Forests and forestry


Photo credit: Clay Gilliland (cropped). Image published under Creative Commons 2.0 SA licence. Photo credit: Clay Gilliland (cropped). Image published under Creative Commons 2.0 SA licence.

Forests and the forestry sector are linked to many aspects of the people and politics of the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB). Trade and the economy, government policy, indigenous culture, biodiversity, agriculture, housing, and carbon sequestration are all areas impacted by the management and viability of the region’s forests. In the current political and economical climates, the status of forests in the LMB is centered around governance, definitions of forest, biodiversity, timber sector and production, forest cover, and forest loss.

Forest cover

Overall forest cover has increased across the region in recent years, with the positive growth mostly due to re-growth and plantation stock, while primary forest continued to decline.

Forest types as a percentage of total forest in Lower Mekong countries

While forest cover over time is an important indicator of trends in forest loss or conservation, there are two main problems with using it as a measure of the overall well being of forest eco-systems, or of the effectiveness of forest management. Firstly, there is no globally accepted definition for what constitutes “forest”.

The closest standard is from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).1 This definition (and others like it), however, do not take forest degradation into account. As can be seen from the representation below, a 5,000 square meter area with only ten percent tree cover could be included in the same forest cover statistics as an area with greater than 70 percent cover.

FAO-forest-definition The FAO’s definition of forest would include areas of 70%, 40%, 20% and 10% tree coverage, as represented here from their 2011 report.

For this reason, many organizations are now reporting forest cover for various forest types—dense, closed or open forest—to indicate the level of tree canopy cover. Two of the latest analyses on forest cover in the region come from the University of Maryland2 and Open Development Cambodia.3 Both show a decrease in dense forest cover in Cambodia between 2000 and 2013, and the broader University of Maryland report revealing a pattern of stable or growing tree cover, but declining dense or primary forest in all countries.

Forest loss

For all countries in the region, the FAO reported an increase in the percentage of land given over to agriculture in the six years until 2011. This is seen by some as the largest on-going threat to primary forest in the region, and particularly in the three developing economies of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.4 Another factor affecting reported forest cover and forest loss are the presence of plantations. Countries that report to the FAO often include such plantations as palm oil, rubber, and other single-species tree crops as forests in their figures.

Forest terms

There are many terms used to describe various types of forest and different forest states. This can lead to divergence in reporting of forest cover and forest loss. For example, dense forest, primary forest and old-growth forest are three distinct terms that may be used to describe the same section of forest, though the table below shows that the terms are not identical in their definition.

AfforestationThe conversion from other land uses into forest, or the increase of the canopy cover to above the 10% threshold. (FAO, 2000)
CanopyThe layer of leaves, branches, and stems of trees that cover the ground when viewed from above.
Closed forestA forest with tree canopy cover of 60% to 100%.
Deciduous forestA forest mostly made up of deciduous trees, which drop and regrow their leaves seasonally.
DeforestationThe conversion of forest to another land use or the long-term reduction of the tree canopy cover below the minimum 10 percent threshold. (FAO 2000) Clearing or harvesting timber from forest area is not considered deforestation if the land use does not immediately change.
Dense forestEvergreen forest, mostly located at elevations higher than 500 meters. Dense forest may also be called old-growth forest.
Evergreen forestForest comprised of trees that do not lose their leaves through seasonal abscission (shedding leaves).
ForestA portion of land larger than half a hectare (5,000m2) with trees higher than 5 meters and a tree canopy cover of more than 10%, or with trees that will be able to meet these criteria. It does not include land that is predominantly under agricultural or urban land use.
Forest coverThe amount of land that falls into one of the forest classifications.
Mixed forestPrimarily regarded as dry, mixed deciduous forest, mixed forest may also include regrowth forest, stunted forest, mangroves, inundated or “flooded” forest, and bamboo, as well as forest plantations growing rubber, acacia, and eucalyptus or other tree crops.
Non-forestNon-forest is not dense forest, mixed forest, water or cloud. Non-forest includes urban areas, field crops, shrubland, fallow or barren land, and other human-impacted areas.
Old-growth forestA forest without significant disturbance for at least 100-150 years, with the presence of old trees, a multi-layered canopy, the presence of woody debris, standing and fallen dead tress (snags), which provide diverse wildlife habitat.
Open forestA forest area where tree cover of 10% to 40%.
PlantationForests established by planting and/or seeding to create new forest areas or for reforestation and can include either introduced or indigenous tree species. Plantations are often managed for commercial timber harvest.
Planted forestPlanted forests constitute plantations (e.g. rubber, acacia, eucalyptus) and the planted component of semi-natural forests.
Primary forestForests of native tree species, where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed.
Regenerated forest
(or reforestation)
Planting trees on land that was forested before, but had fallen below the forest cover definition.
Secondary forestRegenerated or native forests that have been cleared away by natural or human causes, such as agriculture or ranching. They display a major difference in forest structure and/or species composition with respect to primary forests. Secondary vegetation is generally unstable, and represents various stages.
Tree canopy coverThe canopy density determined by estimating the area of ground shaded by the crown of the trees.
Wooded areaLand that meets all other requirements of the forest definition, but with only 5-10% tree canopy cover.


