The Forces of Deforestation in Indonesia, Vietnam, and India


By Paul Robbins, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

While the global forces of deforestation are common and repeated around the world, every region or case is unique. In Southeast Asia, for example, a key driver has been the proliferation of palm oil plantations. Whole native forests have been cleared, only to be replaced by this single cash crop, which has become one of the most commonly consumed food oils in the world.

Arial view of a palm forest with cut trees
To establish palm oil plantations, the Indonesian government has to clear forests. (Image: Rich Carey/Shutterstock)

Indonesia’s Palm Oil

Indonesia supplies more than half of the world’s palm oil, and exports of the product have increased at roughly 27 percent per year all throughout the 2000s. And what is palm oil good for? Well, according to its own industry reports, the product can be found in practically half of the products you might come across at the supermarket, including things like cereal and cookies, there’s a lot in cookies; soaps, and cosmetics. 

The world has an unmistakable appetite for palm oil, it seems. And in the process of clearing forest to plant palm oil plantations, large swaths of tropical lowland forest have been cleared. Approximately seven million hectares of palm oil plantations have already been established, and the Indonesian government is seeking to establish 1.4 million more hectares in the short term in that country alone.

Leaking the Forces of Deforestation

A baby Orangutan in a forest in Indonesian island of Sumatra
The Orangutan habitat has been affected negatively because of the deforestation going on in Southeast Asia. (Image: Michaël CATANZARITI/Public domain)

So what’s the result of all this? The result has been the near-total destruction of Orangutan habitat. This already-rare, great ape may go locally extinct as a result, in one of its last major habitats on Borneo. Some governments have tried to halt the pace of tropical deforestation, but their efforts have produced mixed results. 

The work of the Geographer Eric Lambin helps explain why this is. He and his team at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University have puzzled over the statistics and satellite imagery to understand patterns of forest-cover changes.  

To do this, they examined timber exports and wood processing throughout the tropical world, and their conclusion is that even when a country can control the rate of deforestation locally within its own perimeter, this only moves the pressure for deforestation around, through what they call a kind of leakage.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Understanding Cultural and Human Geography. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Protecting Forests at the Expense of Forests

Vietnam provides us with an exemplary case. Here, the government made heroic progress in halting the cutting of upland hill country forests to conserve their resources, decrease erosion, protect habitat, and do all that forest good. And they succeeded, with a matching decrease in hardwood production; they’re producing less wood from these forests. 

But, Vietnam curiously continued to profitably export hardwood furniture and other valuable wood products. How did they do it? Well, they illegally imported hardwood forest timber from Laos, the country right next door. Deforestation wasn’t halted; it was simply moved around in a kind of economic shell game.

So clearly, the general trends and drivers of land-cover change paint a pretty grim picture.

Fortunately, Humans Can Do Good Things Too

Nevertheless, land-cover change clearly isn’t just a one-way street. There is some room for hope. Equally encouraging, it’s possible that even where people have transformed landscapes, these new land covers may be compatible with preserving native biodiversity and the health of ecosystems. In other words, not all human landscapes are bad landscapes. Some are good.

Consider the coffee plantations of India. Coffee was introduced to South Asia from Africa maybe a millennium ago, but expanded dramatically during the time of British colonialism. Integrated into large international markets, India’s 178,000 coffee growers, who are individual entrepreneurs, together produce enough coffee to make India the fifth largest coffee-producing nation in the world; it’s a significant export earner.

Coffe plantation in India
The coffee plantations in India aren’t natural landscapes, but their plants are intercropped with timber-generating tree species to halt forces of deforestation. (Image: Jaseem Hamza/Public domain)

But, unlike many coffee regions, a majority of plantations in India grow their coffee in a complex shade system, where coffee plants are intercropped with tall timber-generating tree species, which create a kind of complex artificial forest canopy. This landscape isn’t natural, not in any meaningful sense. Many of the species are imported. The land is heavily managed; it’s weeded. The products of this simulated forest are harvested, and they’re marketed internationally. 

So, it’s not natural. And, most importantly, these coffee plantations at some point replaced existing forest land cover, so it has to be considered deforestation of some kind,  at least in the broadest sense. Even so, taking a short walk through a coffee plantation in southern India might raise some interesting questions in your mind about how humans actually impact the land.

Common Questions about the Forces of Deforestation in Indonesia, Vietnam, and India

Q: How has palm oil affected deforestation in Indonesia?

One of the forces of deforestation in Indonesia is the world’s enormous appetite for palm oil. Since Indonesia is the source of half of the world’s palm oil, so the Indonesian government has cleared many forests to plant palm oil plantations.

Q: Even though some governments have tried to halt the pace of tropical deforestation, why has the Orangutan habitat been almost totally destroyed?

Geographer Eric Lambin and his team have explained that even when a country controls the forces of deforestation locally, this only moves the pressure of deforestation within that country, which is called a kind of leakage.

Q: How did Vietnam manage to halt deforestation in the country and yet export hardwood furniture?

The government of Vietnam tried hard to stop the forces of deforestation in the country. They were successful in this, which led to less wood production from their forests. But, they also illegally imported hardwood forest timber from Laos. So they saved some forests at the cost of others.

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