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Shrinking civil space and persistent logging: 2023 in review in Southeast Asia

A logger in Cambodia carries his chainsaw after retrieving it from a bush he had hid it in so that authorities wouldn’t confiscate it. Image by Andy Ball/Mongabay.
  • Home to the third-largest expanse of tropical rainforest and some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Southeast Asia has seen conservation wins and losses over the course of 2023.
  • The year was characterized by a rising trend of repression against environmental and Indigenous defenders that cast a shadow of fear over the work of activists in many parts of the region.
  • Logging pressure in remaining tracts of forest remained intense, and an El Niño climate pattern brought regional haze crises generated by forest fires and agricultural burning returned.
  • But some progress was made on several fronts: Most notably, increasing understanding of the benefits and methods of ecosystem restoration underpinned local, national and regional efforts to bring back forests, mangroves and other crucial sanctuaries of biodiversity.

Southeast Asia is home to the third-largest expanse of tropical rainforest in the world, making it a pivotal region for global efforts to address the biodiversity crisis and climate change. But intense development pressure and global consumption are transforming the region’s landscapes, fragmenting forests, degrading waterways and depleting the natural resources on which countless species and millions of people depend.

There have been both losses and gains for the environment and conservation across the region in 2023. The year was marked by ever-increasing repression against environmental activists, unabated logging pressure even within protected areas, and regional haze crises generated by El Niño-driven forest fires and agricultural burning.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Reforestation and ecosystem restoration efforts are coming to the forefront of conservation planning at local, national and regional scales, and mechanisms to make farming practices more sustainable, efficient and profitable are being widely explored throughout the region.

Here’s a closer look at some of the conservation trends and developments across Southeast Asia that Mongabay covered during 2023.

Repression ramps up across the region

Southeast Asia has never been an easy place for activists, but a worrying trend emerged over the course of 2023 that saw environmental and Indigenous activists increasingly placed in the crosshairs of authoritarian governments as a result of their activism.

In Cambodia, the transition of power from former prime minister Hun Sen to his eldest son, Hun Manet, has done little to open up the rapidly shrinking civil space. The ongoing crackdown on activists and grassroots community groups has seen Cambodia’s forests melt away during 2023, with those seeking to defend the nation’s forests targeted by authorities while loggers escape with impunity. Moreover, when Mother Nature Cambodia, one of the last public-facing environmental activism groups in the country, won international recognition with a Right Livelihood Award, authorities denied its members permission to travel abroad to accept the accolade.

Over the eastern border in Vietnam, 2023 saw prominent environmental activists targeted and charged with “tax evasion” or “appropriation of information” amid a wave of closures of environmental organizations. For activists and NGO workers in Vietnam, treading the line between following their causes and adhering to ambiguous top-down rules has long been a struggle, but the rising trend of political pressure and intimidation cast a grim shadow over their work in 2023.

Activists demonstrate outside a Malaysian court, the site of a defamation trial levied by timber giant Samling against an Indigenous-led environmental group. Image courtesy of the Borneo Project.

Across other parts of the region, the year saw more concerns flagged as environmental defenders in Laos reported they feel under surveillance and at risk both at home and abroad, citing fear of the one-party state and the knowledge that criticism of its authoritarian rule isn’t tolerated. These sentiments are founded on the reality of environmental activists in Laos facing arbitrary arrest, summary trials and lengthy imprisonments. Meanwhile, authorities in Thailand promoted a park chief who was reportedly involved in the murder of Indigenous Karen activists.

Two years on from the military coup in Myanmar, activists continue their struggle to defend against rampant resource extraction amid the fierce territorial fighting that’s part of the political fallout. With freedom of movement and personal safety severely compromised across the country, activists in Karen state cite “a cloud of military occupation” hanging across the land. In 2023, the award-winning Salween Peace Park saw renewed violence close to its borders, harking back to a spate of horrific military-led airstrikes during the immediate aftermath of the 2021 coup.

Further south in Malaysia, major timber companies have taken activists to court alleging defamation in what civil society groups describe as strategic litigation against public participation, or SLAPP, cases — a type of lawsuit that also hinders the speech of both activists and experts in other parts of Southeast Asia, most notably in Indonesia. The power of grassroots activism to stand up to such cases was underscored when Indigenous activists scored small wins against logging giant Samling. Similarly, in the Philippines, historically one of the world’s most dangerous places for land defenders, some justice was gained when the Supreme Court ordered the government and a nickel mine to address the grievances of Indigenous people in a dispute that has dragged on almost two decades in Palawan.

Two members of the Prey Preah Roka Community Network – a grassroots activism group made up of communities around the wildlife sanctuary - document an illegally logged tree in the wildlife sanctuary. The grassroots group regularly patrol the wildlife sanctuary, documenting any illegal logging they come across by marking GPS coordinates, as well as taking a note of the species and diameter of the trees. Image by: Andy Ball / Mongabay.
Two members of a grassroots activism group document an illegally logged tree in the Preah Roka wildlife sanctuary, Cambodia. The grassroots group regularly patrol the wildlife sanctuary, documenting any illegal logging they come across by marking GPS coordinates, as well as taking a note of the species and diameter of the trees. Image by Andy Ball / Mongabay.

The specter of logging returns to Southeast Asian forests

2023 produced a growing body of knowledge pointing to the value of forests in storing carbon, even formerly logged ones, and researchers found yet more evidence that forests are integral to wildlife populations. But as Southeast Asia continues to leverage its natural resources in pursuit of economic development, the region’s green canopy was eaten away on all fronts at an alarming pace.

As the conflict in post-coup Myanmar rages on, the situation has grown ever more fluid and the junta’s reliance on natural resource extraction has only grown in order to fund the fighting. As such, despite international sanctions, the flow of much-prized Burmese teak remains unimpeded. The trade of “blood timber” wasn’t confined to rogue traffickers, though; investigators warned that illegally harvested teak could have made its way as far as the deck of Jeff Bezos’s $500 million superyacht.

In neighboring Laos, an altogether different conflict is brewing as researchers found the landlocked nation’s pursuit of reduced emissions through hydropower development was being undermined by rampant deforestation linked to an intensification of agriculture.

Further east, along Vietnam’s coast, Cần Giờ’s dense mangroves look set to be eviscerated by Vietnam’s government-backed conglomerates who want to transform the coastline into an “ecotourism city,” risking the future of the vast coastal ecosystem that locks away significant quantities of carbon from the atmosphere and sustains local livelihoods through aquaculture, shellfish harvesting and small-scale ecotourism.

Similarly, 2023 saw companies both domestic and international gorging on Cambodia’s shrinking forests as the hotly contested Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary saw fresh incursions from the infamous timber syndicate behind Think Biotech. But the demand for timber to fuel Cambodia’s garment factories implicated international fashion brands who failed to detect or prevent illegally logged wood from making its way into their supply chains. Much of Southeast Asia’s forest loss was traced to politically connected companies, and in Cambodia a top official was revealed to head the most egregious logging operation in the country. Other government institutions were also exposed as having been exploited by timber trafficking networks, including the Cambodian military, which abused its position in the Cardamom Mountains to harvest high-value timber illegally.

In recent years, Indonesia and Malaysia have seen a slowdown in the loss of primary forest. However, logging and commodity-driven deforestation, especially in frontier areas and on Indigenous lands, remain significant concerns.

A fire burns through a forest within the 9,059 hectare Chinese-owned Great Field economic land concession in December 2022. Image by Andy Ball / Mongabay.
A fire burns through a forest within the 9,059 hectare Chinese-owned Great Field economic land concession in December 2022. Image by Andy Ball / Mongabay.

Return of El Niño worsens transboundary haze

Mid-year saw the return of El Niño conditions across the tropical Pacific, and with it prevailing dry periods and a heightened risk of forest fires in Indonesia and stormy and unpredictable weather in other parts of the region. Despite government clampdowns on burning and firefighting teams better equipped than ever, by September fires had taken hold in many parts of Indonesia. Sumatra and Borneo were particularly badly affected, forcing school closures in several provinces due to hazardous levels of air pollutants. The fires also fueled yet another diplomatic spat with neighboring Malaysia, which blamed poor air quality on transboundary haze blowing in from fires in Sumatra and Borneo.

With transboundary haze a recurring seasonal event also in mainland Southeast Asia, particularly across Laos, northern Thailand and Myanmar during the dry-season months between February and April, Thai citizens took matters into their own hands, mounting a legal challenge against the government. They accused it of inaction in tackling the haze crisis, which they say poses a serious threat to human health that constitutes an infringement of basic human rights.

A firefighter puts out fires in a peatland in Indonesia.
A firefighter puts out fires in a peatland in Indonesia. Image by DenY Krisbiyantoro via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Carbon credit conversation continues

With a surge in corporate and government interest in using carbon markets to address emissions, the topic of carbon credits cannot be ignored in forest-rich Southeast Asia.

