A plague of deforestation sweeps across Southeast Asia

Yale Environment 360
20 May, 2013

Illegal logging and unchecked economic development are taking a devastating toll on the forests of Vietnam and neighboring countries, threatening areas of biodiversity so rich that 1,700 species have been discovered in the last 15 years alone.

In 1968, during the six-month siege of Khe Sanh — one of the most bitterly fought battles of the Vietnam War — a special U.S. Air Force outfit flew defoliation missions. Called the Ranch Handers, their motto was: “Only you can prevent a forest.”

They may not have succeeded in their goal, but rapid development in Vietnam and the surrounding nations of the greater Mekong region is on the way to accomplishing what American defoliation missions could not: The widespread destruction of Indochina’s forests and the biodiversity they harbor.

Stand on Khe Sanh today, and it’s remarkably tranquil. Nearly all the metal from the old Marine base has been scavenged and sold to scrap merchants. The battlefield is now part of a vast green coffee plantation; all that remains of the airstrip that was the lifeline for U.S. Marines and Army soldiers is a length of reddish dirt.

The fate of the forests around Khe Sanh exemplifies what is happening today in Vietnam and the greater Mekong region, which also includes Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Although some large blocks of forest remain intact, the pace of deforestation is dizzying, threatening the region’s remarkable biodiversity, which includes more than 1,700 species discovered in the last 15 years alone. Many of the forests in Vietnam have been cut down for the furniture export market and the trees replaced by coffee bushes; in less than 10 years, Vietnam has gone from zero to number two in global coffee production. So much forest has been cleared to feed the growing number of sawmills that loggers have moved across the borders into neighboring Laos and Cambodia, where they are illegally razing forests there.

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