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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Southeast Asia's Rich Biodiversity Is Facing Threat

By Tengku Noor Shamsiah Tengku Abdullah

PUTRAJAYA, May 2 (Bernama) -- The Asean region, though covering only three percent of the earth's surface, serves as the natural habitat of up to 40 percent of the world's plant and animal species.

The region is the home to one-third of the world's coral reefs, translating to 284,000 square kilometers of coral reefs that are among the most diverse in the world.

The region is home to seven of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots. Out of the 64,800 known species in the region, 1,312 are endangered.

The region includes three 'mega-diversity' countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The other members of the grouping are Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

But sadly today Asean's biodiversity is facing threat from mankind's activities and from the wrath of nature itself.

NATURE'S WEALTH UNDER THREAT

According to Rodrigo U. Fuentes, the Executive Director of the Asean Centre for Biodiversity, deforestation rates in the region are at least two times higher than other tropical areas.

Forest conversion is the major cause of biodiversity loss in the region. It is driven by logging activities, shifting cultivation, large-scale mining, and agricultural expansion.

These lead to loss of habitat for many birds, mammals and other animals, reduced pollination activities, decline in species richness and populations, and overall reductions in biodiversity.

If present levels of deforestation continue, Asean will lose nearly three-fourths of its original forest cover and up to 42 percent of its biodiversity by the next century.

"There will be massive species declines and extinctions which will result in catastrophic biodiversity loss. Biodiversity loss could trigger enormous effects on food security, health, shelter, medicine, and aesthetic and other life sustaining resources," Fuentes warned.

ASEAN LOSING ITS FOREST COVER

In Sumatra, for example, there has been a decline from 80 to 33 percent (1980-2001) in forest cover within 50 km periphery of protected areas. Smaller protected areas are most greatly affected as the conservation capacity of protected areas is greatly reduced.

In 1997-1998, up to five million hectares of forests in Indonesia (Sumatra and Kalimantan) were lost due to forest fires. In 2002 and 2006, forest fires destroyed several million hectares, including peat swamp forests.

He said these resulted in disappearance or population decline and high infant and juvenile mortality in many animals, as well as reduced seedling and sapling population for many tree species.

ASEAN'S WILDLIFE ALSO AFFECTED

Wildlife hunting and trade for food, pet and medicinal purposes also contribute to biodiversity loss in Asean.

In Sarawak, 2.6 million animals are hunted each year for bush meat while in Sabah, 108 million animals suffered the same fate. In 2000, Indonesia contributed about 29 percent of global exports for snake and lizard skins.

In the same year, Singapore imported 7,093 live animals and had a total net export of 301,905 animal skins.

Between 1975 and 1992, Korea imported 6,128 kilograms of tiger bones, 60 percent of which were from Indonesia.

Overall, wildlife was extracted from forests at more than six times the sustainable rate.

The marine environment did not fare any better. Almost 80 percent of coral reefs in the region are at risk due to destructive fishing practices and coral bleaching.

OTHER ASPECTS OF THREAT

Increasing human population and poverty is a primary socio-economic driver of forest biodiversity loss.

Climate change can have the largest proportional effect on biodiversity in extreme environments (e.g., arctic, boreal zones).

This phenomenon threatens the Asean region, possibly in very cold mountain environments, on small islands or low coastal areas.

Lack of financial resources contributes to biodiversity loss in the region as governments put more emphasis on budget allocation for food, health, education, infrastructure and other priorities.

ASEAN'S RESPONSE

In response to this dire situation, Asean has taken efforts to protect and save its rich biodiversity.

Asean member countries have ratified a number of international agreements concerning biodiversity, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, World Heritage Convention, and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

Asean has designated 1,523 protected areas and declared 27 areas as Asean Heritage Parks.

To date, Thailand has nominated three additional parks and the Philippines nominated two to be declared as Asean Heritage Parks.

Several conservation plans have been prepared especially for endangered species, such as the Tiger, the Elephants, Gaur, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Otter, and Pheasants. The conservation plans include aspects of research, ex-situ conservation, monitoring, and enforcement activities.

Further responding to the need for concerted action to protect and conserve the region's dwindling biodiversity resources ASEAN, with funding support from the European Union (EU), has established the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB).

ACB TO SPEARHEAD THE ROLE

As an intergovernmental regional centre of excellence, ACB facilitates cooperation and coordination among the members of Asean, and with relevant national governments, regional and international organizations, non-government organizations, private corporations and individuals on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

To contribute to the achievement of socially responsible access, equitable sharing, utilization and conservation of natural ecosystems and the biodiversity they contain, ACB builds strategic networks and partnerships geared to mobilize resources towards optimally augmenting effective programmes on biodiversity conservation.

On the occasion of Earth Day, 22 April, ACB is inviting international and regional organizations, governments, private corporations and foundations, communities, and individuals to contribute financially or in kind to its programmes.

"Join ACB and the international community in saving Southeast Asia's rich yet highly endangered biodiversity. Save humanity," Fuentes appealed.

-- BERNAMA

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Analysts: Thailand's rice cartel goal will face hurdles

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Thailand's proposal for an OPEC-style cartel to control rice prices will likely face international opposition and only lead to distortions on the global rice markets at a time when the prices of rice and other food commodities are skyrocketing, analysts said.

