In 1950, 70% of Thailand was still covered by rainforest, but by 1988 the cover had been reduced to 15% by virtually unrestrained logging (Hamilton & Chatterjee, 1991). Teak has long been the most profitable of the desirable tropical woods from this country, and even as late as 1988 teak generated US$20 million in revenue, despite a ban in 1973 of exports of teak wood. By 1985, demand for wood and wood products was more than five times the sustainable level (Hunsaker, 1996). Nevertheless, as desirable woods became more scarce, revenues from the forestry sector fell precipitously. Deforestation has been driven also by population growth, the expansion of agricultural land (much of it for export “cash crops”), land speculation, illegal logging, political intrigue and infighting, and the banking industry, which foreclosed on many farmers unable to make high-interest payments on loans, and driving them into the forest for survival. According to Hunsaker, almost a fifth of Thailand’s population was occupying forest reserve land (5.3 million hectares) by 1988.
In November of 1988 heavy rains washed away the soil of the deforested slopes, causing massive flooding. Villages and agricultural land were inundated, and almost 400 people, as well as many thousands of domestic animals, were killed. The government banned logging on January 14, 1989, by revoking all logging concessions. However, this tripled the price of timber in Bangkok, and unleashed an orgy of illegal logging. Landless peasants followed the logging roads, making substantial inroads on the forests by slash-and-burn agriculture. This was the death knell for Thailand’s forests. Virtually all of the primary forest in Thailand has now disappeared. The logging ban in Thailand also led Thai timber companies to make profitable deals with Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, and they are now proceeding to transform timber-rich Myanmar into another Thailand. The first deal was signed between B and F Enterprises and the Myanmar junta in 1988, and 47 more followed within a few years (Hamilton & Chatterjee, 1991). Many of these deals are made, not with the central government, but with rebellious ethnic minority groups who do not recognize the central government.
To its credit, the Thai government has succeeded in greatly reducing fertility rates, has banned logging of natural forests, and has made some attempts at reforestation and resettlement of squatters, the latter with little success. This is mainly due to the vast corruption plaguing Thailand, its bureaucratic inefficiency and inertia, and the fact that the high government officials (mainly military officers) profit greatly from illegal logging and other activities facilitating or abetting deforestation. They evince minimal interest in the plight of the impoverished rural populations or in the fate of Thailand’s forests. And so, the last great teak forests of the world are on their way to extinction. And Thailand, once a major exporter of timber, has essentially only secondary forest left and is now an importer of wood. (For a detailed description of the situation in Thailand, see Hunsaker, 1991).