in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam

How Vietnam exports deforestation: Interview with Patrick Meyfroidt

MeyfroidtA recent study, “Forest transition in Vietnam and displacement of deforestation abroad,” found that while Vietnam’s area of forest is increasing, it is doing so at the expense of forests in other countries, including Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia.

The authors, Patrick Meyfroidt and Eric F. Lambin of the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, found that 39 per cent of the forest regrowth in Vietnam was in effect logged in other countries and about half the wood imports to Vietnam between 1987 and 2006 were illegal. The report has important implications for REDD.

The authors write that “Policies allocating credits to countries for reducing deforestation and forest degradation should monitor illegal timber trade and take into account the policy-induced leakage of wood extraction to other countries.” REDD-Monitor interviewed Patrick Meyfroidt by email.

REDD-Monitor: Your paper found that since the 1990s Vietnam has gone from net deforestation to net “reforestation”. But that as a result, deforestation has increased in neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. Many people argue that national approaches to REDD will address leakage. Your paper appears to challenge this assumption. Please explain what the implications of this are for REDD.

Patrick Meyfroidt: National approaches to REDD account for leakage inside countries, or more exactly provide incentives to the country to address and minimize leakage in its own borders.

I am not an expert in the REDD negotiations. I thus may have missed relevant aspects of the discussions, but it seems that international leakage is not adequately addressed in REDD. One way to account for international leakage in a REDD scheme is simply to ignore it. If most of the countries participate to REDD, it is enough to ensure global additionality of the scheme, because any reduction that leaks will be paid to the country that reduced its emissions, but discounted from the country where it leaks, and thus this country will eventually pay the money that was given to the first country. But this creates problems, as leakage will probably increase in countries with weak governance, which would thus have to pay for the policies set up in countries with stronger governance. Such approach is (in my opinion) unlikely to be implemented and unfair.

A national approach to REDD that accounts for international leakage might discount GHG emissions from leakage from the total reduction of GHG emissions (or GHG sink) of the country during the target period. This would ensure additionality, because a reduction that leaks elsewhere does not deserve payments – as long as it is identified and quantified. If the countries where deforestation leaks also participate, such an approach can also allow for global effectiveness of the scheme because overall, all countries have incentives to reduce emissions. But beyond the quantification of leakage, several other problems are not addressed with such an approach:

    (i) leakage increases the real cost of reducing emissions, because policies to reduce deforestation and forest degradation have to be implemented in several countries in order to obtain the desired effect. E.g., if the estimated cost to reduce C emissions in one country is 10 $ per ton, with 40% of leakage, the real cost to reduce emissions by one ton is 10 $ for the first country + 4 $ for the country where leakage occurs + 1.6 $ for the third country etc (= 16.7 $). REDD is presented as being among the most cost-effective ways to reduce GHG emissions, but leakage is usually not taken into account in these calculations.

    (ii) leakage associated with illegal trade can be difficult to measure and thus discount. This may create fairness issues at the international scale: a country which imports timber illegally will not have to discount its emissions reductions if the imports are not recorded. On the other hand, illegal cutting in the source country can be detected by remote sensing and thus the associated emissions will be accounted for in this country, even if most of the benefits of the timber are reaped by the importing country, and sometimes the illegal cutting itself is managed by actors from the importing country.

    (iii) if one country protects its forests by prohibiting cutting in secondary or biodiversity-poor forests, and this generates leakage in another country in the form of illegal exploitation of old-growth forests without regulations, the overall – global – effects of forest protection policies on biodiversity and livelihoods may be negative.

Thus, REDD should not only quantify and discount leakage from the reductions of GHG emissions of a country, but should also aim and mandate to directly minimize or control leakage arising from forest protection policies implemented in a country, and especially reduce or control illegal international trade of timber. Ultimately, international schemes to address deforestation and forest degradation should tackle the final consumption of wood products, because it is this final consumption which drives harvests and leakages. This is shown in our study, where 84% of the wood imports to Vietnam were finally re-exported.

REDD-Monitor: Please briefly explain the difference between “displacement” and “leakage”.

Patrick Meyfroidt: In the wood sector, leakage is a side-effect of policies aimed at protecting forests in a country. These policies reduce wood extraction in the country, and thus the availability of wood. The demand may be partly met by wood imports from other countries. Leakage corresponds to the wood extraction – and thus deforestation and/or forest degradation, and associated GHG emissions – that occurs in a “source” country and is imported in the first country to bridge the gap created by a reduction of wood harvests following forest protection policies.

Displacement, in the context studied, accounts for any wood imported into a country – and the corresponding deforestation or forest degradation abroad. It thus includes leakage but also wood that is imported in a country because economic actors in this country are unable to fulfil the demand – because production factors or resources are insufficient or the industrial sector didn’t have the time to adjust its production to increasing demand – or because some demanded species do not grow in this country. In the case of Vietnam, displacement occurred mainly because of the rapid and important development of the export-oriented wood processing industry.

