A Land on Fire: The Environmental Consequences of the Southeast Asian Boom | Wilson Center

A Land on Fire: The Environmental Consequences of the Southeast Asian Boom

Over the past two decades, Southeast Asia has been on fire, both figuratively and literally. Economies throughout the region have exploded, taking advantage of small production costs and a low-paid, highly motivated workforce. At the same time, to fuel rapid growth, forests have been stripped for lumber and the land torched for new agricultural opportunities. Indeed, economic success has often come at the expense of the environment and with sixty percent of the world's population, environmental degradation in Southeast Asia has potential worldwide effect. Despite continued growth, throughout Southeast Asia there exists a great divide between developed and undeveloped areas—few wealthy urban centers and many poor rural areas. However, environmental problems know no economic boundaries. Underdeveloped rural areas, for example, rely on wood fuels for cooking and heating, contributing deforestation and air pollution. Booming cities, on the other hand, suffer from fossil fuel pollution while unchecked construction devours land and creates severe erosion clogging waterways.

In A Land on Fire: The Environmental Consequences of the Southeast Asian Boom, James David Fahn reveals the dark side of prosperity in Southeast Asia generally, and Thailand specifically. At this meeting cosponsored by the Asia Program and the China Environment Forum, Fahn offered sometimes amusing, but more often disturbing, vignettes that chronicled environmental degradation in Southeast Asia. Despite the gloomy situation in the region, Fahn insisted that hope is not lost. Countries can quite possibly "resurrect" the environment with the help of responsible media, legal reforms, and a growing NGO community. Moreover, Southeast Asia's environmental struggles might also offer lessons for countries around the world and neighbors like China—such as when industries acknowledge the economic benefits of "green business," the environment and economy can improve together.

Exceptional Challenges, Unique Opportunities

While Southeast Asia's environmental problems are not unique, the situation in which the region is forced to deal with these issues is quite different from the rest of the world. Much of the western world had the benefit of democratizing and industrializing more than a hundred years before environmental problems demanded attention. Fahn noted that in western countries, solving environmental issues often is viewed as a luxury—only once a country is well off financially will it have the means to remedy ecological degradation. In developing countries throughout Southeast Asia (and the world), however, environmental problems often directly effect the poor and disenfranchised; the livelihoods fishers and farmers, for instance, suffer from polluted and depleted resources. Without addressing these issues, countries have difficulty advancing economies and modernizing societies.

Southeast Asian countries like Thailand struggle to address environmental issues for they are simultaneously experiencing political, economic and social changes in the span of just one generation. However, growing concern for the environment and a changing political culture has given rise to a fledgling "environmental democracy" movement in Southeast Asia—not too dissimilar from environmental justice campaigns in the United States. Dissent over environmental issues is often tolerated even by the region's more authoritarian regimes. Thus, unlike other more sensitive political topics, civil society groups are given leeway to address environmental problems and truly affect change—which opens the political process to more citizens.

Problems that Fuel the Fire

Reflecting on themes from his book, James Fahn outlined some of Southeast Asia's major environmental problems:

1. Widespread urbanization and the creation of "mega cities" has directly caused mass migration, increased automobile traffic and, consequently, severe air pollution.
2. Increased tourism, which Fahn dubs "an industry without smokestacks," has led to increased degradation in areas previously untouched by development. More hotels have been built on beaches, contributing to erosion, while golf courses that are heavy water and pesticide users have sprouted up across the region. The problem is made worse by governments reluctant to place restrictions on an industry that produces great revenue for cash-strapped countries and powerful industry leaders that can easily circumvent preexisting environmental regulations.
3. Dams have been constructed throughout Southeast Asia in an attempt to meet increased energy demands. However, the dams require population resettlement, which disrupts social cohesion and fish migration is changed or even halted. Poor rural residents, who face the brunt of these negative effects, usually do not even benefit from the energy generated as cities and industry have priority access.
4. Deforestation is one of unintended consequences of growing economies in the region. Liberal markets have allowed for more widespread logging. The effect has been stark: Thai forests, once covering 60 percent of the landscape, have been cut by two-thirds. Erosion and deadly landslides are now a common reality facing many populations in Southeast Asia. While the Thai government has enforced some logging bans, the problem simply moves to other neighboring countries where deforestation continues at a heightened rate.
5. Expanding aquaculture has been employed to both help feed growing populations and build a new cash-generating industry. This "blue revolution" is not, according to Fahn, green. Shrimp farms in Thailand are moving inland onto arable land. Such farms quickly degrade the land, leaving it salinated and laden with antibiotics, making future agricultural use impossible.

These problems are neither limited to Thailand nor Southeast Asia. The sad reality is that throughout the world, from small countries like Viet Nam to giants like China, the environment has fallen victim to increased development. Fortunately, this fact has not gone ignored.

Dousing the Flames

While governments throughout the region have rarely prioritized the environment, some successful attempts have been made to mitigate the problems. To halt destructive deforestation, Fahn highlighted how Thai government-led lumber certification is encouraging the logging industry to engage in sustainable cutting. Additionally, in some countries foreign development assistance has been tied to forest issues to insure that local governments enforce conservation laws and regulations. Because one-fifth of all forests are in the hands of small local communities, internationally supported community-based forestry initiatives are also quite effective. In his current position at the Ford Foundation, Fahn has helped to engage local communities to both improve forest resources and sustain rural residents' livelihoods. A small fishing village in Thailand—Baan Chao Mai—successfully demonstrated the positive link between conservation and improved livelihoods. When fishers made a concerted effort to protect seagrass beds, fish previously absent from the waters returned.

Not all remedies have proved successful. In attempting to address environmental degradation from tourism, the proposed solution—ecotourism—actually is causing additional problems. Increased tourist traffic in fragile areas, meant to tout preservation, only further degrades the environment. In Southeast Asia ecotourism industries have sprouted up and quickly proven to be "greenwashed" conventional tourist businesses. Governments often are not willing to place restrictions on this highly lucrative industry. Fahn suggested that while Southeast Asian countries cannot have exponential tourism growth and environmental sustainability, they can strive for a balance between the two: Higher priced tourism options would result in greater revenue, but also lead to a diminished human impact on nature. Additionally, widespread use of a green standard for ecotourism, developed by Fahn and his colleagues at the Ford Foundation, may ensure that businesses are truly committed to ecological preservation.

Clearly, to prevent future pollution and natural resource degradation problems economic interests must be balanced with environmental concerns. Solutions to environmental problems will not succeed if they impede further economic growth. Fahn proposed several options for "greening business." Green certification/labeling programs offer an opportunity to gain environmentally-conscience customers while energy efficiency projects can provide direct savings to industries. Government-led disincentives, like pollution taxes, also help assure that more businesses engage in environmentally friendly commerce.

In addition to industrial pollution, another primary cause for environmental problems in Southeast Asia is unplanned development. Predictably, countries with well-controlled growth, like Singapore, do not suffer from the same level of land and water degradation as other areas. While a heavy-handed government can help control environmental degradation in the short term, according to Fahn, for long-term solutions, democratic institutions—civil society, free news media, legitimate legal systems—will be crucial for putting out the environmental "fires" in Southeast Asia. Fahn cited some vignettes to illustrate the impact of such nascent institutions:

· Some environmental groups, both nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and ad-hoc groups, have been quite successful in the Asia. In Thailand, a unified group of concerned citizens defeated a planned dam project while residents outside of Beijing successful stopped the development of a golf course in their community.
· Many environmental problems in the region go unsolved simply because there is little known about the issue. Fahn insisted that a (relatively) free news media is needed to expose degradation and convince citizens of the need to prevent further destruction. As an example, working as a journalist in Thailand, Fahn uncovered industrial mercury dumping and illegal logging.
· While options vary from country to country, legal avenues can be used to affect change. Local villagers in Burma are currently suing Unocal because of environmental degradation and social upheaval caused gas pipeline; a Thai court in 2001 awarded the first victory to plaintiffs in an environmental lawsuit; lawyers and citizens in China are attempting to exercise their relatively new legal rights to obtain compensation for pollution victims.

Despite major roadblocks hindering the resolution of Southeast Asia's pollution and natural resource degradation, Fahn is hopeful that an informed citizenry, motivated governments, and cooperative businesses will collectively succeed in "resurrecting" the region's environment. Progress has already been made in Thailand, from the election of Bangkok's green governor Bhichit Rattakul, who ran on a platform of solving environmental problems, to mandatory auto emissions throughout the country. Fahn is confident that other countries throughout Asia can learn from the failures and successes in Thailand—he believes that the region will reconnect with its traditional view of nature, in which people are not separate from the environment and must strive for balance and harmony.

Drafted by Timothy Hildebrandt and Jennifer L. Turner.