On 20 June 2016, Viet Nam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc announced the closing of natural forests and ordered not to convert 2.25 million hectares of (mainly degraded) natural forests in the Central Highlands to other land uses. The Government leader’s declaration was made at a conference in Dak Lak Province, where participants discussed solutions to forest recovery in the region to respond to climate change between 2016 and 2020.
Less than three weeks later, the Myanmar Times reported that “in order to protect the natural resources of the Bago mountain range (in Myanmar), logging will be banned in the area for 10 years, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation”. In addition, a one-year national logging ban was announced until the end of March 2017.
Some people believe that the announcements could mark a turning point for the future of Myanmar’s and Viet Nam’s forests. But others point out that a long history of logging bans shows rather mixed results and impacts. Both of us fall into the latter category, and here is why.
In the year 2000, the Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission requested a study on the “Impacts and effectiveness of logging bans in natural forests in Asia-Pacific.” The study, published in 2001 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, covered six countries (i.e. China, New Zealand, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam). Each of the countries had imposed partial or complete logging bans in natural forests since the 1980s for similar reasons – although the conclusion that logging bans might be an effective policy instrument for forest conservation or sustainable forest management (SFM) was reached in different ways and as a result of different catalysts.
A cursory review of the 15-year old study indicates that its findings are still valid today.
So, why did governments in the countries studied impose logging restrictions? The basic answer to this question is that in all countries popular support for forest conservation had increased significantly; in New Zealand as early as the 1970s. Some countries were experiencing a “forestry crisis,” where forest exploitation was seen as ineffectively regulated or “out of control.” In some of the countries, the decision to close forests to loggers was triggered by natural disasters (i.e., devastating floods and landslides, which took the lives of 400 people in southern Thailand in 1988; catastrophic floods that killed 7,000 people in Ormoc City, the Philippines, in 1992; and flooding in the Yangtze River valley that affected hundreds of millions of people in China in 1998. These disasters were initially believed by many to be a direct consequence of poor forest management (although subsequent scientific assessments indicated that the disasters in question were not linked in a significant manner to poor forest management), thus sparking calls for new logging bans and reinforcing commitment to maintain previously imposed partial logging bans.
While logging bans and other harvesting restrictions are intuitively attractive measures to support forest conservation and SFM, subsequent rigorous analysis revealed that conserving forests is not so easy as simply banning logging. So what were the key results of the 2001 report?
In-depth studies in the six countries revealed that even though logging bans have been mainly political reactions to public pressure, government concerns and/or crises, desired conservation and SFM goals were seldom clearly defined, nor were their achievements or impacts monitored. Because goals were loosely defined or not defined at all, it became difficult or impossible to determine “success.”
Nonetheless, in retrospect, some of the impacts became clear. Ineffective and inconsistent implementation of the bans led to job losses and reduced government revenues. In economic terms, bans on logging reduce the financial value of forests. It is therefore not surprising that in some countries, economic land concessions took over forests that were intended to be protected. Deforestation rates rose, instead of decreasing. Countries with vast forest processing capacity (and no alternative wood sources, as enjoyed by New Zealand and Sri Lanka) also had to increase timber imports, sometimes from countries ill-prepared for the influx of additional chainsaws.
One of the hoped-for results of logging bans was to give forests a “rest” from over-harvesting and “buy time” for drafting better policies and regulations, and improving enforcement capacity. While some countries used the timeout constructively, others did not. Overall, the picture in 2001 was mixed. Today, we know that in some countries the overall impact of logging bans was negative on balance. Deforestation and forest degradation increased in some countries, and it would not be an exaggeration to state that legal logging was simply replaced by “illegal logging,” which remains largely out of control.
Clearly, if the primary cause of deforestation is agriculture (as we know to be the case in most countries), rather than industrial forestry, a logging ban can be of only limited use in controlling forest loss.
We do not intend to give the impression that logging bans are always bad, as the evidence does not suggest this. But overall, experience in the Asia-Pacific region has shown logging bans to be ineffective in achieving desired conservation results. They have, in fact, often led to more significant unintended negative results (domestically and abroad) than positive.
In Myanmar, the one-year ban would potentially provide an opportunity to carefully review the experiences of other countries, assess the current problems and review the suitability of optional responses. However, experiences from other countries have shown that a temporary ban often turns into a permanent one, with few people being able to explain why.
Patrick Durst is Senior Forestry Officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. He coordinates and supports FAO’s forestry and natural resources management program of work and activities in the Asia-Pacific region.
Thomas Enters is the former UN Environment REDD+ Regional Technical Advisor for the Asia Pacific Region. He was in charge of coordination and technical input into UN Environment’s portfolio of National Programmes and Targeted Support, with a focus on Bhutan, Mongolia, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam.