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Environmental and Cultural Implications of
Rainforest Deforestation in
Southeast Asia


Please note, this website was posted with 1997 statistics

Rainforests are one of the world’s resources which produce many of the items we take for granted in our lives, such as food and medecines. It also serves as a habitat for a wide variety of plant and animal species which can live only in that environment and no other. Because of the many uses to which the rainforests can be put, they are often exploited by both the government and private interest groups seeking to advance their society or make a large profit. Deforestation is one of the major such forms of exploitation and it has both positive and negative consequences. With development comes the advancement of the culture, the coming of the new age and all the new technology and comforts that come with it. The countries become a part of the world market and thus evolve into a society more assimilated to the one which we, as westerners, take for granted: with computers, televisions, abundant food, clothing, and overall a more comfortable way of life. But deforestation, as you might expect, has a negative effect on the environment.

Facts About Rainforests:

Plants and medecines:


Negative effects of deforestation:

Soil Depletion

Rainforests are the earth’s oldest continuous ecosystems. Fossil records show that the forests of Southeast Asia have existed in more or less their present form for 70 to 100 million years. In just the past century we have managed to severely reduce the breadth of this ecosystem. This has created problems not only in the countries of these forests, but to the rest of the world as well. Four-fifths of the nutrients of the rainforests are in the vegetation. The soil is nutrient poor and becomes eroded and unproductive within a few years of being cleared. After logging, the land is generally used for farming, and then when it goes fallow, is used for cattle grazing. Yet the soil is so poor that even cattle grazing exhausts it after a few years. Then you have dry, barren land which is good for practically nothing except erecting buildings. It will never recover, especially when it is not allowed to coppice. When the land is cleared and barren, less rain falls and the whole ecosystem of the region begins to change.

Greenhouse Effect

Rainforest vegetation holds vast reserves of carbon. When trees are burned, or cut and left to decay, the carbon is released into the atmosphere. This is the second largest factor contributing to the greenhouse effect. Nature has her own ways of balancing out the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere through carbon sinks and the trapping of CO2 in coral and rocks. But these balances occur over an extended period of time, too slowly to balance the amount of CO2 we are letting into the atmosphere. This could eventually raise the temperature of the planet, break down the ozone layer, and cause global warming.

Business Turns to Asia:

South America was at first the large focus of logging campaigns by commercial companies. As time passed, though, their attention began to shift to include Southeast Asia in their economic plans. Asia constituted a fairly fresh land, an abundant resource which was not under as much scrutiny by the public as a whole. Companies like Mitsubishi had a great demand for their products and thus a need for expansion of their production system. Southeast Asia is closer to their base of operations than is South America, cutting down on their cost of transportation of goods. In Asia there was, until recently, little restriction on logging.

The Positive Side:

Malaysia and Indonesia are speeding into the twenty-first century. Malaysia is the world’s largest exporter of semiconductors and they just finished the building of the Petronas Twin Towers, the headquarters of the national oil company and the world’s tallest buildings. This is a testimony to their technological progress. Their world is changing into a fast paced society of technology and international presence and they have to keep moving forward in order to remain on equal footing with the rest of the world. Thus there is a conflict between their environments. On one hand there are the natural resources which sustain their environment, but on the other is the economic progress which brings them the necessities as well as the comforts of life.

There is, as in every situation, a pessimistic and an optimistic view to take regarding the land. Malaysians now argue that their country has enjoyed greater economic prosperity and social harmony in the four decades of their independence than in all the previous centuries of colonial rule. Malaysia is just one of several East Asian countries that today boasts higher growth rates, lower crime rates, lower drug use, and greater family stability than the Western democracies. And although industrial and office parks are springing up near many Malaysian cities, and here and there stretches of green are giving way to suburban sprawl, even today fully half of Malaysia is natural forest cover.


Health Problems:

Regardless of the number of trees still standing, however, those which are being cut down create a serious health hazard to the population. The director for the Department of the Environment in Malaysia is quoted as saying that quarries, wood-based industries and construction sites were especially bad for the environment in light of the fact that respiratory tract infections have risen by 20%. The streets of Malaysia and Indonesia during the summer of 1997 were clogged with smoke due to the deliberate and coincidental burning of the forests dried-out by the drought. People were told to remain in their houses or to wear oxygen masks if they did have to leave the building for some reason. In Indonesia two people died after suffering breathing problems and many people suffered from severe asthmatic reactions and eye infections. Many of these fires were deliberately set in order to clear land.


Who’s to Blame?

