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close this bookSouth-East Asia's Environmental Future: The Search for Sustainability (UNU, 1993, 422 pages)
close this folderPart I - The driving forces of change
close this folder1. The dimensions of environmental change and management in the south-east Asian region
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentTrends of the mid-1970s to 1980s
View the documentSome explanatory variables
View the documentProjecting trends into the future
View the documentThe conditions of resource management in the region
View the documentThe main environmental issues
View the documentThe need for a new concept of common resources

The main environmental issues

It may be appropriate to paraphrase George Orwell and remark that while in an ideal world all environmental questions should be equal, some are in fact more equal than others. Moreover, it is only fair to note that the issues are very unequal in the perception of a global environmentalist movement that is taking an increasing and uncomfortable interest in the South-East Asian region. It may be unreasonable to expect environmental fundamentalists who are now so vocal about trees in this region to pay close attention to real social and economic problems; some among them. and some sections of the Western media, seemed in early 1991 to be more concerned over sea birds in the Persian Gulf than with the cruel fate of unfortunate people, on nearby dry land, who were blasted by all the weaponry that modern skills had devised. While this 'unequal concern' is far from true of all environmentalists, there is an expressed need among many to find issues that will claim the attention of their middle-class backers in Western countries; trees are now high on this list.

This criticism is not to deny that trees, and what is happening to them, are in truth the single most pressing environmental issue in this region, but to point out that several other issues come very close in importance. Moreover. the fate of trees is but one subset of a larger group of issues, the core of which is the growth of population and its demands, and the style of development. While it is impossible to create without physical change, creation that is to be sustainable through a foreseeable future must improve materially on what it destroys. This has been argued elsewhere in a more general context (Brookfield, 1991). This approach is precisely not the modern pattern of development in South-East Asia, though it has been done in the past over large areas in this region in which productive, materially more secure and aesthetically more pleasing-because they are more varied- landscapes have been created by human artifice. The conference on which this book is based took place in the midst of one such panorama, that is around Yogyakarta.

Some writers have lately remarked on the recency with which the relationship of environmental issues to development has come to the Sore in the international literature on the region (for example, Falkus. 1990; McDowell, 1989). A decade has elapsed since Aiken et al. (1982) sought to bring these issues together for Peninsular Malaysia, and the regional literature of significance goes back to the 1960s. Before deforestation became the major issue, land and water degradation and specifically soil erosion were already matters of serious concern, both in rural and urban areas. The work which led Douglas (1993) to write his seminal book on the global urban environment had its origins in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the 1960s, and the very high suspended sediment yield figures for the rivers of Java, often cited in the literature, were mostly obtained in the 1960s and 1970s (Donner. 1987: Douglas and Spencer, 1985). Already in the 1950s, most of the uplands of Central Java were mapped as 'severely eroded' (Dames, 1955), and these uplands and their management remain an area of considerable concern and some controversy (Nibbering, 1991 a; Palte, 1989).

Accelerated soil erosion is, in fact, a good issue on which to focus attention, for it predates the modern development drive, and its causes are multiple. Population growth and shortage of land in the lowlands had already led to expansion of cultivation on to steep and dry slopes centuries ago, and now occur over wider and wider areas. Commercial cultivation of pepper and tapioca led to severe erosion in the nineteenth century and before, and major extensions of erosion followed tobacco planting in Sumatra in the nineteenth century, and then rubber planting in Malaysia in the twentieth century. Accelerated soil erosion is the product both of poverty and of affluence, each leading to mismanagement of the land, as has been argued elsewhere (Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987). It results from mining, timber extraction, deforestation. Iand settlement, road building, urbanization, shifting cultivation and the expansion of both peasants and planters on to hills. It cannot be prevented, but it can be reduced and controlled at a cost whether in labour or in cash, and in both cases by inputs into management rather than just production.

Moreover, it is a main cause of siltation and water pollution in rivers and coastal areas, augmented by the wastes of people, production and industry, and by the chemicals that are today so freely supplied to the land.

