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Part V - Conclusions and recommendations

16. Conclusions and recommendations

A set of concerned conclusions
Recommendations for research and future action
The search for sustainability


A set of concerned conclusions

The Origin of This Chapter

THIS final chapter is based, in part quite closely, on an unpublished Executive Summary of the Yogyakana conference prepared by this author, and circulated among selected participants for comment. In its turn, that summary was based on a draft set of concluding points presented to the final session in Yogyakana, and expanded in discussion. The intention was to draw together the most important conclusions of the conference, and to present a set of agreed recommendations for action both within the region and by international agencies. The chapter expands on this base, and gives more weight to the search for a road forward. The conference itself reached rather pessimistic conclusions about future environmental sustainability in the region, as is reflected in what follows.

Basic Constraints on the Environmental Future

It should be recalled that the object of the conference was to identify issues for the immediate future up to about 2005, and to consider constraints on, and possible solutions towards, achievement of sustainable environmental management. Most of the chapters in this book are concerned with the present (early 1990s) and recent past rather than with the future, but collectively they identify a set of constraints within which any improved environmental management has to be evolved.

Two of these constraints dominate all others. The first is population growth. The whole regional population, now about 450 million, will increase to over 550 million by 2005; it may reach as many as 650-700 million by 2020. Whatever the possibilities of later stabilization, this growth in human numbers is demographically inevitable, and it is the most basic of all constraints. The South-East Asian region is already by far the most populous pan of the humid Tropics.

The second constraint, and only a little less important, is the rapid economic growth of the region, which is also the most rapidly developing pan of the humid Tropics. Nearly all countries in the region have consistently experienced high rates of economic expansion in the 1970s and 1980s, and in some, the growth rates have been very high indeed. Although the region cannot escape the consequences of global recession, its more successful economies can, and do, show quite remarkable resilience in the face of localized recession among their trading partners.. South-East Asian governments and peoples have become accustomed to rapid economic growth, and to the increasing benefits to society that it has made possible. They wish to keep policies in place which will sustain this rate of progress. This is also a very basic constraint on future environmental management, since in large measure it determines the nature of development strategies likely to be employed.

Moreover, notwithstanding successful industrialization and the growth of services, the support of both increasing population and economic progress continues to depend substantially on the use of natural resources. There is heavy exploitation of nonrenewable energy and mineral resources and as new sources of oil, gas, coal and metallic minerals continue to be established by search, this dependence is likely to continue at least into the early years of the twenty-first century before energy sources, at least, might become a limiting factor in development. Some renewable resources, in particular timber, are still being used at a rate far in excess of any level that can be sustained even in the medium term. Although there are encouraging signs that improved management practices are now being adopted or enforced, shortages of timber for the downstream industries are already being experienced, and timber exports from some parts of the region have almost ceased because of over-exploitation during recent decades. It is not improbable that declining export revenues from timber may lead to still greater emphasis being placed on the exploitation of mineral resources during the coming 15 years up to 2005.

Other Constraints on Planning

The urban share of population in 1990, by country, ranged between 20 and 35 per cent. It is much higher in the city-states of Singapore and, increasingly, Brunei. Urbanization is rising at rates between 3 and 4 per cent per annum. This is not high by developingcountry standards, but the statistics understate the extent of urban expansion; large rural areas around the cities are increasingly affected through changes in employment, land use, income sources and land values. Cities place heavy and growing demands on natural resources and their produce, and on the capacity of the environment to absorb their wastes. With the only exception of Singapore, no large city in South-East Asia is at present adequately serviced. The growth of cities and of industry continues to absorb good agricultural land, and there is a need for land-use planning to reduce these losses.

In agriculture, the Green Revolution still has the capability of increasing production in large pans of the region, by improvements in water management and fertilizer use in particular. Yields from improved varieties have at least reached a temporary plateau under experimental conditions, but there are large areas in which the highest yields have not yet been attained. In other areas, however, intensification of production has approached the limits of achievement under present agrotechnology. The revolution has created risk due to the loss of biodiversity. Moreover, funkier increases in rice production, whether as a result of new varieties or by management changes, will demand, of necessity, still heavier use of water resources, yet irrigation is approaching the limits of expansion. It follows that whatever is the progress in lowland agriculture in the future, much greater use will have to be made of the unirrigable upland areas. Many of these upland areas are already under severe pressure, and will come under increasing pressure. They suffer loss both from soil erosion and from removal of biomass in which a high proportion of nutrients is stored. Except in regard to agroforestry systems, there has been a dearth of research on improvements in productivity from, and management of, upland and steepland soils.

