Thailand's Western Forest complex, made up of 19 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, is one of the largest protected areas in Southeast Asia. But WWF warns that these areas are at risk if countries in the Greater Mekong region don't work harder to protect them. Photo: WWF/ Adam Oswell

The Greater Mekong region – Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Yunnan in southern China – was once the world’s most densely forested area. But it has lost a third of its natural forest cover and could lose a further 15-30 million hectares by 2030 unless serious action is taken immediately, a top environmental group has warned.

The region has experienced double-digit economic growth in the last 10 years, but is also one of 11 global deforestation fronts – areas that in the coming decades are projected to be responsible for up to 80% of global forest loss, a new report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says.

Between 2010 and 2016, the amount of forest lost in the region was equal to 24 times the size of Hanoi, the Forest Pulse report says. And it’s not only trees at stake but the vast array of life inside these forest ecosystems.

More than 2,500 new species of vertebrates and vascular plants have been discovered in the forests of the Greater Mekong over the past 20 years. In addition to hosting tigers, elephants, bears and Saola, the Greater Mekong forests provide clean drinking water for tens of millions of people and protect dozen of rivers, including the Mekong itself, which produces over 4.5 million tonnes of fish each year.

Degradation from agricultural expansion, rubber plantations, legal and illegal logging and construction of roads, dams and other infrastructure are taking a huge toll on the forests. The result is lost incomes, poor health, mudslides that kill hundreds, and weather impacts from climate change.

Graphic: WWF

The Forest Pulse report gives a detailed overview of the status of these forests and outlines recommendations by WWF to ensure the survival of the Greater Mekong’s forests. They include:

  • A recognition from governments, business leaders and the public of the value of forests to clean water, stock carbon, human health and livelihoods and the need to protect them;

  • Agreement from government leaders and businesses to put responsible forestry at the heart of their timber supply chains;

  • Businesses to commit and implement a zero-deforestation supply-chain approach;

  • A demand from consumers and manufacturers for deforestation-free products that respect and support community-based industries;

  • Mapping high-conservation-value forests and understanding forest landscapes in order to better plan where agriculture, development and plantations are placed and avoid damaging critical habitat;

  • Clear laws for sustainable forestry and public-private partnerships;

  • More innovation to help communities add value (thus increasing income) to sustainable forest products.

Rampant corruption in countries throughout the Greater Mekong region has put vast areas of forest at risk. WWF says more sophisticated policies are needed. Photo: WWF

“To ensure the survival of the Greater Mekong’s remaining forests we need governments, business leaders and the public need to understand and recognize the value of forests to clean water, climate regulation, human health and livelihoods and why it’s crucial to protect them. This means agreeing to put responsible, sustainable forestry at the heart of their timber supply chains and forest policies and creating strong public-private partnerships for sustainable forestry,” Thibault Ledecq, regional forest head for WWF in the Greater Mekong area, said.

Dr David Ganz, director of the Center for People and Forests (otherwise known as RECOFTC) said: “Securing ways to enhance the livelihoods of local communities is an important step towards managing forests in an equitable fashion. In our globalized world, this includes first establishing a productive dialogue amongst both private sector actors and local communities, as shown in WWF’s and RECOFTC’s recent initiatives.”

Graphic: WWF


  • The report also gives examples of ways that individuals are working to solve deforestation:

  • Smallholders in Vietnam’s Hue Province have more than doubled their income from a Forest Stewardship Council-certified acacia through a unique partnership with IKEA and Scansia Pacific;
  • Individuals such as Hey Mer used to watch in desperation as forests disappeared around her Myanmar village. Now this village woman is hoping to become part of history as Myanmar aims to be the first country on earth to demonstrate that their rubber is deforestation-free;

  • In Cambodia’s eastern plains, Han Sahkan is part of a Community Protected Area whose members protect the forests from wildlife poachers and illegal loggers while replanting hardwood trees and earning income from honey, resin and mushroom collection;

  • Community members in Laos have received FSC certification and one farmer has more than tripled his income since switching from farming and fishing to rattan production. Wildlife numbers have also increased and conflict between humans and animals has decreased;

  • In Thailand’s Kui Buri National Park, an innovative partnership between plantation workers, park staff, local businesses and WWF has resulted in reduced encroachment in the park, a dramatic reduction in elephant deaths and the introduction of high-tech tools to protect wildlife.