Editor’s note: In this book chapter from

An Atlas of Trafficking in Southeast Asia

(I.B. Tauris 2013), Vanda Felbab-Brown presents an overview of the current state of illegal logging in Southeast Asia, a critical international hotspot of biodiversity. As demand for timber increases, the absence of effective policing and rule of law mechanisms to enforce the legality and sustainability of timber extraction and biodiversity protection poses unprecedented threats to forest ecosystems and global warming mitigation.


One of the world’s most important hotspots of biodiversity, Southeast Asia is unfortunately also an area of the most intense deforestation in the world, with devastating and irreparable effects on its and the world’s forests and ecosystems. With illegal logging accounting for a very large portion of forest destruction in the region, Southeast Asia has the highest rate of deforestation of any major tropical region: 1.2 per cent of forest lost yearly, followed by Latin America (0.8 per cent) and Africa (0.7 per cent). At current rates, by 2100, Southeast Asia will have lost three-quarters of its forests and 42 per cent of its biodiversity. Increasing efforts since the 1980s to regulate timber extraction and make it sustainable have also resulted in the emergence of intense illegal logging throughout a region where there used to be free-for-all unrestricted forest felling.

Paradoxically, solving the problem of sustainable supply of timber does not equal solving the problem of how to sustain forest ecosystems and their biodiversity. This is because timber in general, though far from all species of trees and bamboo, is renewable through reforestation and plantation promotion, but the forest ecosystem overall is not. Plantations and reforestation can achieve neither the original forest’s structure or complexity nor its biodiversity. Yet in Southeast Asia the measures adopted have been geared primarily toward assuring a sustained supply of timber or mitigating other detrimental environmental effects, such as flooding, but not the preservation of natural, especially primary, forests.

Similarly, even effectively addressing the problems of illegal logging and timber smuggling, as difficult as they are, does not necessarily preserve sustainability. As demand continues to expand, it remains to be seen if timber extraction and consumption – whether legal or illegal – can be made compatible with biodiversity preservation.

However, there have been some positive developments. Various measures to address illegal logging and maintain forest biodiversity, such as certification of sustainably and legally logged timber and forest management plans, are increasingly being adopted in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. In some cases there are signs of at least their partial effectiveness in preserving timber and even forests. The question remains whether these measures, including demand reduction efforts, can be developed, adopted and enforced fast enough to avoid a major collapse of the world’s natural forests and irretrievable species loss.

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