A closer look at forest restoration across different climate zones of Asia

Contributed by 2022 AFoCO Fellowship Officials ⁠— Sonam Tashi (lead author), Azamat Abuov, and Moniz Guilhermino. Sonam Tashi is a Forestry Officer at the Department of Forests and Park Services (DoFPS) under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests of Bhutan. Azamat Abuov serves as Chief Expert of the Forestry and Wildlife Committee of the Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources (MEGNR) of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Moniz Guilhermino is the National Project Coordinator for Developing Sandalwood at National Director Development Forest Community, General Directorate Forestry Coffee and Industrial Plants of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Timor-Leste.

Forests have been defined through different objectives, from timber management to conservation, and in recent times, in the context of climate change mitigation, and now, Earth Stewardship where a complex ecosystem service is linked with society and wellbeing (Chazdon et al., 2016). Perhaps, we have reached the stage where there is a common understanding that forests are fundamental to sustainability — 6 out of 17 Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs) are directly linked to forests, and SDG 15 “Life on Land: Protect, Restore, and Promote Sustainable Use of Terrestrial Ecosystems; Sustainably Manage Forests; Combat Desertification; Halt and Reverse Land Degradation; and Halt Biodiversity Loss” itself revolves around forests (Baumgartner, 2019). In recent decades, there has been momentum gained in support of building a greener future due to depleting resources, greenhouse gases, and climate change. A prospect for change and a greener future (Elrayies, 2018). Among many international pledges, commitments, and initiatives, one significant movement is the UN’s declaration of the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021–2030) after realizing that more than 33% of the global land has been degraded, affecting the livelihoods of billions of people worldwide (Abhilash, 2021).

It is timely and critical that we focus on forest ecosystem restoration because significant changes in forest cover have been observed, with some studies indicating a loss of 29.62% from 1930 to 2014 in Southeast Asia despite a recent decrease in deforestation rate (Paradis, 2020; Sudhakar Reddy et al., 2018). Loss of forest cover is also being observed in Central Asia with a continuous decrease in forest cover from 16,199,869 ha in 2000 to 11,534,396 ha in 2010, and then to 8,118,510 ha in 2017. Although forest cover increase can be observed in individual countries like China, regions such as Central Asia saw an overall decrease in forest cover (Yushanjiang et al., 2021). Thus, to gain multiple ecosystem benefits and avoid expected species extinctions while sequestering CO2, the only way forward is to restore forests to maintain a continued supply of ecosystem services (Strassburg et al., 2020).

REDD+, a leading framework created under the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP), states that the main factors of forest loss are attributed to anthropogenic activities, with 80% of the world’s deforestation being attributed to the clearing of land to make way for agriculture to produce food, either commercially or for subsistence purposes. Commercial agriculture is thought to be responsible for two-thirds of the deforestation taking place in Latin America and one-third of Africa’s deforestation, with fuelwood collection and charcoal production also being key drivers. Clearing forests for mining, urban expansion, and infrastructure development are also culprits, and an estimated 70% of forest degradation is caused by timber extraction and logging operations (Hall, 2013). In the Southeast Asian region, deforestation (around 73%) is mainly commodity-driven (permanent farming and — to a much smaller extent — mining), and is also attributed to logging (19%) and shifting agriculture (8%). A mere 0.28% of forest cover loss is caused by urban expansion (Russell, 2020).

In this article, forest degradation and restoration activities in three Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Bhutan, and Timor-Leste — will be explored. Despite disparities in geographical characteristics due to their positions at different latitude zones, land size, and stages of economic development, it is safe to argue that these countries share similar forest degradation and restoration initiatives, although to varying degrees of severity and magnitude.

CountryLand AreaForest Cover (% Proportion of Land Area)
Bhutan3,839,000 ha
(NFI, 2017)
2,730,889 ha (71%)
(NFI, 2017)
Kazakhstan272,490,200 ha
(NFI, 2021)
13,316,900 ha (5%)
(NFI, 2021)
Timor-Leste1,493,398 ha
(NFI, 2010)
869,130.41 ha (59%)
(NFI, 2010)
Table 1. Status of Forests in Bhutan, Kazakhstan, and Timor-Leste based on *National Forestry Inventory data of the respective countries

Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the temperate zone, with a total land area of 272,490,200 ha. Unfortunately,70% of its land is degraded to various extents (Andersson & Ardfors, 2021). Unsustainable land practices, inadequate use of natural resources, environmental pollution (Almaganbetov & Grigoruk, 2008), as well as high vulnerability to climate change and drying water patterns in all regions of Kazakhstan, are causing desertification (Hu et al., 2020). Furthermore, forest degradation in Kazakhstan due to clearcutting, illegal logging, and forest fires is also indirectly linked to desertification (Almaganbetov & Grigoruk, 2008). Hence, land restoration through afforestation is recognized as a significant strategy for combating desertification (Andersson & Ardfors, 2021; Тokbergenova et al., 2018). The desiccation of the Aral Sea Bed necessitates afforestation in order to produce supportive microenvironments for plants and microorganisms by lowering soil salinity and activating soil microbial enzymes, which will eventually lead to increased afforestation through time and balanced ecological succession (An et al., 2020). Therefore, afforestation is the solution that not only addresses desertification but also enhances the provision of ecosystem services.