Urban, industrial, agrochemical and agroindustrial pollution are all severe in many pans of the region, especially in the most intensively developed areas. The low energy of the regional atmosphere ensures that urban ventilation is poor and accentuates pollution. The low energy of regional seas ensures that pollution has major effects on coastal and offshore ecosystems. These latter problems are made worse by unduly heavy exploitation of mangrove areas in pans of the region.

The Climaric Future

There are both uncertainties and certainties in the climatic future. The effects of expected global warming on regional climate cannot yet be predicted in any detail, and will not be for some time, perhaps until the early 2000s. While some warming appears certain, it is impossible to predict the consequences for precipitation and soil moisture with any degree of certainty even at regional level. However, contingency planning can be made on the basis of possible scenarios, together with the likelihood that areas and activities presently sensitive to climatic variability will be the most seriously impacted by climatic change.

One very probable consequence of global change is, however, a rise in sea level. Even though its rate and timing continue to be in doubt, only a very small rise is necessary to bring about serious damage to the coastal areas used for intensive agricultural production, and for urban and industrial development. The possibility of a rising sea level puts heavily used coastal areas at increased risk from flood and salt-water intrusion, and from sea surge and tsunamis in pans affected by typhoons and submarine earthquakes. With the present lack of effective coastal management, vulnerable land very close to sea level is being intensively developed, with heavy use of mangroves and subcoastal swamp areas. This problem is compounded in some coastal cities by subsidence, which is accentuated by heavy extraction of ground water. Also significant is the holding back of inland water by storage, during dry seasons.

Continuing climatic variability, on the other hand, is not in doubt, except in regard to the timing of its occurrence. The impact of El Niņo Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events of both types has been historically important, and continues with a recent clustering of episodes. It will quite certainly continue in the future, and there is a possibility that the intensity of events will increase under global warming. During at least the coming 50 years, in fact, the impacts of ENSO are likely to be much greater than those of global warming (Working Group, 1992). ENSO-related drought poses major threats both to land use and water supply, limiting yields and the sown area and, augmented by deforestation, poses a growing risk of fire during drought. The converse- flooding rains in the opposite phase of the Southern Oscillation-creates conditions for rapid soil erosion on exposed sloping land, and for lowland floods.

Present Unsustainability at the Beginning of the 1990s

There is an inescapable conclusion from the chapters and discussions in this book that it is much easier to identify what is unsustainable about current resource use, than to identify what might be sustainable over even a limited time span of 15 years. Present rates of population growth, and economic progress based on heavy exploitation of natural resources and degradation, are all unsustainable. However, it is possible to identify pockets of sustainability especially in the lowland areas, provided that risks due to narrowing biodiversity and heavy demand on water resources can be overcome by good management. Below, a number of specific areas of unsustainability are identified (but not in any firm order of severity):

  1. present methods for the intensification of agricultural production, which are environmentally unsustainable through their heavy dependence on chemicals (wastes from chemicalization have consequences through the hydrological system; moreover, dependence on non-renewable mineral sources itself poses risks for future sustainability);
  2. most present land-use practices in the upland areas that will be of increasing importance as a future resource;
  3. the growth of megacities and their spread, without adequate management of waste inputs into the water and the atmosphere, or of the whole urban space;
  4. present trends in energy use, threatening to bring about increasing dependence on imports unless alternative energy sources are developed and conservationist practices are put in place; and
  5. present forestry practices, in which a valuable resource is being dissipated without assisted replacement, at too high a rate, and with alarming loss of biodiversity.

Moreover, vulnerability to uncertainties in the climatic future is being increased by some present trends, and the following are particularly identified:

  1. Increasing use of high-yielding varieties may accentuate vulnerability to climatic variations, in view of the heavy water demand.
  2. Additionally. a narrowing of the genetic base for crop production exposes crops to insect and other pests more seriously than with diversified cropping, and there is a link between insect-pest infestation and rainfall variability.
  3. Growing forest interference both by logging and agriculture is increasing vulnerability to fire during periods of drought.
  4. Expanding use of steeplands for agriculture, and also for other forms of development, worsens the risk of erosion and of landslide during periods of heavy rain.

The growth of very large cities, and of crowded and unsanitary conditions within them, increases vulnerability to disease and general ill-health, due to pollution and inadequate waste management. These hazards apply particularly in the squatter areas, but there is also growing pollution from industrial sources, with increasing inputs of toxic waste into the waterways. Human health in many rural areas is threatened by high levels of chemical residues in the water sources and, as population becomes more densely settled, by transmission of gastro-enteric diseases through the hydrological system.

Not least in importance, the continued lack of attention to the real needs of minority peoples, especially in regard to the security of their land, exposes these peoples to increasing disruption of their livelihood and society.

Institutional Weaknesses

Problems in institutional management for sustainable development were also identified. Present institutions are largely an inheritance from a past in which environmental problems were little considered. New structures for environmental management sit alongside the old, rather than replacing or greatly modifying them. Some specific problems were noted, and they include the following:

  1. Traditional and former societies had a number of social institutions concerned mainly with property, with these institutions having conservationist effect. These are exposed to rapid change, leading to an 'open-access' situation where local commodities, and especially land, become commercially valuable.
  2. While several states in the region now have good environmental policies and legislation in place, there is a grave lack of supporting staff and resources, and of the legal means of enforcement, to convert good policies into good practices. There are too many opportunities to divert outcomes in favour of individual or corporate, rather than social, interests.
  3. There is a strongly felt need for local participation in both economic and environmental management, to permit greater attention to be paid to regional and local differences in both the environment and society, and to get away from the universal application of single sets of policies over all areas and peoples within a national space.

In the view of some participants, environmental management is almost out of the control of policy makers: the development phase has outrun the ability of policy to control it, or even for policy to be developed adequately to manage it.

Recommendations for research and future action

The conference discussed a number of topics for research and future action. Recognizing that this list is far from being exhaustive, they are set out below by section. No order of priorities is indicated.

Agriculture and Climate

Within the dominant lowland rice economy, studies of vulnerability to both climatic change and variability are urgently needed, especially in the context of a narrowing genetic base, and of growing problems of pest infestation. The relationship of these factors to climatic events would bear close study, in view of the possibility that they might become predictable with reasonable confidence, to the advantage of their management and control.

Within the minority upland economies, likely to be of much greater relative importance within the coming generation, there is a pressing need for research on agricultural improvement, reduction of degradation and erosion, and adaptation to climatic change and variability, and for the application of this research. Such study needs to take account of both environmental and societal variability between places, and of the very different conditions in the more highly commercialized areas, and in those areas in which subsistence production remains dominant. It also needs to take account of the large body of indigenous knowledge about environmental management, and to build on this knowledge rather than simply impose solutions from the outside.

Generally, climatic variability is significant in so much of the region that there is an imperative to expand the study of its impacts, history, and especially its indicators. In collaboration with foreign meteorological, climatological and oceanographic agencies, regional observers cannot only improve prediction within their own environment, and enhance the possibilities of management, but could also contribute to global understanding and prediction of potentially damaging events. The greater use of unconventional indicators would be a most important contribution.

Forests and Their Peoples

Discussions on the impact of shifting cultivation, and of forestry, on the environment, tend to degenerate into the confident presentation of mutually contradictory statements, which is unproductive. While good information is available, and more is coming to hand, there remains a need for balanced and informed inquiries into the impact of logging and forest conversion, shifting cultivation and other forms of interference on the forests, the land and the waterways. These inquiries should be associated with the study of the means by which indigenous people in the forest areas can more effectively be associated with the design of better management systems, both for the national benefit and their own. New approaches to agroforestry solutions are particularly required.

Questions of fire control should also be incorporated in such policy-oriented research. These involve both technical methods of fire prevention and limitation (through firebreaks in forest plantations, and even control burning) and changes in the practice both of logging and of shifting cultivation, to reduce the amount of fuel on the ground, and to prevent the escape into the forest of fires ignited for clearance. Two major sets of fire outbreaks within one decade should sharpen perception of the need for radical changes in forest management.

Coastal and Offshore Ecosystems

Management of the seas, even the inshore seas, cannot be purely a national problem. Initiatives under UNEP auspices have recognized this, and there is already good collaboration within the ASEAN region. However, an integrated international study of the impact of modern development on coastal, inshore and offshore ecosystems is required. It is necessary to determine the extent to which inshore development and pollution are impacting the common marine resource, and to derive strategies for more effective management.

The question of inshore and marine pollution is intimately bound up with that of the pollution of the inland waterways, and therefore with agricultural, industrial and urban pollution. The clean-up of a coastal system requires the clean-up of inland systems. The successful example of Singapore was several times noted, and while the costs of this long-term programme may be beyond the reach of other regional countries at present, it should be studied to determine what is applicable in the medium term, with a view to checking the severe deterioration of the inshore and marine environment of other large cities, and of improving water quality in the rivers.

Urban Ecosystems

More generally, comparative studies in large cities of the region are urgently needed, to parallel the important work done in the Klang Valley of Malaysia, and to determine the extent and severity of the urban impact on the atmospheric, terrestrial and hydrological environment. A first step might be to convene a regional meeting at which the personnel to collaborate in such a comparative set of inquiries can be identified, and the requirements, in terms of training and resources, for this research to be carried out can be established. While studies alone are only a first step, some measures proposed in the Klang Valley work have been implemented. The prospect that three of the regional cities will have populations substantially exceeding 10 million people by or before the year 2000 makes it imperative that planning for urban development give much greater weight to environmental improvement than has hitherto been the case. Towards this end, much more information is required.

The search for sustainability

Building on Success

Notwithstanding the concern over present trends summarized above, it was also recognized that there have been some significant successes in environmental management in the region. The particular case of great improvement in the urban space of Singapore has been noted above. There have also been successful mangrove projects in several countries, including the restoration of mangroves devastated by war in Vietnam; and among upland areas, the very notable recovery of the Gunung Kidul, close to Yogyakana, from its degraded condition of the mid- 1960s, is a striking example of what is possible. Moreover, both government and local initiatives have been involved in this last case (Nibbering, 1991a). More generally in Indonesia, the Worldwide Fund for Nature has reduced a former estimate of 20 million hectares of badly degraded land to 13 million hectares, in consequence of reforestation and rehabilitation work carried out, mainly in Java, by the Ministry of Forestry (MOF/FAO, 1991). In some of the outer islands of Indonesia, however, the estimates have been increased.

The greatest success in the region has been the improvement in rice yields and production, above all in Indonesia. Here, moreover, problems arising from the early indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides have been sharply reduced by the adoption, since 1986, of integrated pest management (IPM). Major improvements in water management and also action to provide the foundations for a rural credit system have played their pan in the success. However, there has been a drift in the terms of trade for farmers which threatens the future of rice production if steps are not taken to rectify this regional, and even global, situation. While a number of ecological threats still hang over the sustainability of the achievements of the past 30 years (since the early 1960s), and stand in the way of the further yield improvements that are necessary and possible, many elements are transferable to other countries in the region and beyond.

It would be very useful to examine, evaluate and draw lessons from these and other apparent 'success stories' in environmental management, and to do so comparatively across the whole region. Cases where Green Revolution technology has successfully been adapted by local people (for example, in Timor) can provide information potentially valuable in other areas. Successful agroforestry systems, evolved over time from shifting cultivation, may be able to provide models for the better management of this form of forest agriculture, perhaps more informative than some of the land-settlement and transmigration schemes. The object of seeking out and studying success stories should be to learn what can be applied in other areas, and in this way create the means of 'sustainable development' at the local and regional level.

Institutions for Environmental Management

Clearly, however, to apply such an approach would require some important institutional changes. One of the recommendations at Yogyakarta was that a conference be held to analyse comparatively the effectiveness of both public and societal institutions for environmental management throughout South-East Asia. The object should be to propose changes-nationally, regionally and locally-that might better meet the challenges posed by population growth and extremely rapid social and economic development, and their presently barely controlled impact on the environments of the region.

Most importantly, there is obviously a need to integrate the environmental ministries and agencies more effectively within the decision-making process. The development of intra-ASEAN co-operation in environmental management was described to the conference by Dr Abu Bakar Jaffar, Director-General of the Department of Environment in Malaysia, and chairman of the co-ordinating group of officials. However, obstacles in the way of achieving desirable goals are clearly enormous, not only within the structure of national and regional administrations but also in view of the large vested interests that often resist official interference. The trend is, however, in the direction of stronger enforcement, as awareness of the damage done to the environment becomes widespread in the region. It is assisted by the excellent journalistic coverage in certain sections of the daily and periodic press, and even on television.

There is a contrast, which emerged rather clearly in the conference, between the exercise of political will for some purposes and not for others. James Fox showed how strong political determination underlay the enormous success of the Green Revolution in Indonesia. In the 1980s, this same determination was applied with great effect to the management of an ecological crisis due to infestation by the brown planthopper; in a few short years, Indonesia became the first country in the tropical world to make successful application of IPM. Similarly, there has been strong government intervention at all stages in the economic success of Singapore; in this instance, strong political will was also applied to the clean-up of the urban environment, and to better management of the urban space as a whole. In other countries, there has been very effective intervention in the whole economic structure of Malaysia to improve the standing of the Malay people, yet the same administration has been tardy in intervening in the exploitation of the forests; it has intervened to halt new land settlement only for economic reasons. Clearly, regional governments can act firmly and decisively in the management of development. Except in Singapore, it is only since the late 1980s that intervention to protect natural resources is seriously being contemplated.