Meyers and others recognized the LMB in 2000 as part of one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Apart from the general biodiversity of the LMB, its forest ecosystems are known to be home to several endangered and vulnerable species, including the tiger, Indochinese tiger, Asian elephant and saola. WWF catalogued 367 new species that were discovered in the Greater Mekong in 2012 and 2013.5

Law and regulations

Cambodia (2002), Laos (2007), Myanmar (1992), Thailand (1941), and Vietnam (2004) all have acts and laws to govern the management and use of their forests. These laws vary in both their content and scope. In some cases, countries in the region are in conflict over forest issues, mostly over trade and illegal logging. For example, the Myanmar government’s ban on timber exports has led to conflict with Chinese nationals importing timber across the border. The ASEAN Senior Officials on Forestry have already established a Strategic Plan of Action on Cooperation in Forestry among its ASEAN members,6 but as yet it is unclear how this will affect current conflicts or differences among countries within the Mekong region.

Timber sector and production

Across the Lower Mekong, 537,000 people were directly employed by the forestry sector, contributing more than US$6.4 billion to the region’s economy.7 The majority of this income (87.5%) belonged to Thailand and Vietnam.

Forestry income with respect to GDP in Lower Mekong countries

Despite having the lowest number of people employed in the forestry sector, both Cambodia and Laos had the highest percentage of their GDP come from forestry in 2011 (3.2% and 2.1% respectively) when compared with other countries in the region.

More recently, government and industry escalation in Vietnam have been large drivers of the timber trade. Vietnam is now the largest exporter of timber products in Southeast Asia, with the USA the main importer of those products. To feed this growing industry, Vietnam is importing raw and sawn timber materials from many countries, including the five other countries in the GMS.

This has led to an increase in legal and illegal timber trade around Vietnam, particularly across its borders with Laos and Cambodia.

 Related to forests and forestry


  • 1. FAO. 2011. Forests and Forestry in the Greater Mekong Subregion to 2020. Bangkok: FAO, 9. Accessed on 22 January 2015.
  • 2. Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S. V. Stehman, S. J. Goetz, T. R. Loveland, A. Kommareddy, A. Egorov, L. Chini, C. O. Justice, and J. R. G. Townshend. 2013. “High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change.” Science 342: 850–53. Accessed 27 January 2015.
  • 3. Open Development Cambodia. 2014. “Forest Cover.” Accessed on 28 January 2015.
  • 4. FAO. 2011. Forests and Forestry in the Greater Mekong Subregion to 2020. Bangkok: FAO. Accessed on 22 January 2015.
  • 5. WWF-Greater Mekong. 2014. Mysterious Mekong. Bangkok: WWF. Accessed 27 July 2015.
  • 6. ASEAN. “ASEAN cooperation on food, agriculture and forestry sectors and its strategic plan (2016-2020), forestry sector.” Accessed on 22 January 2015.
  • 7. FAO. 2011. Forests and Forestry in the Greater Mekong Subregion to 2020. Bangkok: FAO. Accessed on 22 January 2015.
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