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Asia's burning season

Published by Overseas Press Club on 1999-04-01

In the tropical forests of Asia and much of the developing world, the burning season rarely ends. While the fires consume 30 million acres annually, the global and local povertycrats entrusted with protecting the earth's biodiversity fiddle away opportunities to develop an effective program to implement sustainable forest management. Last year, in the wake of tragic fires in Indonesia that destroyed huge tracts of precious forests and disrupted East Asian economies, many of these officials wailed that they lacked a meaningful forestry convention to strengthen their hand in combatting environmental disasters. Their complaint would have been more credible were it not for the fact that 52 international agreements on the environment, and scores more of national laws, already exist--some dating back to the beginning of the century when "environment" was simply a noun, not a movement with a powerful hierarchy and special priorities.

Sustainable forest management, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be one of those priorities. But it matters because environmental degradation--not only pollution but also depleted natural resources--contributes significantly to Asia's economic-development problems. A presence (or absence) of a productive human environment increasingly figures in the calculus of foreign investors; this is especially important for Asian countries, which face growing competition from the emerging economies of Africa and Latin America for investment by multinational corporations.

The attention of the world community has been seized by the economic travails of once-booming countries such as Indonesia, Korea and Thailand. But issues such as forestry and sustainable human development? At best they are marginal topics on media menus; the economic crisis has pushed them back even further. These issues are also rapidly disappearing from the radar screens of Asian officials who are understandably preoccupied with keeping their economies afloat--what Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai of Thailand calls "reversing East Asia's reversal of fortune."

But economies don't exist only in the realm of economics. In the developing societies of Asia--as elsewhere--leaders are going to have to focus even more sharply on issues such as the human environment and sustainable development in order to alleviate crippling poverty and ensure longterm social and economic progress. That, of course, is going to be more difficult than ever in view of the financial setbacks suffered by the region. And yet, that is exactly what will have to be undertaken, as Prime Minister Leekpai puts it, because "what happens in Asia will inevitably have an impact on the global economy as a whole."

Forestry management, sustainable human development, economic growth- all these are closely linked in an increasingly interdependent Asia. The continent, after all, contains two-thirds of the world's current population of 5.9 billion. And more than 60 percent of this population lives under the poverty line- defined as percapita income of less than the equivalent of $350 annually. Globalization and economic liberalization simply haven't benefitted the vast majority of Asians. Three decades ago, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India said: "Poverty is the greatest polluter." So true, and so valid still in Asia, where poverty forces people to cut down forests for fuelwood-in turn damaging local environments beyond repair.

There are, regrettably, few voices on the international scene that emphasize sustainable human development in Asia these days. One noteworthy voice is that of James Gustave Speth, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. Not long ago, at the World Economic Forum's 28th Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Speth told me: "The Asian miracle was not simply a high level of GNP growth for a sustained period--part of it was a tremendous reduction in poverty, the human capacities that were built, and right now they're still there. Even though they have a financial crisis, it's very important to sustain the kind of focus on social programs, on human development, on antipoverty efforts as the first priority."

And why is this important? Because, as Speth says, in the end it's going to take the "people's own initiative" to right these economics and to set things straight. "This has been such a remarkable achievement in human development that we can't afford to see it sacrificed on the altar of fiscal and financial adjustment," Speth says. "I think that what we're trying to do is basically say, Let's stay the course on the social and development program. It's going to be difficult, though. It'll require more effort than in The past. The price of rice is up, the price of other commodities is up, cooking oil is up. It's getting beyond the means of the poorest in these countries. I think it's very important for the world to focus as much on propping up the poor as it focuses on propping up the banks."

Propping up the poor in Asia, at least, certainly means tending to Issues such as forestry and agriculture which provide basic livelihood to millions, and sustainable development. But forestry has not been among priorities of local or international environmental movements, notwithstanding all those flashy pop concerts in support of Brazilian rainforests. It's far more fashionable in the environmental community to rail against automobile emissions and industrial pollution. Wildlife conservation is an even sexier cause. The international environmental movement is dominated by well-funded groups lodged in the North where deforestation isn't exactly a pressing issue--which may explain why the whole business of sustainable forest management has received less than top billing in the chancelleries of power where environmentalists break bread with policy-makers, and in the Western media, which are assiduously cultivated by envirocrats.

Asian governments, anxious to accelerate their economic growth and adamant about "national sovereignty," have resisted calls from the industrialized nations to control their clear-cutting and logging practices; some 60 percent of the world's 8 billion acres of forests are in the developing world. And half of those forests are in Asia--in countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand.

The Asian environmental scene continues to be particularly controversial not only because of deforestation and pollution issues. The Narmada River dam in India, while expected to generate new jobs in agriculture and small-scale industries for more than 10 million people, has been bitterly criticized by grassroots activists on the grounds that it would destroy local ecology and uproot millions of villagers. These activists successfully worked to get the project scaled down in order to take into account local environmental protection. The Three Gorges Dam project on China's Yangtze River has drawn similar protests from environmentalists. Proposed dams in Nepal and Pakistan are also coming under attack, leading multilateral institutions such as the World Bank to agree to factor the environment more distinctively into their blueprints for development.

What's missing in all this is a holistic approach toward environment and development in Asia and other regions of the third world. But at the most celebrated environmental conference held in Asia in recent years--the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Kyoto, Japan, last December--sustainable forest management and sustainable human development weren't considered important enough to be included in the global environmental agenda, even though forests are the carbon sinks of the world and that a major reforestation drive would be highly salutory for coping with greenhouse-gas problems in Asia.

