Deforestation risks rise as coronavirus hinders SE Asia protection

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KUALA LUMPUR (March 26)(Thomson Reuters Foundation): Southeast Asia's rainforests face a heightened threat from illegal loggers and poachers, as coronavirus restrictions hamper conservation efforts, green groups warned on Thursday.

In Malaysia and Indonesia — home to large swathes of protected forests — police and army personnel are largely being deployed in urban areas to enforce lockdowns or help build emergency health facilities to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak.

Meanwhile, the capacity of plantations, environmentalists and state forestry agencies to both monitor forests and act if clearing happens is being hampered by constraints on movement imposed by authorities and organisations to stem the pandemic.

"The lockdown is impacting on forest protection efforts as field teams cannot get out to do their work," said Arie Rompas, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

"We are concerned that companies may take advantage of the lockdown and see it as an opportunity to expand and clear forest," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "No one should take advantage of the Covid-19 crisis for their own gain."

The world lost 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of tropical tree cover in 2018 — equal to 30 football pitches a minute — according to monitoring service Global Forest Watch.

Malaysia was among the six countries with the biggest forest shrinkage that year. From 2001-2018, it lost about a quarter of its tree cover, equal to 7.7 million hectares.

Besides being a major source of timber and wood products, the Southeast Asian nation is the second-largest producer of palm oil — the world's most widely used edible oil — after Indonesia.

In recent years, palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, which has the world's third-largest tropical forests, have come under scrutiny over logging, land-clearing, fires and labour abuses.

Oyvind Eggen, director of the Oslo-based Rainforest Foundation Norway, said there were limits to how much forest might be destroyed in the short term.

But if the coronavirus pandemic lasts for months, "we will certainly see weakened (forest) protection", he added.

"Not only will we see reduced capacity both at government and NGOs, I also expect that the governments' and politicians' attention will be directed elsewhere," he said.

Indigenous people and forest-dependent communities, which often work with local green groups, will likely become more important for conservation efforts during the coronavirus health crisis, forest experts said.

Forest people at risk

Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil plantations have largely continued to operate during the coronavirus outbreak, although some districts in Malaysia have closed plantations.

"Without a doubt, Covid-19 will disrupt business-as-usual practices for forestry and industrial agribusiness companies," said Gemma Tillack, forest policy director at U.S.-based environmental group Rainforest Action Network.

"Time will tell if these companies and their clients ... will exploit this situation or use it to accelerate efforts to eliminate deforestation, peatland degradation and human rights violations from their global supply chains."

In recent years, plantation companies have increasingly turned to technology to help monitor forests and clean up their supply chains.

Green groups said that if deforestation does occur during the coronavirus outbreak, satellite images and other tools would still detect illegal clearing and timber transportation so action could be taken at a later date.

Companies should, however, remain on high alert to try and keep their supply chains free of deforestation, they added.

Governments could also provide financial help for protected areas where communities rely on tourism for income and will see a drop in revenue, as visitors stay home, conservationists said.

Faith Doherty, forest team leader at the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, warned that "unscrupulous people will always take advantage when they can".

"An ongoing concern is the safety and protection of communities who are the most vulnerable to violence in the forest," she said. 

(Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)