Ambition of COP26 pact to stop deforestation deters some Southeast Asian nations

Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand this week skipped signing a global pact to end and reverse forest loss by 2030, even as Southeast Asia – home to around 15 percent of the world’s tropical forests – is among its major deforestation hotspots.

The region’s most populous and sprawling country, Indonesia, meanwhile, was among 133 nations that signed the pledge at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, but it took issue with some countries reading the language of the agreement too literally.

“We therefore commit to working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation,” states the pledge, known as the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use.

Siti Nurbaya Bakar, Indonesia’s environment minister, had a problem with the expectation that ending deforestation means zero deforestation. She said it was unfair to ask Indonesia to do that.

That prompted green activists to wonder whether this meant Jakarta would renege on the pledge made on Tuesday.

After all, the agreement was hailed as a landmark one because Indonesia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which account for 85 percent of the world’s forests, signed on to protect their woodlands.

Southeast Asia lost about 80 million hectares of forest between 2005 and 2015, said a 2019 article in the journal Nature.

And yet, only Indonesia signed on to the pledge to preserve forests, and that, apparently with caveats.

Here is a look at how some Southeast Asian governments and country experts view the breakthrough COP26 agreement to stem forest loss:

Indonesia

A day after Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo signed the pledge in Scotland to protect forests, the environment minister said the country could not be made to commit to zero deforestation because that would hurt development.

“Forcing Indonesia to commit to zero deforestation by 2030 is clearly neither fair nor right, because every country has its key problems and is mandated by the constitution to protect its people,” Siti Nurbaya wrote on Twitter after speaking to Indonesian students at the University of Glasgow.

Indonesia is committed to controlling emissions from the forestry sector, but that does not mean that the country will completely eliminate deforestation, she said.

“If the concept is that there is no deforestation, it means that there should be no roads, then what about the people, should they be isolated?” Siti Nurbaya said later on via Facebook.

Siti Nurbaya’s comments drew criticism from environmental activists.

According to Greenpeace, the clear-burning of forest land to make way for plantations has generated nearly 104 million metric tons of carbon emissions during the past 19 years. That equals 33 times the annual emissions from powering all the homes in the Indonesian capital.

But according to the environment ministry, Indonesia has already made strides in stemming deforestation. The ministry said Indonesia lost 115,459 hectares (285,300 acres) of forest cover in 2020, a 75-percent drop from 2019.

On Thursday, Siti appeared to clarify her strong statement.

“The president’s directive is clear, that development undertaking by the government must be in line with the policy to reduce deforestation and emissions,” she tweeted.

“There must be a balance.”

Chopped trees are seen at the Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary in Preah Vihear province, Cambodia, March 2021. Credit: Cambodian Youth Network
Chopped trees are seen at the Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary in Preah Vihear province, Cambodia, March 2021. Credit: Cambodian Youth Network

Laos

Like Indonesia, Laos, too, had reservations linked to its status as a developing nation, a government official told the Laos Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), with which BenarNews is affiliated.

“Laos didn’t sign the deal because it’s still a developing country and still needs forests to develop its economy,” said the official from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.

“We still rely on the forest and agriculture to produce food and reduce poverty; however, our government has a policy to wisely use our natural resources and protect the environment at the same time.”

The official said Laos still needed to clear land and forests for the development of infrastructure, including roads, railway, schools and hospitals.

“Our government wants to develop its country to graduate from the least developed country status in 2026 too. It’s impossible not to destroy some natural resources at all,” the official said.

Still, the government “has a policy to wisely use our natural resources and protect the environment at the same time,” the official added.

Cambodia

Cambodia, which has lost 26 percent of its tree cover since 2000 according to satellite imagery – equivalent to 2.3 million hectares (5.7 million acres) – did not sign the pledge to end deforestation.

Neth Peaktra, spokesman for the Ministry of Environment, did not say why Cambodia didn’t sign it.

“The ministry supports the COP26 statement and reaffirms the government commitment to protect and preserve natural resources and the ecosystem, and restore and replant the forest,” he told the Khmer Service of RFA.

Cambodia has about 8.5 million hectares of forest cover and about 41 percent of it is being protected by the ministry, he said.

However, according to San Maly, an activist with the Cambodian Youth Network, the government had failed to implement its commitment to protect forests.

Cambodia’s forests are declining due to illegal logging and forest crime, he told RFA.

Residents are evacuated from their flooded houses on a rescue boat following Typhoon Vamco, in Rizal Province, Philippines, Nov. 12, 2020. Credit: Reuters
Residents are evacuated from their flooded houses on a rescue boat following Typhoon Vamco, in Rizal Province, Philippines, Nov. 12, 2020. Credit: Reuters

Malaysia

In Malaysia, where Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has said that the country is striving to become carbon neutral by 2050 at the earliest, a local environmental NGO criticized the government for only sending a representative – and not the environment minister – to COP26.

“We could only guess that it was done deliberately to avoid taking the international pledge to stop deforestation at COP26 with a bit of face saving,” PEKA said in a statement.

For a country that wants to maintain 50 percent of forest cover, Malaysis is eighth highest in cumulative per-capita emissions from 1850 to 2021.

Malaysia may not fulfill a pledge of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil, PEKA’s founder, told BenarNews late last month.

“Malaysia will miss the target by a mile with the current seriousness shown by the government … We are still in the mindset of blaming disasters on Acts of God,” she said.

Philippines

The archipelago nation signaled its commitment to preserve woodlands by being one of the more than 100 signatories to save the world’s forests.  

The Philippines is one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, but contributes only 0.3 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions. Manila has, however, committed to reducing these emissions by 75 percent over the next decade as its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

An average of about 20 typhoons strike the Philippines every year, some of them devastating. In 2013, the archipelago was hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan, the country’s most powerful storm, which caused devastating damage and led to the deaths of more than 6,000 people.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who attended the Glasgow summit, said rich countries must lead in finding hard solutions and help the more vulnerable ones.

“The greatest injustice here is that those who suffer the most are those the least responsible for this existential crisis,” Locsin said in a statement at COP26 on Oct. 31.

Attorney Ma. Ronely Bisquera-Sheen, executive director of environmental group Tanggol Kalikasan (Defense Nature), welcomed the forest pledge, but said it was too early to rejoice.

“[T]he reality is that it will take tremendous political will to deliver this pledge,” she told BenarNews.

“The devil is in the details.”

Report by RFA’s Cambodia and Lao Services, and by Ronna Nirmala and Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta, Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur, Jason Gutierrez in Manila for BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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