Driving positive change for forests and people of the Greater Mekong
By Thibault Ledecq, Regional Forest Lead, WWF-Greater Mekong

I like to say that in the Greater Mekong region, we are at the center of the world. We live in the middle of Asia, where half of the world’s population lives and where most of the region’s endangered species such as tigers, elephants and pangolin are also present.

I landed in Laos in 1998 and was excited to start my work in the Greater Mekong. In the following years, I have been lucky to travel across the region and have enjoyed discovering all of the different type of forests and biodiversity.

I have also watched as the region experienced double digit economic growth, especially in the last 10 years. After decades of wars in some of the countries, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are enjoying unprecedented economic boom. Poverty has been reduced, health systems improved and more services available.

But with economic boom comes a downside. The region’s natural resources, especially its forest ecosystems, have suffered dramatically. Less than 30 per cent of intact forests remain across the Mekong, a region that was just eight years ago covered by 100 million hectares of forest. In six years alone, from 2010 to 2016, the forest area lost is 24 times the size of Hanoi.

Deforestation is just one of the issues. Forest degradation, changes within forests that negatively affect their structure or function over many decades, is often forgotten but has a slow debilitating impact on the ecosystem.

Forests are being cleared to plant commodities like cashew nuts, rubber, palm oil, sugar cane, and corn. Often, Economic Land Concessions across the region are used as entry points for logging luxurious and lesser known timber species. Roads, railways, dams and other infrastructure are carving their way through previously inaccessible wilderness.

I’ve seen during my field work that increasingly, illegal timber trade and illegal wildlife trade go hand in hand. It’s become a pattern that when all key timber species are already logged in one area — sadly in many cases in Protected Areas– people begin to look at poaching and wildlife trade as alternatives for income generation and food.

The state of forests sounds hopeless, I know. But it’s not. There is still a window of opportunity to save these remaining treasures. But we need to act now and we need to be bold.

Is it too late?

Can we halt forest loss before it’s too late? The response is a resounding YES, and solutions are already being implemented on the ground — whether it’s building community forest management schemes, expanding protected areas or working across global markets to feed a growing demand for responsibly harvested forest products. We need to realize that there is not one solution but many solutions, at different scales, engaging different stakeholders and using many different tools.

The key to all of this is changing how we view forests. Far too often, we look at forests with too narrow of a focus — we talk about trees as monolithic entities without looking at them as an entire living, breathing ecosystem that provide services essential to our survival. I see the forest as a supermarket to the world, providing us with fresh water to drink, food to eat, furniture, housing materials, climate regulation, flood and pollution control — all of which can be harvested and consumed sustainably if we try hard enough. They also provide cultural, religious and social values to millions. When we see the trees for more than the wood, that’s when we truly understand the impact they have on our daily lives and livelihoods.

It is also important to look at forests as part of the whole landscape, a series of interconnected habitats with similar biodiversity and functions. We need to employ a landscape approach to managing them, allowing different stakeholders to make better decisions about land-use in areas where sectors such as agriculture and forestry compete with environmental and biodiversity goals. A landscape approach means that national governments, civil society and the private sector recognize the socio-economic and environmental roles that Protected Areas, forest watersheds, riparian forests, and sustainable and credible certified plantations can provide.

A call to change business as usual

So what do we need to do to ensure the survival of the Greater Mekong’s remaining forests?

To begin, governments, business leaders and the public need to understand and recognize the value of forests to clean water, climate regulation, human health and livelihoods and why it’s crucial to protect them. This means agreeing to put responsible, sustainable forestry at the heart of their timber supply chains and forest policies and creating strong public/private partnerships for sustainable forestry.

In addition, businesses should commit to and implement zero deforestation supply chain approaches, meaning their operations result in no net forest loss. At the same time, consumers and manufacturers can demand deforestation-free products that respect and support community based industries.

As conservationists, we need to work with scientists to map High Conservation Value Forests — forests with extraordinarily high biodiversity. We should promote an understanding of forest landscapes to better plan where agriculture, development and plantations are placed and avoid damaging critical habitats.

Finally, we need to look outside the box and promote innovation to help communities gain value from forests, through use of existing technology, like WWF Vietnam and partners have done with the development of the Webgis tool for patrolling in Payment for Forest Ecosystem Services (PEFS) in Hue and Quang Nam province.

For these initiatives to work, we ultimately need to work together. It is not possible for one organization to solve all the issues, which are multi-faceted and required diverse responses. WWF and other conservation organizations, international and national, have to collaborate, cooperate and coordinate like never before to ensure that Mekong forests survive the next 10 years and beyond.

At the end of the day, it comes down to people –those brave, forward thinking individuals in communities across the Greater Mekong who are going to incredible lengths to safeguard forests and protect their families. As we detail in a new report Pulse of the Forest, people-centered conservation is showing powerful results across the region.

We see it through the eyes of Nguyen Huu Hoa, who now protects the Vietnamese forests he once plundered, freeing animals trapped by poachers and confiscating snares; in Han Sakhan, an accomplished forest ranger, who is proud to have been the first in Cambodia to arrest an elephant poacher; and in Hey Mer, who may soon make history by working to offer the world’s first ever certified deforestation-free rubber.

The impacts on forests of these and many other projects are immense. In Laos, the first FSC-certified rattan product is now being shipped to an eager Swiss market. Vietnamese-produced sustainable acacia products are now sold in IKEA. And major tire companies are committing to source only deforestation-free rubber. Previously, people would have said it’s impossible to do this. But when you bring all actors along the supply chain together and create trust and build the capacity of smallholders on the ground, anything is possible. As Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

When I look back at my life in the Greater Mekong Region over the past 20 years, it’s the unsung heroes like those detailed above who ultimately give me hope — even when I so often see the depressing trends of deforestation and forest degradation.

Because if they and hundreds of others like them can understand the opportunities, they can be incredible drivers of change. If they can save their forest homes, I believe that we all can.