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Southeast Asia

The forests of Borneo, home to orangutans, clouded leopards, and pygmy elephants, are among the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. But in the last century, the world’s third-largest island (shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei) has lost a significant portion of its forests to fire, illegal logging and the expansion of palm oil and pulpwood plantations. Only half of its forest cover remains today, down from 75 percent in the mid-1980s.

Oil palm plantations are the main driver of deforestation in Borneo. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of the ubiquitous oil, which is found in nearly every household item from bread to chocolate to shampoo. Malaysia is the world’s second-largest producer. Together, these two Asian countries produce 87 percent of global supply.

Read more: Deforestation in Borneo is slowing, but regulation remains key

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  • Critical to the health of rivers, shorelines, and forests globally, today only 150,000 square kilometers (57,900 square miles) of mangroves remain, down from 320,000 square kilometers (123,550 square miles) 50 years ago.
  • Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar are home to the largest mangrove forests in the Greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia, but rapid economic growth and illegal logging for fuelwood collection have damaged these forests.
  • Technical advancements such as floating mangroves, along with increased public awareness, do offer hope for the future of these trees in the region, as some are protected and recovering.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — While Southeast Asia is known as one of the world’s fastest-growing economic regions, home to booming metropolises like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Kuala Lumpur, it also hosts some of the planet’s most vital ecological areas.

The Greater Mekong, which includes Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar, is key to this environmental vitality. According to the WWF, more than 2,200 new vertebrate and vascular plant species have been discovered in the region since 1997.

In the 1970s it was the most densely forested area on Earth. Since then, a third of that tree cover has been lost. Another third is expected to disappear by 2030. Urbanization, land use changes and agribusinesses such as palm oil and rubber have devastated forests, along with the wildlife species which rely on them for habitat.

The Greater Mekong is also home to one of the world’s major mangrove forest distributions, along with Central America and the southern United States, as well as the coastal tropics of West and East Africa.

Threats to the Greater Mekong’s mangroves

Mangroves live in brackish or salt water, and Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar, which have more than 8,400 kilometers (5,200 miles) of coastline, features significant forests of these trees. Cambodia, with 443 kilometers (275 miles) of coastline, has a mangrove area as well, though it has been seriously degraded. This is not uncommon.

Benno Böer, chief of natural sciences at UNESCO’s office in Bangkok, explained by phone that mangrove forests are largely shrinking everywhere they are found, with the exception of Eritrea, Abu Dhabi, and Australia.

A typical mangrove forest in Panama. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Read more: Current threats and future hopes for the greater Mekong’s mangroves

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The International Rice Research Institute has secured indefinite funding to produce varieties that can resist high temperatures, droughts, and floods.

Picture: ISTOCK

Read more: Rice gene bank gets huge funding boost to combat climate change

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