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Covid-19 vs. Forests: Southeast Asia

The world has witnessed the unfolding of an unprecedented global pandemic - in many countries, the number of infected patients continue to rise relentlessly. Lock-downs that cover individual movements, travel, economic activities and more (variously termed "lockdowns", "circuit breaker", "movement control orders" etc.) were widespread from the month of March, but has since eased (perhaps prematurely for some countries). Using weekly GLAD data for the year 2020, we have conducted a simple analysis for the Southeast Asian region to see which countries have been hard at work before-, during-, and after- the Covid-19 lock-downs.


GLAD alerts (updated weekly): "This data set, created by the GLAD (Global Land Analysis & Discovery) lab at the University of Maryland and supported by Global Forest Watch, is the first Landsat-based alert system for tree cover loss. While most existing loss alert products use 250-meter resolution MODIS imagery, these alerts have a 30-meter resolution and thus can detect loss at a much finer spatial scale. The alerts are operational for land areas between 30 degrees north and south."


To start off, the first graph shows us what business-as-usual was like in the period 2015-2020 (data was available for the periods 2018-2020 for Lao PDR, Myanmar, Philippines, and Vietnam; 2017-2020 for Thailand and Singapore; and 2015-2020 for Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Timor-Leste). As the areas shown depict GLAD alerts in hectares, larger countries like Indonesia would register much higher values.

GLAD alert area vs year; spike in 2020 apparent.

Indonesia and Malaysia led the way in deforestation between 2015-2019. It is only half-way through the year, but 2020 has already shown greater deforestation than the half-decade before where annual data was available (except for Malaysia and Indonesia).


In the second graph, we adjust the GLAD alert areas to reflect the percentage of area affected based on the size of the country. The scale in the y-axis of the graph reflects 1/100,000th of a percentage point.

Percentage of country area deforested (1/100,000) vs year; Lao PDR shows extreme spike in 2020.

The second graph shows a runaway winner in Lao PDR for the year 2020, which likely has something to do with its recent plan to build more dams. As a proportion of country-size, the two most consistent leaders in deforestation in 2015-2020 were Indonesia and Malaysia, though the latter seems to have slowed down in 2017-2018. It is interesting for the likes of Singapore and Brunei to feature so prominently as a percentage of country area cleared despite their small size. What's clear is that nearly every country here has seen an increase in deforestation for the year 2020.


The third graph focuses on 2020 only, breaking GLAD alert areas down to 3 phases: 1) Jan-Feb (pre-lockdown); 2) March (height of lockdown); 3) April onwards (recovery phase).

Other than Timor-Leste and Singapore, the recovery phase has seen greater deforestation than the pre-lockdown phase by 1.4 - 5 times (greatest % increase in Philippines, Lao PDR, and Vietnam). As countries are only beginning to restart their economies to recover from the economic lockdown, we expect to see more peaks in the region for the rest of the year.


It's also interesting to note that in some countries like Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand, deforestation did not take a noticeable dip during the height of the lockdown - some people were hard at work when the rest of the world hid in their homes from the coronavirus.