Oxford Analytica, the prestigious research group based in Britain, notes that the emission reduction targets negotiated at Kyoto weren't particularly ambitious: the legally binding protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change commits industrialized countries to reduce emissions of six greenhouse gases by an overal total of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. Oxford Analytica opines that the measures outlined in the Kyoto Protocol are unlikely to be sufficient to stabilize global emissions of greenhouse gases in the absence of ratification of the treaty by the United States and greater curbs on emissions growth by rapidly industrializing developing countries such as Brazil, China, India and Mexico. Cities such as New Delhi, Jakarta and Bangkok are already suffering from frightful pollution levels; with increasing industrialization in Asian countries, emissions will rise sharply. "Asia is quickly becoming one large stew of industrial pollution," says Anwarul Chowdhury, the Bangladesh Ambassador to the United Nations.

Underlying all of this are debates between the developing nations of Asia and industrialized countries of the West, with the former seeing a need for restraint by the major energy-using countries but wanting to accept no restraints on themselves lest they be deprived of the rewards of economic growth. Every climate negotiation since the 1992 Earth Summit has urged developing countries, however subtly, to address climate change because their rates of economic growth, energy consumption and emission of greenhouse gases would ultimately cancel out the benefit of any reductions by industrialized countries.

When pressed about their alarming emissions, Asian leaders often argue That the short-term technology doesn't exist to limit emissions without inhibiting economic development, especially in the emerging nations of the developing world which emphasize rapid industrialization as a key to alleviating rampant poverty. In an age of economic liberalization and increasing assertiveness of nations' sovereign rights, there is also the risk that the North-South divide on climate could turn sharply ideological.

Already, leaders such as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia have revived an argument that served as a third-world rallying cry during the 1970s, when Unesco triggered a divisive and debilitating debate over freedom of the press: What works for the rich isn't necessarily in the best interests of the poor. In other words, Asian nations, claiming eco-sovereignty, are starting to accuse rich Western ones of eco-imperialism. Mahathir and other Asian stalwarts such as Indonesian President Soeharto also claim that Western countries should first clean up their own environments before lecturing the third world.

Development is a long-drawn, untidy and uneven process. And while international conferences such as Kyoto can clarify issues and maybe even set some overall objectives for the global community, the real effort needs to be made at the grassroots in individual countries. Such a process would adequately take into account cultural sensitivities, traditions and the capacity of nations to respond to their economic and social challenges.

Will the Asian environmental issue only grab international attention when major fires flare? The sorry record of the international community certainly suggests so, but here are some points that diplomats, environmentalists and journalists might do well to consider:

_ Deforestation isn't only an ecological issue--and it isn't only an Asian issue. Some 70 percent of people living in the 127 countries of the developing world rely on wood for fuel. That is because, 50 years after the rich countries started transferring large amounts of cash and technology to promote "development" in poor countries, energy is still in short supply in developing nations. Unless the root cause of underdevelopment--crippling poverty--is addressed through wider education, better health-care and accelerated job creation especially in rural areas, environmental degradation will deepen. Reforestation should a high priority for those engaged in sustainable human development issues, especially in Asia, the world's rice bowl.

_ Deforestation in Asian countries will eventually affect the global economy. The international trade in forest products is currently around $115 billion annually, more than 75 percent of it Asian. Forests in countries such as Indonesia are cleared by big corporations in order to plant pulpwood and palm oil trees, but such clearing is rarely the result of proper land-use policies. Tage Michaelsen, a Dane who advises the U.N. on forestry, contends that deforestation means "disinvestment in land, and lowering of land values in the long run." In many parts of the world--Myanmar and Thailand, for instance--there's a shortage of timber that can be attributed to the unsustainable rate of logging in the last two decades. Reforestation, on the other hand, promotes indigenous agriculture and employment in rural regions. One Indonesian plywood entrepreneur--a Soeharto crony--in a dubious conversion-on-the Road-to-Damascus, has even declared himself an environmentalist, funneling large sums of money into prestigious American scientific organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, possibly in the hope of buying into good karma. Developing countries may realize large revenues in the short run, but their deforestation practices are clearly short-sighted. They need to develop thoughtful land-use programs, and put in place adequate monitoring and reporting procedures.

_ International resolutions on the environment cannot be effectively implemented unless the sustainable development constituency is broadened. This means that global organizations and local authorities must invite more nongovernmental groups, indigenous people, and scientists, to participate in the formulation of environmental and developmental policies. Much too often, warm fuzzy concepts such as "sustainable development" which sound good in the chambers of diplomacy don't resonate too well at the grassroots because everyday people just don't understand their relevance. "Good environmental protection should be synonymous with people's economic well-being," says Dr. Steve Howard of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). "We're not saying, 'Don't start plantations.' Just regulate them so that we don't destroy nature's bounty. You've got to get people to believe that environmental protection is in their self-interest." Unfortunately, Asian leaders mouth comforting words at international parleys about global economic progress but seldom focus on local environmental protection once they return home.

The inadequacies of world leaders and global bureaucracies on forestry and related environmental questions hasn't meant that no progress is being achieved in sustainable forest management. The not-for-profit WWF, for example, has launched a program to establish a network of Protected areas covering at least 10 percent of the world's forests in the next three years. Some 20 countries--but not Indonesia or Brazil--have signed on to this program. A few other groups such as the Rainforest Alliance and Conservation International are also actively engaged in forest preservation in Asian countries.

But these are organizations headquartered in the industrialized Countries of the West. Their good will, enthusiasm and energy are often perceived in Asia as flowing from a modern-day equivalent of missionary zeal. Some of these Western environmentalists are even dismissed by their Asian counterparts as "greentroopers." The real effort on sustainable forest management must come from Asian countries themselves. They, after all, have the biggest stake in ensuring that the burning season is contained.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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