One institutional aspect that emerges in several situations identified in this book is the question of the utility of indigenous systems for resource management in a changing environmental context. Most certainly, these systems cannot be idealized and held up as a model for the future. They are to be viewed mainly as systems for the management of scarce common property; and as conditions change, they must be modified if they are not to quickly fail. There is a very general conclusion that greater local participation in decision-making, and a more sensitive official approach to local resource-management traditions, would be of inestimable value in securing sustainability. While this conclusion applies especially in regard to the minority ethnic groups, it is an argument with much wider application.

As of the early 1990s, environmental awareness remains very variable across the region and between social classes. There is therefore a need to spread environmental education beyond the urban elites among whom concerned awareness is now largely confined. It should take advantage of the large fund of environmental knowledge possessed by farmers, fishermen and other resource managers, both male and female. It was suggested at Yogyakarta that one or another UN agency might well be asked to assist in the collection and dissemination of material in forms suitable for a wide public. It was also urged that scientists within the region should be more ready than most of them now are to use the media to disseminate their findings, notwithstanding all the risks of distortion and over-simplification that deter many from doing so. The means to demonstrate, both to decision makers and to the public, that the long-term costs of inaction in matters of environmental management will be greater than the costs of taking action should be developed.

Towards a Resource-scarce South-East Asia

Alarming though the situation is, it is not desperate. Neither this book nor the conference on which it is based has presented the environmental problems of South-East Asia in terms of the 'eleventh hour', with dire predictions of imminent disaster unless urgent steps are taken. There is close unanimity that the problems are serious and are growing worse, and that present trends in the matter of improved management are too partial and too slow. The problems of sustaining resource use are certainly being addressed, but with insufficient vigour.

Although there are still large parts of the region where environments are minimally damaged, they are declining rather rapidly. There are growing areas in which a large suite of problems already exists. Even now, urbanization and industrialization have created, in pans of the region, all the environmental problems that beset developed countries. At the same time, the poverty and health problems, that were largely overcome in the developed countries before the new set of issues became self-evident, are far from being eliminated. The coming 15 years up to 2005 will determine not only how far South-East Asia can succeed in its remarkable drive for development but also how far that development can be achieved without destroying much of the resource base and living environment for the following generation.

One important change is taking place. In relation to its population and economic growth, South-East Asia can no longer be viewed as having the abundance of natural resources which has hitherto been basic to its development strategy. A perception of resource limitations is becoming widespread, though not yet in all economic sectors. lt is likely that within a very few years, development planning will much more widely come to take its place in a context of perceived resource scarcity, so that changes in approach leading towards increasingly careful management may quite quickly arise. Such a change, the probability of which emerges in many of the chapters in this book, is perhaps the essential basis, almost a sine qua non, of a more sustainable environmental future.

Collectively, the many suggestions made in this book do offer the foundation for sustainability in the management of the region's resources. Only a selection of the more important of these suggestions are summarized in this concluding chapter; the whole book is full of them. South-East Asia is acquiring a strong corpus of environmentally aware scientists and, though the need for more information remains enormous, the foundation of the requirements is already established. However, public and official awareness of environmental deterioration and resource exhaustion has not yet reached levels at which a strong political will for improved management can be generated. Population growth and the drive for ever-faster economic development are the two basic constraints on the achievement of sustainability. It will take much longer than another generation before, even on the best expectations, population can approach stabilization. In regard to the development drive, however, change is possible in a shorter time; the remarkable changes in Singapore, the most developed of the regional states, bear witness to the possible.

We therefore come back in conclusion to Otto Soemarwoto, whose views were noted in the Preface. As the most developed part of the humid Tropics, South-East Asia has a growing responsibility to lead the way towards a more sustainable form of development. To achieve this, it is necessary to adopt a set of goals which are not merely a copy of those in the affluent, polluting West. The greatest hope for future sustainability lies in the growth of environmental awareness; while awareness is still spreading too slowly, this conference alone has demonstrated how much progress has been made in a few years. Public opinion can change more quickly than population growth rates; there is reason to hope that a widespread and lively sense of environmental responsibility may evolve quickly in South-East Asia during the 1990s. If this happens, and only if it does, there is real prospect that by 2005, the South-East Asian region may be on the road to achievement of a sustainable path of development.

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