Thailand, the world's biggest rice exporter, wants to form a rice cartel with four other Southeast Asian countries -- Laos, Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam -- to acquire more influence over international rice prices, according to media reports Friday.

In the same way that the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) sets oil prices, members of the proposed rice cartel would cooperate on prices, thereby wielding their influence.
"Firstly and most importantly, this is not the right time to suggest a cartel," said Arpitha Bykere, an analyst at RGE Monitor
.
"With the food prices going so high, the World Bank and the United Nations have suggested it's becoming such a big crisis," Bykere said. "The international organizations will oppose this [a rice cartel]."

World Bank President Robert Zoellick has warned that high food prices are threatening recent hard-won gains in overcoming global poverty and malnutrition. The United Nations World Food Program has said that high food prices are creating "a silent tsunami" threatening to plunge more than 100 million people on every continent into hunger.

Soaring prices for agricultural commodities, including rice, wheat, corn, and soybeans, have stirred popular discontent and demonstrations around the world.


In response, Vietnam, India, Egypt, and Cambodia have imposed bans on rice exports. Thailand, the top rice exporter accounting for a third of global exports, is currently not banning or restricting rice sales.

Rice prices have tripled this year, with Thailand's benchmark 100% Grade B white rice soaring above $1,000 a ton for the first time last month, according to media reports. On the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, rough rice futures have surged over 95% in the last 12 months.

A rice cartel?

A spokesman for the Thai government said that the prime ministers of Thailand and Burma discussed the cartel idea on Wednesday, the BBC reported Friday.

Cambodia has expressed support for the idea of a rice cartel in the past and Laos has indicated it would seriously consider the idea, the BBC said.

However, Vietnam officials were quoted by The Bangkok Post newspaper rebutting Thailand's claim that a rice cartel was close and saying that Vietnam hasn't made any official reaction to the proposal yet.

Vietnam is the world's second largest rice exporter. India is the third-largest rice exporting country followed by the United States in fourth place. Asia accounts for about 90% of global rice consumption.

"Thailand, being the largest exporter of rice, would be in a position to take advantage of the current situation [of soaring rice prices]," said Divya Reddy, an analyst at the Eurasia Group. "It makes sense for them to take the lead." '

However, "I don't see it working successfully in the near term," Reddy said about the proposal to form a rice cartel. "There would be huge incentive for countries to take their own measures to deal with the problem [of soaring prices]."

Bykere of RGE Monitor pointed out that there are political disagreements and different political structures in Southeast Asia that might make it difficult to form a cartel.

For example, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, Burma is ruled by a brutal military junta, Vietnam and Laos are communist states, and Cambodia is a young multi-party democracy.

"More importantly, their economic policies are different," Bykere said. "There is very low probability of these countries agreeing."

Also, Thailand and Vietnam are doing better economically than their much poorer neighbors Burma, Cambodia and Laos. A rice cartel would differ from OPEC, because OPEC countries have certain oil reserves, while rice harvests depend on weather conditions, Bykere said.

A cartel would distort rice prices, thereby hurting a big number of consumers both in the rice-exporting countries and globally, Bykere.

"If they set high prices, it would only benefit the farmers in these five countries," Bykere said. "Consumers within and outside the countries would suffer from high rice prices. All the other Asian and African countries will oppose it."

The Philippines, the world's biggest rice importer, has objected to the idea of a rice cartel, with Edgardo Angara, chairman of its senate committee on agriculture, saying that a cartel "will create an oligopoly and it's against humanity," the BBC reported Friday.

The president Thailand's Rice Exporters Association has also criticized the proposal, saying that "you cannot control farmers growing or not growing rice. It's not like oil."

The USA Rice Federation, an advocacy group for the rice industry, didn't have an immediate comment on Thailand's idea of forming a rice cartel in Southeast Asia.

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Pushed by higher prices, immigrants in US stocking up on rice

RICHMOND: Shoppers surveyed shelves loaded with rice at the Ranch 99 Asian supermarket, chatting in languages from Mandarin to Portuguese as they hunted for their favourite varieties and compared prices before heaving 23-kilogram bags into their carts.

Skyrocketing prices and media reports of a rice shortage are driving many people in the US, including Asian, Hispanic, and Indian immigrants, to stock up on rice - a once inexpensive staple that is reaching record-high prices across the country. In Indian corner markets and warehouse-sized supermarkets specialising in Asian goods, customers who usually take home a 9-kilogram bag are taking two, or even reaching for the 23-kilogram bag.

"It's all in the news, on TV and newspapers," said Grace Yap, originally of China, who was shopping at Ranch 99.

Emphasizing that there is no rice shortage in the United States, economists and commodity traders blame the price hikes confronting US consumers on everything from the weather in producing countries to the increased buying power of countries such as China. Chief among those factors was the decision by India, Vietnam, China, Egypt, Cambodia and Brazil to curtail exports to protect prices at home, said Nathan Childs, an economist and rice expert with the US Department of Agriculture.

"People are so worried, everything is going up so much. It's so crazy," said Mahinder Parmar, owner of Milan, a Berkeley, California store selling everything from Indian music to sweets, instruments and spices.

Seeking to tame rising rice prices, which have more than tripled since January, Thailand proposed an OPEC-style cartel yesterday with major rice exporters Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam to give them more control over international rice prices.

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