Highland cropland expansion and forest loss in Southeast Asia in the twenty-first century

Abstract

Southeast Asia is a hotspot of tropical deforestation for agriculture. Most of the deforestation is thought to occur in lowland forests, whereas the region’s mountainous highlands undergo very limited deforestation. However, regional reports of cropland expansion in some highland areas suggest that this assumption is inaccurate. Here we investigate patterns of forest change and cropland expansion in the region for the twenty-first century, based on multiple streams of state-of-the-art satellite imagery. We find large increases in cultivated areas that have not been documented or projected. Many of these cultivated areas have evolved from forests that vary in health and status, including primary and protected forests, or from recovering lands that were on a trajectory to become secondary forests. These areas all have different biophysical features than croplands. We estimate that an area of 82 billion m2 has been developed into croplands in the Southeast Asian highlands. Some portion of this land-use change is probably attributable to agricultural intensification on formerly swidden agriculture lands; however, a substantial proportion is from new forest loss. Our findings are in marked contrast with projections of land-cover trends that currently inform the prediction of future climate change, terrestrial carbon storage, biomass, biodiversity, and land degradation.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Cropland expansion along topographical frontiers in the twenty-first century in Nan province, Thailand.
Fig. 2: Spatial pattern and magnitude of net forest loss in SEA during the early twenty-first century.
Fig. 3: Spatial pattern of cropland expansion in SEA during the early twenty-first century.
Fig. 4: Evaluation on the spatial pattern of cropland expansion and forest change in SEA during the early twenty-first century for various products.

References

  1. 1.

    IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  2. 2.

    Feddema, J. et al. The importance of land-cover change in simulating future climates. Science 310, 1674–1678 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Zeng, Z. et al. Climate mitigation from vegetation biophysical feedbacks during the past three decades. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 432–436 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Zeng, Z. et al. Impact of Earth greening on the terrestrial water cycle. J. Clim. 31, 2633–2650 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Alkama, R. & Cescatti, A. Biophysical climate impacts of recent changes in global forest cover. Science 351, 600–604 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Crist, E. et al. The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection. Science 356, 260–264 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Lawrence, D. & Vandecar, K. Effects of tropical deforestation on climate and agriculture. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 27–36 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Wilcove, D. et al. Navjot’s nightmare revisited: logging, agriculture, and biodiversity in Southeast Asia. Trends Ecol. Evol. 28, 531–540 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Curran, L. et al. Lowland forest loss in protected areas of Indonesian Borneo. Science 303, 1000–1003 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Margono, B. et al. Primary forest cover loss in Indonesia over 2000-2012. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 730–735 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Achard, F. et al. Determination of deforestation rates of the world humid tropical forests. Science 297, 999–1002 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Kim, D. et al. Accelerated deforestation in the humid tropics from the 1990s to the 2000s. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 3495–3501 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Tomich, T., Thomas, D. & van Noordwijk, M. Environmental services and land use change in Southeast Asia: from recognition to regulation or reward? Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 104, 229–244 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Pan, Y. et al. A large and persistent carbon sink in the world’s forests. Science 333, 988–993 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Valentin, C. et al. Runoff and sediment losses from 27 upland catchments in Southeast Asia: impact of rapid land use changes and conservation practices. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 128, 225–238 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Ahrends, A. et al. Current trends of rubber plantation expansion may threaten biodiversity and livelihoods. Glob. Environ. Change 34, 48–58 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Hurni, K. et al. Mapping the expansion of boom crops in Mainland Southeast Asia using dense time stacks of Landsat data. Remote Sens. 9, 320–346 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Fox, J. et al. Expansion of rubber mono-cropping and its implications for the resilience of ecosystems in the face of climate change in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia. Glob. Environ. Change 29, 318–326 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Fox, F. et al. Simulating land-cover change in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia. Environ. Manag. 49, 968–979 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Alexandratos, N. & Bruinsma, J. World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: The 2012 Revision Working Paper No. 12-03 (FAO, 2012). .

  21. 21.

    Pongkijvorasin, S. & Teerasuwannajak, K. in Sustainable Economic Development (eds Balisacan, A. M. et al.) 105–122 (Academic Press, San Diego, 2015).

  22. 22.

    Kitchaicharoen, J. et al. Situational Analysis in Support of The Development of Integrated Agricultural Systems in the Upland Areas of Nan Province (Humidtropics, 2015).

  23. 23.

