While some have turned their focus on protecting forests, timber loggers and forest encroachers are still the main threat to forests in Southeast Asia. According to studies, the region has the highest rate of deforestation, losing 1.2 percent of its forests every year.
The high deforestation rate has turned Southeast Asia from a carbon sink that absorbs and stores the atmosphere’s carbon into carbon emitters. A recent study led by Nancy L. Harris of World Resources Institute estimated that the region’s forest only removes an equivalent of 1.1 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year while emitting 1.6 million tons of emissions.
“When I see illegal loggers during my patrol, it feels like somebody is destroying the garden that I planted,” said Tran Minh Tung, a local resident whose family has replanted mangrove trees in Ho Chi Minh.
But the encroachment is not only done by residents. The rainforest in the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia has been marred by land-grabbing for businesses done by “politically connected people”, said Wildlife Alliance CEO Suwanna Gauntlett. The organization has been managing the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) project in Cambodian forests.
“We are trying to build the political will of the local authorities so they do not allow [protected] state forests to be given away,” Gauntlett said.
Reflecting on the progress and challenges, experts have been urging all relevant stakeholders to do more in their efforts to restore forests.
Nophea Sasaki, a forestry and carbon expert at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand, said the government should play a big role in making sure forest restoration produced significant results.
One of the efforts is by promoting the REDD+ scheme and enabling policies to support the private sector’s investment in controlled forest plantation, while also giving support the natural forest management.
“[They also] need to show good examples by enforcing the rules and taking offenders accountable for [destroying] forests and the local environment,” Sasaki said.
While lauding the efforts made to provide alternative sources of income for forest people, Zeng Yiwen of the National University of Singapore acknowledged that the region might need more than one approach to solve its deforestation problem and ramp up reforestation.
“Providing alternative sources of income is important to ensure people’s wellbeing. It will be a good way to balance forest conservation with human livelihoods if they have low ecological impacts. Nonetheless, these activities might not work in the same way across the entire region, and a wide variety and combination of strategies would be needed, ” he said.
“I believe a holistic approach that involves both bottom-up interests and top-down support, and possibly regional/international support as well, is needed to greatly increase the amount of effort.”