Environmentalists have identified the main "culprits" as large corporations clearing land to plant trees for pulpwood and palm oil.. Small farmers setting fires to clear plots for crops are responsible for 10% to 20% of the scarred acreage. Both small farmers and large corporations have tried clearing mangroves to establish rice paddies. This has generally failed because the soils under mangroves are fragile, highly acidic and tend to form solid, impermeable pans when exposed to the tropical sun.

Where the land has been logged, there are no longer trees to produce the rain cycle which cools down the atmosphere. This would exacerbate the drought and worsen conditions.

Logging has been established on the Malaysian peninsula since the 19th century but developed most rapidly in the 1970s; timber production peaked in 1979. For a long time, the actions of the logging companies went largely unchecked. Even when laws were created to curb the depletion of this resource, they were not always been enforced. The government has banned deliberate use of fires, but the head of Rubber Association of Indonesia says burning is the most efficient and practical way to clear land. If an official tries to enforce the ban, "you just bribe him," the trade group’s A.F.S. Budiman told the Far Eastern Economic Review. Money has a way of placating many of the moral views and laws in society.

Scott paper company abandoned its plantation project to its partner P.T. Astra International after severe opposition from Indonesian and Western groups. The government was angered at the strength of the campaign against Scott and launched a $2.5 million public-relations counter-attack:

It seems somewhat ironic that the money set aside from the protection and regeneration of the environment will be the very money which will fund a project to cut down more trees.


Indigenous People:

Protecting Their Lands

There are several different views of the effect upon the indigenous people in this area. Sarawak vs. logging company – the Sarawak fighting for their traditional lands.

This case addresses the controversial question of whether tribal land rights include forested areas where hunting, fishing, gathering, and burials are carried out. Or, as the government contends, these rights are limited to areas cleared for agriculture, leaving the forest open for commercial logging. The defendants claim that the Sarawak are already "legally dispossessed" from the forest, that they have no rights to it, no legal standing. Whatever the decision reached by the court, the case will be appealed to the Malaysian Supreme Court. The trial could take up to five years, during which time the logging could continue.


On the Tide of Change

T.R. Reid in an article in National Geographic presented a different view of the indigenous people. Malaysians know that their economic leap ahead may threaten the delicate balance that keeps the diverse population functioning as a harmonious community. In his view, the Iban seem to be adapting to the ways of the modern twentieth century and losing their traditional customs:

In the face of modern luxuries, many people are reluctant to maintain their old ways, the young especially. The elders see the beauty of tradition, the importance of keeping it alive. The young tend to go more for comfort, for money, for peace, and for ambition. Reid writes in his article, "As the only outsider present I began to get the uneasy feeling that the whole shebang (traditional dance and ceremony) had been staged for my benefit...several made it appear to be an unpleasant chore...the chief of the longhouse said "Don’t worry, it’s all part of the tour package."

The old traditions have almost become more a tourist attraction than a practice passed onto the youth. When anthropologists, tourists, and writers go to visit the indigenous tribes, they expect to see the rituals, the traditions. The people do not disappoint them. The outsiders are given what they desire, not the modern day acclimation into the technological society, but their mental image of how indigenous people live.

There are, of course, many indigenous people who still live their "primitive" lifestyle, like the Sarawak. But many others like the Iban have begun to adapt to the culture of the cities as they send their children to schools in the city to grow up with "civilized" ways. In many indigenous cultures, violence is a well established fact of life and many people die from inter-tribal feuding and raids. Sometimes the people of these cultures realize that their ways no longer fit into the world in which they live and thus they begin to assimilate themselves into the predominant culture. This is not always the case, of course, as, for example, the Sarawak are trying to retain their way of life. Many anthropologists tend to view indigenous cultures as being apart from change. But these cultures are changing and will change, especially with the influx of outsiders into their homelands and the destruction of their lands. Some tribes try to counter this by fighting for their land, as the Sarawak are doing. Others try to counter it by adapting to the predominant culture.


Environmental Action:

Many Malaysians are fed up with the "couldn’t-care-less" attitude of some countries towards forest preservation and restoration, especially the lack of implementation of agreements made at the Rio Earth Summit five years ago. Some government officials are serious about enforcing the decisions made at the Rio Summit and various other such meetings, especially those dealing with the International Tropical Timber Organization. But in looking to how much other countries have accomplished, these people sometimes fail to take a good look at just how much their own country has done.

In Malaysia (1995 figures):

Indonesia is nearly the same:

Domestic Environmental Action Groups

Democratic Action Party in Malaysia. They are trying to attain a fairly perfect society, as is everyone, but have listed their goals:

Their major issues are having:

I think this is somewhat idealistic and, while it is refreshing to have an optimistic view of the world, they must realize that in order to obtain even a fraction of what they want, they will have to compromise. It may not be possible to have a globalized economy, information technology, indigenous people, environment and industrial development without losing something from each of them.