    Peng, W. et al. Research on soil quality change after returning farmland to forest on the loess sloping croplands. J. Nat. Resour. 20, 272–278 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Cuo, L. et al. The roles of roads and agricultural land use in altering hydrological processes in Nam Mae Rim watershed, northern Thailand. Hydrol. Process. 22, 4339–4354 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Pielke, R. & Avissar, R. Influence of landscape structure on local and regional climate. Landsc. Ecol. 4, 133–155 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Wilson, A. & Barros, A. Orographic land–atmosphere interactions and the diurnal cycle of low-level clouds and fog. J. Hydrometeorol. 18, 1513–1533 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Xue, Y. & Dirmeyer, P. Land-atmosphere interactions in monsoon regimes and future prospects for enhancing prediction. CLIVAR Exch. 19, 28–32 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Hansen, M. et al. High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science 342, 850–853 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Stibig, H. et al. Change in tropical forest cover of Southeast Asia from 1990 to 2010. Biogeosciences 11, 247–258 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Hansen, M. et al. Response to comment on “High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change”. Science 344, 981 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Olofsson, P. et al. Good practices for estimating area and assessing accuracy of land change. Remote Sens. Environ. 148, 42–57 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Hurtt, G. et al. Harmonization of land-use scenarios for the period 1500–2100: 600 years of global gridded annual land-use transitions, wood harvest, and resulting secondary lands. Climatic Change 109, 117–161 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Friedl, A. et al. MODIS Collection 5 Global Land Cover: Algorithm Refinements and Characterization of New Datasets, 2001-2012 Collection 5.1 (Boston University, Boston, 2010); ftp://ftp.glcf.umd.edu/glcf/Global_LNDCVR/UMD_TILES

  34. 34.

    Land Cover CCI: Product User Guide Version 2 (ESA, 2017); http://maps.elie.ucl.ac.be/CCI/viewer/download/ESACCI-LC-Ph2-PUGv2_2.0.pdf

  35. 35.

    Chen, J. et al. Global land cover mapping at 30 m resolution: a POK-based operational approach. ISPRS J. Photogramm. Remote Sens. 103, 7–27 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Scott, J. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, 2014).

  37. 37.

    Stephen, S. Estimating area and map accuracy for stratified random sampling when the strata are different from the map classes. Int. J. Remote Sens. 35, 4923–4939 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Bruun, T. et al. Environmental consequences of the demise in swidden cultivation in Southeast Asia: Carbon storage and soil quality. Hum. Ecol. 37, 375–388 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Bruun, T. et al. Intensification of upland agriculture in Thailand: development or degradation? Land Degrad. Dev. 28, 83–94 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Schmidt-Vogt, D. et al. An assessment of trends in the extent of swidden in Southeast Asia. Hum. Ecol. 37, 269–280 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Ozdogan, M. & Woodcock, C. Resolution dependent errors in remote sensing of cultivated areas. Remote Sens. Environ. 103, 203–217 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Suksawang, S. & McNeely, J. Parks for Life: Why We Love Thailand's National Parks (Clung Wicha, Nonthaburi, 2015).

  43. 43.

    Lakanavichian, S. in Forest Out of Bounds: Impacts and Effectiveness of Logging Bans in Natural Forests in Asia-Pacific (eds Durst, P. B. et al.) 167–184 (FAO, 2001).

  44. 44.

    Aide, T. et al. Deforestation and reforestation of Latin America and the Caribbean (2001–2010). Biotropica 45, 262–271 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Byerlee, D. et al. Does intensification slow crop land expansion or encourage deforestation? Glob. Food Secur. 3, 92–98 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Fox, J. & Vogler, J. Land-use and land-cover change in montane Mainland Southeast Asia. Environ. Manage. 36, 394–403 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Sidle, R. & Ziegler, A. The dilemma of mountain roads. Nat. Geosci. 5, 437–438 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Zarin, D. et al. Can carbon emissions from tropical deforestation drop by 50% in five years? Glob. Change Biol. 22, 1336–1347 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Estes, L. et al. A platform for crowdsourcing the creation of representative, accurate landcover maps. Environ. Modell. Softw. 80, 41–53 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Chini, L., Hurtt, G. & Frolking, S. Harmonized Global Land Use for Years 1500-2100 V1 (Oak Ridge National Laboratory Distributed Active Archive Center, 2014); https://doi.org/10.3334/ORNLDAAC/1248

Download references

Acknowledgements

This study was supported by Lamsam-Thailand Sustain Development (B0891). We thank Della Research Computing in Princeton University for providing computing resources. We thank CMIP for providing the IPCC global land-cover change forcing; J. Chen, D.-H. Kim and Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA for providing the moderate- and high-resolution satellite land-use/cover products; the Planet Lab and Google Earth for providing high-resolution satellite imagery; and the KASIKORN Foundation for data collection in the Nan province, Thailand. We also thank M. Pan and D. Gower for useful comments.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

Z.Z. and E.F.W. designed the research. Z.Z. performed analysis. Z.Z., L.E. and A.D.Z. wrote the draft, and all authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and writing of the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Zhenzhong Zeng.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures and Tables

Supplementary Data

Supplementary Data Set

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Zeng, Z., Estes, L., Ziegler, A.D. et al. Highland cropland expansion and forest loss in Southeast Asia in the twenty-first century. Nature Geosci 11, 556–562 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0166-9

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing