Net gain? Oil palm plantations have supplanted natural forests in parts of Asia.

Net gain? Oil palm plantations have supplanted natural forests in parts of Asia.

Achmad Rabin Taim from Jakarta, Indonesia/Wikimedia Commons

New Hope for Asia's Embattled Forests

Prospects for tackling deforestation in Asia are looking brighter. At the Forests Asia Summit 2014, held in Jakarta on Monday and Tuesday, a high-profile lineup of government officials, business executives, environmentalists, community activists and scientists reached a surprising common ground on the need to address deforestation.

"I actually have a sense of hope," says Scott Poynton, founder and executive director of The Forest Trust, a Swiss nonprofit organization that helps companies run responsible supply chains. It was clear that all parties are "moving toward solutions" for deforestation and related issues, adds Peter Holmgren, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia.

Forests covered just over 4 billion hectares, or about 31% of Earth's land area, in 2010, according to the most recent Global Forest Resource Assessment undertaken by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. FAO's study found that globally, the rate of deforestation had declined to about 13 million hectares lost annually from 2000 to 2010 compared with 16 million hectares lost each year of the previous decade. In some countries, notably China, aggressive afforestation efforts have led to an increase in forested areas. In South and Southeast Asia, forest area decreased 2.4 million hectares per year between 1990 and 2000, but only by 677,000 hectares per year between 2000 and 2010. Despite what the report calls "considerable progress," in reducing forest loss, deforestation "continues at an alarmingly high rate in many countries."

The summit did not result in any new agreements. But it comes on the heels of "a series of commitments" by big corporations to deal with environmental and social issues, says Glenn Hurowitz, managing director of Climate Advisers, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. In recent months, he says, companies involved in palm oil, forestry, and consumer products have agreed to strive to eliminate activities that contribute to deforestation. Such promises might be greeted with cynicism. However, Holmgren and Hurowitz point out, consumer expectations of greater attention to environmental issues are driving the corporate response. In many cases, large corporations "are setting the bar higher than the laws and regulations in Indonesia," says Yuyun Indradi, who follows forest issues for Greenpeace Southeast Asia from Jakarta.

"We have to see if the commitments are realized on the ground," Holmgren says. Poynton adds that tax and development policies in Indonesia and elsewhere inadvertently incentivize deforestation, though he thinks some government officials now recognize the problem.