The sale of carbon credits offers a potential economic lifeline for communities trying to preserve forests, but contention around the legitimacy of carbon markets remains. Major challenges include making sure that the money raised actually benefits forest-dependent communities, and ensuring the integrity of carbon credit verification schemes, many of which have been slammed for leaking credits onto the market that don’t represent actual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, some critics view carbon markets as a tool that bolsters the status quo, with companies continuing to release carbon, resulting in little net benefit to the global climate.

In Malaysia’s Sabah state on the island of Borneo, details around a secretive “nature conservation agreement” signed between a Singaporean company and the local government remain elusive. The agreement committed 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of land in the state to a 100-year carbon deal, but civil society, Indigenous and research organizations in the state remain in the dark about the plans.

Smoke rising towards the sky from the chimneys of a paper mill in Sweden.
Some see carbon trading as a way for companies to continue to pollute while offloading the responsibility of mitigating climate change elsewhere. Image by Daniel Moqvist via Unsplash (Public domain).

Good news and progress on several fronts

Progress has been made on several conservation fronts during 2023. Research from Southeast Asia has led to improved understanding of the benefits of reforestation and ecosystem restoration and how best to go about it, underpinning the efforts of conservation projects, farmers and companies looking to embrace more balanced and nature-friendly approaches.

In the Philippines, a community-based initiative based in the Bicol region has stewarded mangrove reforestation efforts for several decades to restore what is now the region’s largest mangrove system, supporting local livelihoods and protecting the village from storm surges. And further to the east, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, seafaring Bajo communities have successfully defended their mangrove forests from incursion by prospective aquaculture companies. Meanwhile, in Sumatra, a mangrove restoration project that failed to take off highlighted the importance of close collaboration between conservation groups, communities and local governments.

With more evidence emerging on the biodiversity benefits of forest patches within oil palm plantations, conservationists in Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah state are trying to buy up land in legally planted oil palm estates with a view to restoring the forest. Meanwhile, communities and scientists in the nearby Lower Kinabatangan, also in Sabah, are looking at reforestation to connect up highly fragmented but biodiverse river corridors.

With experts increasingly citing the potential for nature-based solutions to help alleviate biodiversity and climate impacts while protecting livelihoods, myriad initiatives are exploring the possibilities in Southeast Asia, including new tools to streamline access to funding. In the Philippines, farmers are diversifying into new types of products that boost conservation gains on coffee farms, and locally led organic and Indigenous farming practices have helped protect crucial watershed forests and enable communities to recover from devastating flood damage. With rice a major export commodity and dietary staple in the region, farmers in Vietnam and Indonesia are collaborating with researchers to reduce water use and methane emissions through practices that simultaneously boost yields.

The newborn rhino calf with her mother, Ratu, at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas, Indonesia.
The newborn rhino calf with her mother, Ratu, at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas, Indonesia. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

The year also saw the committed dedication of local activists win international recognition. In addition to Mother Nature Cambodia’s Right Livelihood Award, Delima Silalahi of Indonesia was one of the winners of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work leading six Indigenous communities gain legal guardianship of 7,213 hectares (17,824 acres) of land in Sumatra, safeguarding it from a large-scale monoculture plantation firm. Also in Sumatra, sustainable growth activist Gita Syahrani was awarded $3 million in grants from global philanthropy fund Climate Breakthrough to support her work protecting peatlands and forests through alternative economic models.

And lastly, but certainly not least, 2023 saw clear evidence of the diversity of life that clings on in the region despite the myriad threats. Efforts to breed the critically endangered Sumatran rhino in captivity yielded two births this year, bringing the captive population to 11. Species first described by scientists in 2023 included electric blue tarantulas in Thailand, a bizarre snail-slug, or “snug,” in Brunei, and a report compiled by WWF highlighted 380 new-to-science species found in the Greater Mekong alone between 2021 and 2022. Notably, a collaboration between conservationists, local communities and government agencies rediscovered Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna in Indonesia’s Papua province. It was the first time the egg-laying mammal and distant relative of the platypus had been seen in more than 60 years. Meanwhile, conservation teams in Cambodia recently celebrated a different return of nature when they discovered hundreds of green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtle hatchlings on a beach on an offshore island after more than a decade of searching, signaling hope for Cambodia’s beleaguered sea turtle populations.

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