Southeast Asia in the spotlight ahead of international talks on biodiversity


Experts are calling on leaders in the region to protect nature amid continued deforestation and habitat degradation. 

By Zachary Frye                                                            

Negotiations over the future of the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have restarted after a yearlong break due to COVID-19. The CBD is a 1992 treaty approved by 196 countries that provides a framework to promote sustainable development for the benefit of both natural habitats and human societies. 

On October 11, 2021 world leaders are set to meet in Kunming, China to reflect on past successes and failures regarding the treaty’s implementation and to provide clarity on its future.

In the runup to this year’s meeting, ASEAN countries have an important role to play in protecting biodiversity and supporting sustainable development as the region is home to some of the world’s most diverse habitats. 

Although Southeast Asia only covers 3% of the Earth’s surface, it contains about 20% of the world’s plant, animal and marine species. Parts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are also considered three of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, meaning they have especially high concentrations of unique animal and plant life.

For Global Biodiversity Day on May 22, environmentalists, scientists and leaders in the region are calling on ASEAN governments to double down on promoting the wellbeing of natural areas. 

There is a growing push to convince Southeast Asian governments to agree to protecting at least 30% of the world’s natural habitats from development or degradation by 2030. The initiative, known as the 30×30 proposal, is included in the CBD’s draft framework that will be negotiated by world leaders this year.  

“There is growing recognition that effectively responding to climate change will require greater attention to and an increased investment in nature conservation,” said Tony La Viña, former undersecretary of environment in the Philippines.

“I encourage all ASEAN countries to embrace the proposal to protect at least 30% of the planet as an important element of an ambitious climate strategy,” he added. 

Southeast Asia has been mostly silent on 30×30

A growing list of governments are supporting the proposal to protect 30% of the Earth’s biosphere by 2030 as researchshows the negative impacts of biodiversity loss, including mass extinctions, hastened climate change and myriad economic losses.

Dr. Zakri Abdul Hamid. Photo: Munzir Fauzi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With that said, nearly all countries in the ASEAN bloc have yet declare their positions on 30×30. So far, Cambodia is the only Southeast Asian country that has made a public commitment to support the measure.

Dr. Zakri Abdul Hamid, a Malaysian ambassador and science advisor to the environmental coalition Campaign for Nature, urged the region’s leaders to make a strong commitment to 30×30 in this year’s CBD meetings.

“Science guides us,” he said. “Protecting at least 30% of the planet by 2030 is a timely and important action to defend and improve the health of our planet, our economies and ourselves.”

ASEAN governments need to do more to promote biodiversity and sustainable development

Although all ASEAN member states are party to the CBD and have made strong statements in support of the importance of biodiversity and sustainability, the region has struggled to make good on its commitments to protect the environment. 

In Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, widespread slash-and-burn farming practices on palm oil plantations are contributing heavily to deforestation and forest fires. Estimates indicate that some 4.4 million hectares of forest were burned in Indonesia alone between 2015 and 2019, an area eight times the size of Bali.

A smouldering peatland fire viewed from the air in Indonesia. Photo: Wuquan Cui (distributed via

The burning causes an annual smog season for much of the region, impacting millions of families and releasing millions of tons carbon into the atmosphere. 

According to a study released by Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2020, the destruction of peat forests in Southeast Asia is having widespread impacts on the environment as degradation of peatland causes massive carbon dioxide emissions.

While deforestation remains an issue in many countries, including Cambodia and Myanmar, the increased damming of the region’s rivers is also impacting biodiversity and human welfare.

Over the past several decades, widespread damming of rivers in Southeast Asia has led to serious disturbances in fish migration and river biodiversity. While most of the dams on the Mekong, the region’s longest river, have been constructed in China, there are at least 9 planned or postponed dams on the lower Mekong in Southeast Asia and two that are already operational. 

In turn, many local communities that rely on the natural ebb and flow of rivers for food and agriculture have been negatively impacted, including by threats to their food security

Governments need to focus on implementing their biodiversity and sustainability goals

While many governments in the ASEAN bloc seem willing to make strong statements on biodiversity and environmental sustainability, habitat degradation and unsustainable development continue to be major problems. 

According to a study released by United Nations University in 2010, there are a host of economic and social factors contributing to biodiversity loss in the region, including underlying factors that arguably make it more difficult for governments to implement quick fixes, such as population growth, increased infrastructure development and urban expansion. 

With that said, if governments go beyond rhetoric and stay focused on implanting strong environmental regulations, they can reduce problems associated with biodiversity loss over the longer term. 

One of the most difficult aspects of environmental sustainability and habitat loss, however, is that these issues are especially pressing. Data shows that natural habitats are being degraded rapidly in much of the world, leading to accelerated species extinction rates. 

Many scientists have also argued that societies need to prioritize clean energy and conservation quickly in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change over the coming decades, such as more extreme weather, urban flooding and food scarcity

With these considerations in mind, regional governments would be wise to focus on the conservation of natural habitats in their countries as a stopgap against further environmental destruction. Supporting and helping implement the 30×30 proposal during this year’s CBD meetings is one way ASEAN leaders can show they are serious about making sustainability a reality. 

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.