Healthy forests are necessary to all aspects of modern life. They store carbon, help protect communities and infrastructure from the impacts of drought and flash-floods, supply clean water and food, livelihoods, materials used in construction, trade, and provide a whole host of other ecological services.
The forests of the Greater Mekong - a region encompassing Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam and Yunnan and Guangxi in Southern China - are some of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. They also contain the largest combined tiger habitat in the world—540,000 km2 or roughly the size of France. But over the last 10 years or so, numbers of this amazing feline have crashed by 70% in this part of the world.
The region's natural resources makes it an attractive investment for governments seeking to answer the development needs of their country, particularly China, and natural resource based industries keen to meet growing market demand. Most of this development is positive, reflecting political stabilization and economic growth following decades of poverty and conflict. But the rate and type of development is also threatening critical natural resources, particularly native forests, the Mekong River and its tributaries, and many wild plant and animal species.
The Greater Mekong subregion risks losing more than a third of its remaining forest cover within the next two decades. Forest loss is projected to be between 15 million and 30 million hectares by 2030. Deforestation "hotspots" include the margins of large forest blocks remaining in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
The threat for Greater Mekong forest
Illegal and unsustainable logging and conversion of forests for agriculture are the direct causes of deforestation and biodiversity loss in the Greater Mekong, driven by population growth, in-migration, poor law enforcement, poor land-use planning, increasing market demand, and policies that promote short-term economic growth.
Nearly 80% of the region’s population lives in rural areas where subsistence agriculture, fisheries, and forest extraction are the main economic activities.
Agriculture accounts for 78% of total employment in Laos, 75% in Cambodia, 69% in Vietnam, and roughly 50% in Thailand. The majority of these people are harvesting rice, which remains a critical crop for food security in the Greater Mekong.
Recent expansion in the scale and intensity of these agricultural activities has come with significant costs to the environment.
In Cambodia and Laos, a surge of land concessions for agricultural plantations has added to pressure on both natural ecosystems and the rural communities that depend upon them.
In addition, since agriculture is often linked to the construction of infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, and dams, it leads to significant secondary impacts on the environment through forest degradation, habitat fragmentation, increased poaching, and in-migration of people.
The future for Great Mekong forest
The Greater Mekong Subregion is at a crossroads. Despite thousands of years of human habitation and accompanying environmental change, it still contains globally important natural ecosystems, unique species and valuable ecosystem services, set amongst some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.
Unfortunately, one side-effect of rapid growth is that future projections for the region’s natural ecosystems are potentially catastrophic. WWF’s research
shows that, unless things change radically, the region could lose more than one-third of its remaining natural forests and associated species and ecosystem services within the next two decades.
The solution for Greater Mekong forest
With booming economies, the countries of the Greater Mekong region must now balance legitimate needs for development while safeguarding a natural treasure that is under growing threat.
WWF believes that the green economy approach is the choice for a viable future in the Mekong and, recognising the anticipated changes in the region, is both realistic and feasible. Conservation responses need to be both strategic, addressing the need for long-term development, and where necessary tactical, using temporary measures to secure species and ecosystems under imminent threat. Multiple actions will be needed, ranging from initiatives at international, regional and national policy level to many thousands of projects, negotiations and decisions at the level of sites and landscapes.