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FOOD, LAND AND FUEL
From Forest to Food to Feedstock
Faced with ever-increasing global demand for food and non-food agricultural products, it seems inevitable that more forest land in Southeast Asia will be converted to agricultural land, with industrial crops increasing in importance. In the past, agricultural land was cultivated mainly for food production. However, as economies industrialize, arable as well as marginal lands are increasingly planted to feedstock crops for the energy or manufacturing sectors. This trend is expected to accelerate, as global and local demand for a industrial feedstocks increases and diversifies.
Asia’s high population densities have translated into heavy pressure on arable land and forests. In Thailand from1950 to 1980, agricultural holdings nearly doubled to about 22 million hectares, of which about three-quarters were farmed annually. By the early 1980s, most available arable land had already been occupied. However, arable land is being converted for urban uses at an increasing rate, whilst food production is increasingly giving way to production of industrial (non-food) feedstocks. With a finite area of available arable land, competition in terms of land use has intensified, in particular, from the rapid rise in demand for industrial crops such as pulp and paper, rubber, and biofuels.
Economic and industrial growth is closely correlated with increasing pulpwood demand. Southeast Asia’s pulp and paper industry is strongly influenced by patterns of regionalization and globalization of fiber production, consumption and trade. We can therefore expect paper consumption per capita in this region to continue to increase. With the ‘paperless society’ appearing increasingly as an utopian dream, more land is likely to be planted to pulpwood plantation crops, primarily Eucalyptus species despite the expected increase in use of recycled paper.
Rubber has been a major economic crop in Southeast Asia since the late 19th century, and today more than 90% of the global supply of natural rubber comes from Southeast Asia, with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand being the major exporters. The 1970s and 1980s saw a boom for rubber plantations in Southern Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia, where climatic conditions are ideal. Today, because of land scarcity, rubber product is expanding into upland areas in marginal and remote regions of Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. The rates of this expansion are astonishing; Myanmar’s cultivated area of rubber was 76,950 hectares in 1988, but increased five-fold by 2008, and is expected to reach 600,000 hectares by 2030. Vietnam also plans to increase its area of rubber plantations from about 500,000 to 720,000 hectares between 2009 and 2015.
Energy consumption in Southeast Asia continues to increase in tandem with economic growth. Biofuel plantings in Asia received a major boost from the recent surge in oil prices, and continue to be strongly supported and promoted by Asian governments. Today more land is being used to grow alternative energy crops, such as palm oil in Indonesia, Malaysia, which are the two largest producers, cassava and sugar cane in Thailand, and coconuts in the Philippines. These crops have various end-uses, but are increasingly cultivated as energy crops. Cassava plantation in Thailand grew from 71,520 hectares in 1960 to 1.2 million hectares in 2008. In Vietnam, the main energy crops are sugar cane and cassava.
The shift to industrial crops and end-uses has several important implications for the region’s socio-economic development and the environment. The first obvious concern is that the decrease in available land for food crops could lead to higher food prices in local markets.
Secondly, legal and illegal deforestation are likely to accelerate in response to demand. In Indonesia, 1.6 million hectares of tropical forests have already been cleared for palm oil plantations. A World Wildlife Fund study shows that the fastest rate of deforestation in Indonesia has taken place in central Sumatra, where some 65% of its tropical forests and peat swamps have already been cleared for industrial crop plantations. As upland plantations of monoculture tree crops replace land currently occupied by evergreen broadleaf forest and secondary vegetation, biodiversity, soils, fisheries, and agricultural watersheds will inevitably be adversely affected. The increase in industrial plantations in upland areas could also result in significant reductions in carbon biomass, CO2 sequestration potential, and increased risk of soil erosion and landslides. Eucalyptus plantations have been particularly controversial, due in part to their very high water requirement that can result in lowered water tables, dried out wells, and soils devoid of nutrients.
Plantations of energy crops in upland areas will further affect existing communities, particularly minority groups. As plantations are often owned by large business groups, they can exert much more influence on both local and national governments than local communities.
Finally, the socio-economic and environmental impacts of agro-industrial processing facilities may also be significant. Whilst job creation may provide positive benefits to communities, very often a more mechanized production model entails net reductions in labour demand. In terms of demands on natural resources, pulping facilities require ample supplies of water to operate- again, presenting new and major sources of competing demand.
 Leitch LePoer, B. ed. Thailand: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1987.
 Xinhua News 2009
 TRA News 2009
 Thailand Office of Agricultural Economics statistics, various years