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Challenges for mainland Southeast Asia

Dave Hubbel discusses the challenges for mainland Southeast Asia imposed by conventional development.

The author has worked with the Project for Ecological Recovery and the Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance since 1990.

Mainland Southeast Asia consists of the countries of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and China’s Yunnan province. With the exception of Thailand, whose government began the process of integration into the global market economy in the early 1960s, the countries of mainland Southeast Asia have, for reasons of war and politics, only begun concerted efforts to move towards such integration in the past decade.

Consequently, of the region’s major river basins – of the Irrawaddy, Salween, Chao Phraya, Mekong and Red rivers – only people living in Thailand’s Chao Phraya River Basin in the central region and the Mekong River Basin in the northeast have seen their natural resources and livelihoods come under the near-total domination of conventional economic development and the global market economy.

This is not to say that, in the major river basins where “development” and integration into the global economy have as yet made only minor inroads, there do not exist vibrant economies.

Fishing-based and rice-based means of livelihood of local communities are by far the most important and prevalent sources of economic activity in these river basins, and form the backbone of economic life in the tens of thousands of local communities living in these river basins and countries.

While the World Bank and even some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in conventional economic development activities continue to proclaim that the people of, say, the Mekong River Basin, live in “extreme poverty,” the fact is that most people are declared as “impoverished” simply because they do not feel the necessity, or are not compelled to, engage in the capitalist market economy for their survival – the sine qua non of conventional economic development. Local economies exist and are important to local people, but because of their very ‘local-ness’ are not measurable by the “development indicators” so conveniently collectible and handily available to World Bank officials and others proposing “development” as a universal remedy to cure the ills and fevers caused by “poverty” and “underdevelopment.”

The states of mainland Southeast Asia are now almost totally enthralled by the perceived riches available from their integration with the global market economy. This requires the exploitation of land, labour, and other natural resources of these countries in the service of state-defined “development” and the global market economy.

Revolutions, rebellions, and resistance are conveniently tossed aside or downplayed, and the states of mainland Southeast Asia, the governments, bureaucracies, military and industrial scions of these “emerging markets” are as one in their belief that the integration of these societies into the global market economy is “development.”

This “development” is publicly premised on the theoretical capacity of large-scale infrastructure (hydroelectric dams, four-lane highways, and so on) and resource extraction (such as mining and agro-industrial plantations) to improve the “quality of life” of the people of a country. This, of course, is the “development” promoted by international financial institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

In Thailand, “development” has become the focal issue of ridicule and resistance by local communities. The site where once a large hydroelectric dam could be built with all the coercion and cooption the State could call upon, the site of a proposed eucalyptus plantation, or industrial estate, or coal-fuelled electricity generation plant, is now the site of outright popular opposition.

For example, the World Bank-supported Pak Mun Hydroelectric Project was completed in 1994. Since 1988, widespread popular resistance opposed construction of the Pak Mun dam.

The World Bank approved funding for the 136 megawatt dam in late 1991. The project’s nine year-old feasibility study and eight year-old environmental impact assessment attempted to justify the Pak Mun dam as environmentally-friendly by citing the carbon dioxide emissions that “would” be produced by an “alternative” to Pak Mun – a coal-fuelled electricity generating plant, although no coal-fuelled plants have been built in Thailand to date.

Local communities warned that the dam would obstruct fish migrations between the Mun and Mekong rivers and destroy the fisheries of the Mun River. Thai NGOs supported a five-year demand-side management programme that would obviate the construction of 3000 megawatts of generation capacity until early in the 21st century.

But the Pak Mun dam was built, allegedly no carbon dioxide was added to the global greenhouse, and the fishing-based means of livelihood and economy of more than 5000 families living along the Mun River was destroyed.

Yet for every “successful” completion by the Thai State of a dam like Pak Mun, or the replacement of a community forest with an industrial tree plantation of eucalyptus, or the expropriation of the swidden fields of upland ethnic communities for a national park, the determination of local communities to resist such “development” intensifies.

The story of Pak Mun, and the ongoing efforts of Mun River local communities demanding compensation for the dam’s destruction of their river and fisheries, has been told in local communities throughout the Mekong River Basin.

In Thailand, the Pak Mun experience has galvanized regional and national networks of people’s organizations and NGOs opposing the State’s imposition of development on local communities. Thus, every large-scale development project completed in Thailand or elsewhere in the region makes the next proposed project that much more difficult to implement.

While the experiences of local communities relating to the impacts of “development” on their environment and means of livelihood is important, there remain powerful trends in mainland Southeast Asia in favour of “development.”

For example, nearly a century of extensive logging wiped out nearly all of Thailand’s forests by the late 1980s, resulting in multiple impacts on local communities throughout the country.

In Cambodia, massive logging concessions and illegal logging operations have devastated the watersheds and drainage basins of the country’s Mekong tributaries.

In Laos, logging of some of the region’s largest remaining tropical forests continues unabated, while the government, the United Nations Development Programme and the Asian Development Bank blame forest destruction on the traditional swidden cultivation methods of upland ethnic minorities.

In Burma, the State Law and Order Restoration Council has granted Thai logging companies concessions to log thousands of square kilometres of teak forest in the Salween River Basin.

Vietnam’s once abundant forests, heavily damaged by chemical defoliation during its war against the United States military, are almost completely logged out. In all of these countries, logging and other natural resource extractive “development” occurred or continues to occur both as a means for the state to generate income and in the absence or suppression of informed public debate and the rights of citizens to voice dissenting opinion.

In fact, of the six countries in mainland Southeast Asia, it is only in Thailand and Cambodia that national NGOs have established themselves. In all of the other countries, there are mostly only international “development” NGOs generally directed by foreigners and largely staffed by nationals of the countries in which these international NGOs are working.

As these organizations are able to work only with the permission of governments, they rarely confront governments with critical analysis and debate regarding conventional economic development activities or work with communities to foster such analysis and debate at the local level.

There are, however, some encouraging signs in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where international NGO projects are supporting local communities to establish riverine fish conservation zones, organic agriculture, and community regulations for the conservation, management and use of community forests.

Even in Thailand, the majority of national NGOs that could be broadly labelled as “environmental” organizations work at one level to support local communities threatened or directly impacted by development and at other levels to critically analyze, and in some cases even to formulate, state policies and projects that destroy the environment upon which local communities depend for their means of livelihood.

This is not to say that many of the people working in Thailand’s NGO community are not concerned about issues of global importance such as global warming. It is to say that Thai “environmental” NGOs are taking a systemic bottom-up approach, working with local communities to challenge the conventional economic development agenda at the local level whereby “development” attempts to extract or exploit natural resources, destroying local means of livelihood for the purposes of the globalized capitalist industrial economy.

It is the very globalized economic structure that is responsible for global warming which prevents coordinated action at the local, national and international levels that could effectively prevent climate change from threatening our planet.

In this way, many NGOs in Thailand and in other countries of mainland Southeast Asia are focusing on issues of importance to local communities and at the same time confronting the destructive inertia of conventional economic development, of which global warming is an alarming by-product.

Further information

Dave Hubbel, PER/TERRA, TVS Building, 409 Soi Rohitsuk, Pracharajbampen Road, Huay Kwang, Bangkok 10320, Thailand. Fax: 66-2-6910714. Email:

On the Web

Use the Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary country profiles facility to search for information on Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and China.

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