More broadly, leakage is a term often used to describe GHG emissions displaced from one place to another. The term displacement draws attention to the real activity being moved – wood extraction – and thus to the multiple impacts of this activity – not only GHG emissions.

REDD-Monitor: Do you think that the “forest cover” statistics and import/export figures for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are reliable and provide a genuine indication of the area of forest in these countries?

Patrick Meyfroidt: For Vietnam, in a previous paper in Global Change Biology [“Forest transition in Vietnam and its environmental impacts”] we did a systematic comparison of official forest cover data with independent data for 1991-1993 and 1999-2001. These independent data were land cover maps made by international teams based on remote-sensing. We compared the spatial patterns of the maps in order to identify the most consistent subset, which were deemed to be the most accurate maps. As most of these maps do not allow separating natural forests from tree plantations, these categories were aggregated in the official maps from Vietnamese Forest Inventory and Planning Institute. The FIPI maps were among this consistent subset, and the forest cover area statistics derived from the FIPI maps were comparable to forest area statistics derived from the other maps of this consistent subset. I do not think that in the FIPI data, the natural forests are overestimated compared to the plantations (at the contrary, if one category is overestimated, it is probably the plantations), and the rubber areas are not included in it. Overall, I would say that FIPI statistics are fairly accurate given the limitations and constraints of remote sensing and the technical and financial capacities of Vietnamese agencies. But an important caveat is that many natural forests in Vietnam are either much degraded or young regenerating forests, and thus forest area is by itself a limited indicator of the evolution of forests in Vietnam (see also below). But as FIPI maps allow to separate tree plantations from natural forests and identify different qualities of the latter, in my opinion they do constitute a useful tool to analyze forest changes in Vietnam, notwithstanding possible improvements.

For Laos and Cambodia, I didn’t looked at forest cover statistics, but a similar work might be done (more or less) easily.

For wood import/export data, the statistics are less reliable and genuine. Official data for wood trade between Vietnam and the two other countries are unreliable, as can be seen from the discrepancy in our article between the figures of total and of legal or recorded imports of wood to Vietnam.

REDD-Monitor: Do you think that the issues of leakage and displacement have been adequately addressed so far in the UN-level negotiations on REDD?

Patrick Meyfroidt: See end of the answer to the first question. I am not an expert in the REDD debate and I do not follow continuously the developments of the REDD negotiations, so I couldn’t say authoritatively whether these negotiations are adequate on this matter. But as argued above, a scheme that would only address leakage by discounting it at the national level would leave important problems unaddressed. These problems would require direct approaches to the issues of leakage and displacement.

REDD-Monitor: There are several REDD-type voluntary projects already up and running (and several more, for example in Papua New Guinea) which are currently being set up. What are the implications of your research for these projects?

Patrick Meyfroidt: I do not know the details of these projects, except for the Noel Kempff Mercado project in Bolivia. But most often, when these projects care about leakage, they consider mainly the local or primary leakage – due mainly to the local stakeholders that were active in the targeted area. This is indeed an important first step: it is necessary to ensure that actors that were active in the targeted area do not simply displace their activities in the neighbouring areas. But leakage should be seen at a larger scale also: if the project reduces the production of raw material that was exported outside the local markets to distant markets, or if the project creates the need to import e.g. food to the previously self-sufficient local markets, then leakage will probably occur, and thus the benefits of the project may be reduced.

But when such projects target areas of high biological and/or cultural significance, one might decide to carry on with the project and preserve the area despite the possible occurrence of leakage. This is also one implication from our research, already discussed above. When deforestation leaks from one place to another, even if the GHG aspects of the deforestation are similar, it does not imply that the deforestation has similar overall impacts in one or another place. It depends on the type of forest which is cut (old-growth, degraded, secondary, tree plantations, etc) and the conditions under which it is cut (legally or not, with benefits for the local stakeholders or not, with appropriate or efficient technologies or not, etc).

REDD-Monitor: Could you comment on this article, please? “VN leads way on saving forests“. Vietnam is claiming to be leading the way on saving forests, because of a proposed UN-REDD project in Lam Dong province. There is no mention in the article of leakage, displacement or the rapid rate of deforestation in Lam Dong in recent years.

Patrick Meyfroidt: In my opinion, Vietnam is indeed making genuine efforts to protect its own forests, and in this respect it has been more successful than many other tropical countries. The article does not provide details on what is actually implemented, but as deforestation of old-growth forests is indeed rapid in Lam Dong province, it would seem reasonable to target this area for a project aimed at reducing deforestation and forest degradation.