International Environmental Action Groups

There are foreign environmental groups, such as the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace, which come into countries with rainforests and try to dictate to that country what a sustainable environment is, what they are doing wrong. Many people in Malaysia and Indonesia are fed up with organizations such as these, especially with ones as aggressive and extreme as the Rainforest Action Network. They consider Western nations to be hypocrites because they caused greater damage during their own modernization. Many of the citizens focus more on the positive effects which rise from the deforestation:

With this new economic program, life has been much better in the way of crime and drug use, social harmony, growth rate, and family stability. There would be no reason to go back to the more primitive lifestyle many of these people had led.


Environmental Legislature

The Basic Forestry Law (1967) classified all forests into production, protection, wildlife, and other reserves.

The Basic Agrarian Law (1960) concentrates on land-use rights and notes that all forested land and natural resources are ultimately owned by the state. This means that whatever the government decides to do with the land is what is done. In this case it would be very easy for the government to abuse its power in order to amass money from the logging companies.

When it comes to certain issues, governments can be decidedly two-faced. Indonesia has an impressive number of forest preservations and national parks:

This is a great environmental statistic to throw at people if you are a government trying to paint a good picture of yourself.

In Malaysia, there is a pointed lack of national parks. This is probably the least developed aspect of conservation in West Malaysia. The authorities are not providing adequate protection, which does not reflect well on their commitment to conservation.


Beginning of Logging

The heavy logging of Indonesia began with good intentions. In the 1960s Indonesia faced a major economic crisis with 85% inflation and a rapidly increasing foreign debt. They centered on improving agriculture and expanding agribusiness. Timber resources on Sumatra were running low and Kalimantan was identified as the main area for expansion. By 1974, 11 million hectares of Kalimantan had been designated as logging concessions. The role played by plantation crops was reduced in earning foreign capital was reduced and timber was promoted as the major export earner (after oil). Timber played a large role in getting the country back on its feet after its crisis and vaulting it to greater economic success. Now nobody will want to let go of it until there is no longer an industry to be had.


Technology vs. Environment

West Malaysia has the highest standard of living of any Southeast Asian country. This is primarily due to the rich natural resources, a small population and a rapidly expanding economy. Replacing natural forest with oil palm and rubber estates played a significant role in its development. Today, however, the international rubber and palm oil markets have collapsed and West Malaysia is basing its economic future on hi-tech industries.

As society becomes more and more immersed in technology, more decisive measures will have to be taken to insure the protection of the environment, especially in rainforest countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia which are open to logging. The destruction of these forests affects other ecological systems as well.



The Democratic Action Party has said that if the government continues to allow indiscriminate logging it "shall be responsible for the death of a culture and way of life of our native people." While I agree that it would be the end of a way of life that has existed for countless centuries, I do not agree that it would be the death of a culture. It is true that technology is heading us more towards a homogenous society and that we could begin to lose our various cultural systems. I do not believe this will happen. Culture is a part of us. It would be a shame to lose the rituals which shape the tradition, but culture has to evolve with time. In a constantly shifting society, people cannot remain the same eternally or they will be lost in the crush. This may seem somewhat harsh, but it is the way of life. Adaptation and change to new social normalities are two things which distinguish human beings. People should not be abruptly and unwillingly forced out of their homes and traditions, but should be taught the ways of the modern world so that they can either adapt to it, if they so choose, or know how to fight against it.

A man in Malaysia named Dr. Payne expressed a view of economically based hope for the environment when he stated that "the rather hopeful factor is the growth of tourism. That creates economic incentives to preserve virgin forest so people will come to see it. One expects this to be an important activity here, and that would help maintain a natural sense of balance." This could in fact be what it will come down to. The government will protect the environment out of a national interest in attracting tourists to visit and spend their money. Though this is not a very highly moralistic solution, it is a solution nonetheless. Eventually the environment will have to come in to some kind of equilibrium with its economy; if one dies, so will the other. The two are interdependent in this fast-paced age. We can no longer afford to shutter our vision to one aspect, one narrow view of what we want to accomplish without taking into account everybody and everything else. This is an era of compromise and we cannot be selfish in our interests. We are dependent upon the earth for our survival; we are not above it, a species apart. Life is a web of wills, thoughts, and actions and we must make sure that we make it stick instead of unraveling it.

This paper was posted on the internet spring of 1998, therefore certain number and facts may be out of date.
Primary sources used were Rainforest Action Network literature and National Geographic magazine, as well as some internet sources.

Related Links
Rainforest Action Network
Greenpeace International
Global Warming Central
Pahang Darul Makmur, Malaysia - government-run home page

One Tree, a poem

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