Climate change and land grabbing: The example of the Mekong region

Whether in mining, agriculture, or the timber sector, land and forest consumption are increasing worldwide. Transnational corporations and investors obtain these resources, among other ways, through large-scale land concessions – especially in developing and emerging countries. This accelerates deforestation – making it a primary source of climate-changing carbon emissions globally. Deforestation in developing countries generates about as much CO2 as the entire transport sector, including aviation. A CDE research project in the Mekong region shows how land grabbing and deforestation are linked, and why this matters for global efforts to address climate change.
old rubber Laos
Rubber plantations in Laos. ©National Geographic Department, Lao PDR


Gaby Allheilig, Micah Ingalls

Protecting and expanding forests has emerged as a key global policy aim. In 2015, an important related milestone was reached with the Paris Climate Agreement, reinforcing the programme to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, plus foster restoration, protection, and sustainable management of forests – known as REDD+. Special compensation mechanisms are intended to reward developing and emerging countries that protect and restore their forests.

REDD+ underway at different speeds

Numerous countries have begun developing national REDD+ programmes. However, not all are doing so at the same pace. This presents a major challenge for the ability of REDD+ to decrease carbon emissions attributed to forest degradation and destruction.

Intensive agriculture_Vietnam
An agricultural landscape in Vietnam. ©Phuong Nguyen

Displacement to other countries

Indeed, countries and investors whose production or trade relies on significant land and forest consumption increasingly have difficulty finding available land and forest resources. In practice, this typically leads these companies and commodity sectors to relocate their activities: from countries that are advanced in protecting and restoring their forests – and already receive REDD+ payments – to countries whose efforts towards forest protection are (still) in their infancy.

Mekong region illustrates the challenge

This dynamic can be seen in the Mekong region (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). Here, scientists led by CDE have researched exactly how and why land use and deforestation shift locations. Vietnam responded very quickly to the REDD+ programme. Laos, by contrast, a country with 40% forest cover in 2010, stands to lose an estimated 67,000 hectares of forest each year through 2020 – on behalf of forest plantations for rubber production and other land-intensive systems of resource use such as agriculture.

Rubber concession and deforestation graphic
Deforestation and rubber concessions in Cambodia

Forests under pressure

On the one hand, the rising pressure on forests in Laos and Cambodia is the result of exponentially growing exports of raw commodities and semi-finished goods from the primary sector. On the other, Vietnamese companies are major sources of resource pressure due to the large-scale land concessions they acquire from their neighbours. For example, observers estimate that over 405,000 hectares of Cambodia’s rubber plantations are in Vietnamese hands.

Forest destruction or poverty alleviation?

The researchers have shown that both developments – rising trade of forest-degrading or forest-destroying products and land deals with foreign investors – are closely related. Moreover, there is a clash between policy aims: Commercial agriculture and plantation forests are indeed leading causes of deforestation and carbon emissions in Cambodia and Vietnam. But they are also the engine of economic growth in both countries. The two countries have adapted their development strategies accordingly, for the stated purpose of fighting poverty.

Für Kautschukplantagen wird Vegetation abgebrannt und Wald gerodet, Kambodscha.
Clearing and burning forests for rubber plantations in Cambodia. ©Sinu Fogarizzu

Development still in early stages

The degree to which deforestation in the Mekong region moves across borders presents a problem for REDD+ and corresponding climate goals: On the one hand, Vietnam is just beginning with its forest protection and reforestation programme. In 2016, China—the largest regional consumer of commodities known to drive deforestation—imported USD 33 million in goods and raw materials from Vietnam. That same year, China announced that it would no longer harvest wood from its own natural forests, signalling a potential increase in its demand for foreign wood imports, especially from the Mekong countries.

There remain some reasons to hope.  With appropriate changes, REDD+ may yet be able to tackle deforestation and halt forest carbon emissions, especially if it can address what is driving the harms: forest-risk commodity flows, land grabbing, and the global market economy. But the road ahead looks to be long.

The transboundary displacement of deforestation under REDD+

Ingalls ML, Meyfroidt P, To PX, Kenney-Lazar M, Epprecht M. 2018

Problematic intersections between the trade of forest-risk commodities and land grabbing in the Mekong region. Global Environmental Change, Vol. 50, pp.255-267.

Mekong State of Land brief

Ingalls, M.L., Diepart, J.-C., Truong, N., Hayward, D., Niel, T., Sem, T. and al 2018

Mekong State of Land. Brief. Bern, Switzerland and Vientiane, Lao PDR: Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern and Mekong Region Land Governance, with Bern Open Publishing (BOP)

REDD+ and Switzerland

Like most other industrialized countries, Switzerland assumes it will be unable to achieve the greenhouse-gas reduction targets it has committed to solely with efforts at home. As a result, it has earmarked funds, inter alia to support preparation and implementation of measures in REDD+ countries.