South-east Asian nations missing from push to protect 30% of planet

South-east Asia's land and ocean contain 35 per cent of mangrove forests and 30 per cent of coral reefs.
South-east Asia's land and ocean contain 35 per cent of mangrove forests and 30 per cent of coral reefs.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - A growing global push to safeguard nature by pledging to protect about a third of the planet's land and oceans by 2030 will fall short unless biodiversity-rich South-east Asian nations get behind the ambitious proposal, environmentalists have warned.

Leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy nations this month backed a coalition of about 60 countries that have already promised to conserve at least 30 per cent of their land and oceans by 2030 - a goal dubbed 30x30 - to curb climate change and the loss of plant and animal species.

Cambodia is the only South-east Asian nation to have signed up to the goal so far, although the initiative has been endorsed by countries in other parts of the Asia-Pacific, including Japan, Pakistan and the Maldives.

Mr Brian O'Donnell, director of the US-based Campaign for Nature, which is calling on world leaders to back the pledge, said it was "very important" to get governments in Asean on board.

"Given the incredible biodiversity in the region, much of which is facing pressure, Asean countries are a key voice to support 30x30," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

South-east Asian countries cover just 3 per cent of the earth's surface but are home to three of the world's 17 "megadiverse" countries - Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, according to Campaign for Nature.

These megadiverse nations have been identified by conservationists as being the richest in species in a bid to raise awareness and spur protection efforts.

South-east Asia's land and ocean contain 35 per cent of mangrove forests and 30 per cent of coral reefs, while more than 2,000 animal and plant species have been discovered there over the past two decades.

The region is also home to about 18 per cent of the world's endangered species, according to  Campaign for Nature.

In Indonesia, for example, the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve is a high-priority conservation area and critical wildlife habitat, dubbed the "orang utan capital of the world", while the endangered pygmy elephants live in the rainforests of Borneo.

But several Asean countries are experiencing high deforestation rates, with Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia among the top countries that have seen primary forest loss, according to monitoring service Global Forest Watch.

New global accord

The 30x30 goal is included in the draft text of a new global treaty to protect the planet's plants, animals and ecosystems, due to be agreed at an Oct 11-24 summit in China, according to officials at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

But much of South-east Asia is currently battling to contain a sharp rise in coronavirus cases, with new restrictions, business closures and attempts to rapidly scale up vaccinations.

The crisis has rightly become a higher priority for policymakers than nature conservation, said former CBD director Ravi Sharma, adding that regional talks had also been disrupted.

But research shows that maintaining intact ecosystems can help avert future infectious disease outbreaks, he added.

Investing in nature and adopting policies for a green Covid-19 recovery could generate 395 million jobs and about US$10 trillion (S$13 trillion) in business opportunities by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum.

But the economic benefits of biodiversity conservation are not yet clear to all of South-east Asia's political leaders, many of whom are relying on natural resources to lift their people out of poverty, green groups say.

Malaysia and Indonesia are the top two producers of palm oil, the world's most widely used edible oil, which environmentalists blame for forest destruction.

"Asean countries are conscious that the actions needed for 30x30 would have economic implications as well as costs for implementation," said Mr Tony La Vina, a prominent Philippine environmental lawyer and activist.

"These fears have a basis but can be overcome once they realise the long-term economic and development benefits of the goal, as well as identify the opportunities (it) would open up in terms of conservation and sustainable livelihoods," he added.

A delay in South-east Asian nations backing the 30x30 target could be a tactic to secure more funding from richer countries to invest in nature, conservationists said.

A key part of the pledge will be to respect the rights of indigenous groups and communities living in protected areas, many of whom play a vital role in conservation, said Mr O'Donnell.

South-east Asian countries have developed innovative nature projects involving local communities and by joining the 30x30 group, they could lead that work, he added.

The best incentive for them would be if the proposal included payments to local communities and indigenous peoples for looking after their natural environment, Mr La Vina said.

Green grabbing

Biodiversity loss is directly linked to how rich nations have benefited economically from exploiting nature - and so they bear a greater responsibility for fixing the problem, said Mr Arie Rompas, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

But even Asean governments have often overlooked indigenous communities when pursuing economic growth, and have not done enough to guarantee their land tenure and other rights, he said.

The 30x30 goal appears to have been developed without adequate consultation of indigenous and other local communities, he noted.

International conservation efforts have a history of failing to recognise or address problems such as "green grabbing", where land used by local people is set aside and may become off limits to them, said research fellow Amber Huff at the British-based Institute of Development Studies.

The global biodiversity and climate crises require action, but proposed solutions must tackle the root causes and accept that people can and do live sustainably alongside nature while making use of it for their livelihoods and well-being, she said.

"Plans like the blanket 30x30 initiative will rob indigenous peoples and rural farmers, foragers and fishing communities around the world of their lands and livelihoods in the name of environmental 'restoration'," she warned.