The Paradise Forests of South East Asia

Last edited 2 August 2007 at 11:08am

A traditional landowner from Papua New Guinea

Stretching right across South East Asia, from Sumatra and Borneo to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, the Paradise Forests form a wonderfully diverse region.

A major biodiversity hotspot with many species endemic to the area, it also supports hundreds of indigenous cultures. The island of New Guinea alone boasts over 1,000 languages, representing anything between one sixth and one third of all languages spoken.

This rich cultural and biological area is under threat from uncontrolled deforestation. While a larger area of forest is cleared each year in Brazil, the Paradise Forests are being destroyed faster than anywhere else with so much already lost - 60 per cent in Papua New Guinea and 72 per cent in Indonesia. In fact, Indonesia has been awarded a Guinness World Record for being the country with the fastest rate of forest destruction on the planet.

While reports of the discovery of species new to science are being made, many more well-known species are at risk of extinction. Fewer than 100 Javan rhinos are thought to be left in the wild and the 3,500 Sumatran orang-utans are in protected areas too small for the long-term survival. Illegal logging, hunting and the expansion of oil palm plantations all threaten the future of endangered species.

Chain of destruction

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See how illegal timber from Papua New Guinea ends up in the UK

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The timber mills of China

In Papua New Guinea, almost all land is owned by indigenous communities under customary tenure. However, corruption and political pressure has allowed international logging companies like Rimbunan Hijau to carve up the rainforests, illegally and without consent.

Much of this timber is sent to timber mills in China, which is now the biggest importer of tropical timber on the planet. Here, it's made into products such as plywood and then exported around the world, including to the UK. We have repeatedly exposed how government and market failures have left the UK awash in illegal timber, even on the government's own building sites, and we're pushing for legislation to ban these imports both here and in Europe.

As well as blowing the whistle on the activities of unscrupulous companies, we have been working with the tribes and clans in Papua New Guinea to protect their lands by demarcating and recording their territories. We have also been promoting responsible forestry by showing how local communities can and do produce timber without destroying the forest as a whole.

Indonesia: more threatened species than anywhere else

Illegal Indonesian plywood also makes it to our shores - in 2003, as much as half of the tropical plywood coming into the UK was Indonesian. To supply us with timber, an area larger than Wales is destroyed every year. At this rate, the lowland forests of Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo could be completely destroyed by 2010 and as Indonesia has the largest list of endangered species in the world, the consequences for global biodiversity cannot be overestimated.

As well as illegal logging, agriculture is also driving deforestation. Oil palm plantations are replacing the rainforest which is cleared by burning, an annual event that cloaks much of South East Asia in a poisonous smog and contributes massively to climate change.

Palm oil ends up as an ingredient in many everyday products sold around the world, including food, toiletries and cosmetics. They also appear in biofuels which are seen as a green alternative to fossil fuels on the basis that they will have less impact on the global climate. But with tropical rainforests and peatlands being destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations, the production of biofuels is having a very negative impact and this will continue to be the case if its production isn't managed responsibly.

We need your help though. Find out more about what you can do to help protect our remaining ancient forests.

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