But the government also deliberately decided to support the growth of the export-oriented industry of wood processing, although it was clear that Vietnamese forests and plantations would not been able to supply the raw material. The displacement of wood extraction and illegal logging generated by Vietnam is thus an unsurprising outcome of Vietnamese policies. In order to “save forests”, Vietnam should thus seek solutions not only to preserve its own forests, but also to reduce the displacement that its economic growth and forest protection policies are generating, and especially the illegal logging and trade from its neighbours.

REDD-Monitor: Your paper focusses on wood production and timber trade. One of the causes of deforestation in Laos (and in Vietnam in recent years) is the expansion of rubber plantations (in the North run by Chinese companies and in the South by Vietnamese companies). If this cause of deforestation were to be included in your statistics, the rate of deforestation would be even faster. Please comment on this.

Patrick Meyfroidt: First, it depends on the fate of timber cut to make place for rubber plantations. If the timber is exported to Vietnam, it is included in our statistics. Second, it depends on the perspective. If one makes Vietnam as a country responsible for the actions of Vietnamese companies abroad, then the deforestation displaced by Vietnam should indeed include the forest area cleared to make space for rubber plantations in Laos. If the rubber does not transit in Vietnam, one could argue that it is not part of the Vietnamese economy and thus is not a displacement generated by Vietnam. In our calculations we included only the material flows that were actually consumed in or transited through Vietnam. Otherwise it becomes even more difficult to make a budget (e.g. what about deforestation caused by a company with shareholders from multiple countries, does it needs to be attributed according to the shares of the company’s capital?)

REDD-Monitor: On the website, Rhett Butler writes that “According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Vietnam lost a staggering 78 percent of its old-growth forests between 1990 and 2005.” Yet a graph in your paper (fig 2H) shows the area of natural forest cover increasing slightly from 1990 to 2005. Could you please explain this apparent discrepancy.


Patrick Meyfroidt: Old-growth forests were indeed still deforested and degraded in Vietnam during this period, mainly in the central highlands, but secondary regrowth expanded during the same period. The total area of natural forests thus increased, although the wood density and the biodiversity richness of Vietnam’s forests were still decreasing. This, however, does not mean that the secondary forests in Vietnam have no value for biodiversity, environmental services or cultural or livelihoods aspects. The secondary regrowth may play a role in the preservation of biodiversity of old-growth remnants, and may also contribute to the livelihoods of local people. In the north especially, there are forests which are not included in the “old-growth” category anymore (in the FIPI data used by the FAO) because they have been degraded by logging but nevertheless they are still rich in biodiversity and deserve to be preserved.

REDD-Monitor: Butler adds, “Given that old-growth forests store more carbon than plantations and regenerating secondary forests, the emissions resulting from the transition from old to new forests have been substantial.”

Patrick Meyfroidt: Old-growth forests indeed store more carbon, but regenerating forests constitute more important sinks. Thus two periods need to be distinguished. During the period of net deforestation, until the early 1990s, large quantities of carbon were indeed emitted because of deforestation of old-growth (and secondary) forests. Since the early 1990s, the secondary regrowth and plantations have stored more carbon annually than the quantity emitted from fossil fuels in Vietnam (see the Global Change Biology paper). In total, according to my (imperfect) calculations, the total carbon stock in all Vietnamese forests was similar in 2005 to what it was in 1980 (see the Global Change Biology paper, Table 6, below), because the area of forest was larger and the density was lower. But arguably this total carbon stock was lower in 2005 than what it was, say, in 1943. I didn’t make the calculations for 1943, because the forest cover data are quite gross, but the calculations could be done using parameters from this GCB paper.

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  1. Is there a world authority on “leakage” yet? At what scale would leakage be calculated? national? Sub national? regionally? How is leakage different from displacement in terms of carbon emission? With a lot of questions and unclear definitions, it is possible for REDD funders to penalise countries doing REDD. I think countries thinking of going REDD should make sure all the definitions are very clear before signing up.

  2. I would like to congratulate Dr. Meyfroidt on refusing to be drawn into speculating on initiatives about which he has no knowledge, specifically the UN-REDD Programme in Viet Nam. However, I would invite Chris Lang to learn about such initiatives before trying to lure his interviewees into injudicious comments. Firstly, the UN-REDD Programme in Viet Nam (downloadable at; UN-REDD Programme  Country Actions tab) is not only about working in one province – Lam Dong is a pilot province, where some elements of capacity building for REDD readiness will be implemented. Secondly, of the three proposed Outcomes of the UN-REDD Programme in Viet Nam, one deals exclusively with addressing cross-border displacement of emissions. This Outcome was identified by the Government of Viet Nam as a top priority, in recognition of the consequences of domestic policies on deforestation in neighbouring countries. Therefore, yes, Viet Nam is leading the way in openly acknowledging the impacts of its own policies on neighbours, and expressing a willingness to address these issue in a collaborative way.
    Tim Boyle, UNDP/UN-REDD Coordinator for Asia/Pacific