Three remarks may be made about accelerated soil erosion that apply, mutatis mutandis, to almost all other forms of environmental interference. First, the removal of protective cover from sloping land for any purpose inevitably exposes the land to accelerated erosion. Secondly, technical means exist to bring erosion under a large measure of control, but only in the special case of sawah formation is the use of these means integral to the production system; in all other cases, management is an added cost and sometimes a large one. Thirdly, the adoption or non-adoption of control programmes is a social decision, in some measure the responsibility of the actual farmer, developer or resource manager, and in some measure the responsibility of the state and of society as a whole. This multi-level accountability arises from the domain of the physical and social consequences. The farmer may act to protect his own livelihood and that of his inheritors. Local society may require action to protect others from downstream damage. The state may intervene to protect what is perceived as a set of national resources and to enhance the welfare of its citizens. But where the farmer or society or the state is concerned only with current production, treating damage as an externality to be absorbed by the unfortunate-present or future-the costs of management are unlikely to be shouldered.

Bound up with these questions are the concepts of tenure of resources and of optimal rates of depletion. The individual farmer, entrepreneur or state agency that regards a resource as entirely his/theirs to exploit at will is unlikely to be responsive to problems created for others, though sustainability of production on site may be a consideration. To the temporary holder of a resource under, say, a 10- to 20-year logging or mineral concession, the only optimal rate of depletion is the maximum achievable with the available means, and the consequences for all others and for the future are inevitably of small account. This is more so in the case of unlicensed loggers or miners, of whom there are many, especially but by no means only in Indonesia and Thailand. On the other hand, there are forest farmers, such as some in West Kalimantan who have, over generations, selectively converted most of their forest to rubber and fruit-bearing trees. They expect to hold this improved environment in perpetuity, plant even slowgrowing ironwood for the use of future generations, terrace some of their pepper gardens, and take care that swiddening is both selective of the forest resource and of sufficiently small scale not to cause siltation damage in their sawah.

Similar problems concerning externalities-individual/corporate and social benefit can be identified in such areas as the pollution of Malaysian rivers with rubber and palm-oil wastes in quantities that equal the Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) of the sewage from the whole national population (Sham, 1987: 51-2). The larger case of the immense damage done by tin dredging in the past and in the disposal of both industrial and domestic effluent into the canals of Bangkok that are also used as industrial and domestic water sources are two other situations where externalities are little considered. Problems, both of tenure and of optimal depletion rates, arise in the conflict of interest between modern commercial and traditional fisheries all around the coasts of South-East Asia, and now extend as far as the coast of northern Australia. All these and other problems stem in common from a major increase in scale of activity and a growing pressure on common resources. However, the place in which all issues come together is in the forests, where economic growth based on the exploitation of natural resources has created a 'frontier economy' quite unlike anything that the region has ever witnessed.

In one way or another, the question of forest exploitation arises in several of the following chapters. Here, it is used only to draw out some general principles. The issue of optimal depletion rates is beset not only by ignorance about real replacement rates, as has often been noted, but also by questions of long-term benefit. In specific analyses of Indonesia and Malaysia, and also more generally over the region's forests, Gillis (1988a, 1988b, 1988c) argues that except where forests have been converted into sustainable agricultural systems, very little net gain has been achieved through two decades of extensive exploitation in which only a small part of the economic rent has been captured from the haste to get rich. Repetto (1990) reinforces this view over tropical forest exploitation as a whole. An end to this type of economy, already in sight in the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia (except Sarawak), will inevitably come to the whole region by or before 2005, due to exhaustion of most economically available resources, leaving a massive legacy of social and environmental costs and, moreover, a network of roads along which cultivators can come to complete the devastation. Byron and Waugh (1988) are less pessimistic, seeing gains in the replacement of forest with agriculture, not sharing the alarm of Malaysian forest specialists over the rate at which this conversion took place, and seeing hope for improvement in forest-management practices as costs rise in the face of a Ricardian reduction rather than Malthusian exhaustion of supplies. Perhaps they have reckoned without the enormous capacity for self-delusion among exploiters, bureaucrats and politicians, who have continued to speak of an industry continuing into perpetuity even while production is already in decline and warnings of forthcoming crippling shortage become increasingly well-founded.

However, Byron and Waugh also draw attention to the resource-tenure problem which has wider significance. Forests that used to belong to the shifting cultivators are claimed as public land by the state and allocated to concessionaires; the ethnic majority rather than the ethnic minority claims the resource but then allocates rights to a new set of individuals on temporary title. The effect of dispute, uncertainty and non-enforcement of the rules and controls of tenure is that the resource takes on some of the attributes of common property, and in these circumstances also of its 'tragedy' in Hardin's (1968) sense; that is, it becomes akin to a common in the theoretical, open-access meaning of the term, not in the sense of a socially managed institution (McCay and Acheson, 1987: 8). Much the same can be said of the rivers, canals and coastal waters and even of the atmosphere.