Kazakhstan’s government has vowed to enhance national forest cover by 1.5 million hectares by 2030 (Andersson & Ardfors, 2021), with one of the projects being a large-scale tree-planting initiative on the dried bed of the Aral Sea. The overall area of the Kazakh part of the Aral Sea’s drained bottom currently stands at 2.2 million hectares, out of a total of 6 million hectares shared with the Republic of Uzbekistan (Bakirov et al., 2020). In April 2021, Kazakhstan’s President, K.K. Tokayev, was tasked to establish a targeted 1.1 million hectares of saxaul plantations on the drained bottom of the Aral Sea by 2025 (Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources, 2021).


Timor-Leste, a new country with a colonial heritage of deforestation attributed to economic and population growth, weak environmental governance, illegal logging, and shifting cultivation, is striving for forest sustainability in Asia’s southernmost tropical zone (Hosgelen & Saikia, 2014). The World Bank reported a 1.3% annual deforestation rate in 2008, which was one of the highest in the world (Hosgelen & Saikia, 2014), and the National Forest Conservation Plan of 2013 for Timor-Leste reported 1.7% (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, 2018) and 1,400ha of net forest conversion was reported by FAO in 2020. Although deforestation rates remain high, people’s livelihoods are heavily reliant on forests for food, income, energy, construction, and housing. Recognizing the importance of forests, the government of Timor-Leste has a target in Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030, of planting one million trees per year nationwide (Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030, 2010). However, it has been unofficially reported that only 1000 ha is being reforested every year, which is lower than the targeted reforestation rate.

One such example of afforestation efforts is the planting of sandalwood in empty government forest areas since 2017 to replenish dwindling natural sandalwood trees in the forest. Around 45,000 sandalwood saplings were planted in 2018, restoring 100 ha of land. On the other hand, household land ownership, labor, and carbon income have yet to be developed and such community afforestation efforts are a rather recent development (Bond et al., 2020).

Agroforestry has also been increasingly recognized as one of the viable solutions for reconciling socio-economic needs and ecological functions (Paudel et al., 2022). Moreover, as 80% of villages in Timor-Leste still utilize traditional heating methods such as the burning of fuelwood, afforestation to improve energy supply is also being suggested (Carvalho et al., 2022).


Located near to equator in the tropical zone, Bhutan, a mountainous Himalayan country with a long tradition of environmental preservation, is one of the few tropical countries that has shifted from net loss to net increase of forest cover, retaining 60% forest cover throughout (Bruggeman et al., 2016). Bhutan is the world’s only carbon-negative country, absorbing more CO2 than it emits. The country has even pledged to remain carbon neutral indefinitely, which is facing (Vilà-Vilardell et al., 2020) and will confront substantial obstacles in sustaining this status as the country balances its goal of increasing economic opportunities (GDP) and human happiness in line with the national policy of Gross National Happiness (Yangka et al., 2019). Activities such as logging, non-wood forest products, forest fires, land-use change, hydropower projects, mining, and agriculture are among the key underlying drivers of deforestation (Watershed Management Division, 2017).

Deforestation caused by the expansion of hydropower facilities is a major threat to the forests of Bhutan, although the intensity of such expansion is low. To deal with this, the Royal Government of Bhutan has commissioned compensatory afforestation programs and regulations (included and implemented with the Hydropower project plan) that will target to grow forests twice the size of the affected areas (Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, 2017). Fortunately, impact assessments on completed and ongoing projects have so far demonstrated favorable outcomes from mitigation initiatives (Managing Environmental and Social Impacts of Hydropower in Bhutan, 2016), implying that hydropower plant projects in Bhutan have a low carbon footprint.

Paradoxically, some have argued that Bhutan’s forests are not being used to their full potential to contribute to economic growth and forest health due to low rates of timber harvesting over the years, which has resulted in forests being overstocked with unhealthy and old-growth trees, thereby making them vulnerable to climate change, forest fires, pests, and diseases, while also resulting in declining or neutral carbon sequestration capacities (Thinley, 2019). On the other hand, existing research on carbon sequestration shows that old-growth trees have been storing carbon for a millennium and contain huge amounts of carbon, which will be released back into the atmosphere if disturbed (Gundersen et al., 2021). In any case, sustainable forest management is important and challenging for a small developing country like Bhutan.

In conclusion, as evidenced by afforestation efforts in Kazakhstan and Timor-Leste, forests have taken center stage in global policy, governance, and aspirations, and they have become more crucial than ever due to climate change. Forests may be defined in many ways but they are, without a doubt, necessary for the survival of all living creatures. The broader question, similar to Bhutan’s effort to preserve its pristine forests, will be how to maintain a balance of economy, livelihood, and biodiversity benefits indefinitely without jeopardizing any.


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