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Large dams are not the answer to climate change in the Mekong Region

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Some may say it is too early to conclude that the changing weather patterns in the Mekong region – be it a longer dry season, unexpected river water level fluctuation, or cold days in early summer – are a result of climate change. Even if we could summarize the large number of expert debates and long list of research papers, it’s unlikely that a clear answer to the simple question “Is climate change happening in the Mekong?” would emerge.

But if instead we look on the ground, local communities along the Mekong River in Thailand will tell you that something is happening to the climate and that it’s not what it used to be.

A study1 just published by local Thai communities who live along the Mekong River, titled “Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current” reports that weather patterns have been fluctuating oddly over the past several years. In addition, the water level in the Mekong River rises and ebbs unpredictably and unlike the past. These changes have greatly affected these communities who still rely on nature to make their living as fishers and farmers (see also video here).

Cold spells and heavy rains: The case of 2011

As an example, we can look back to 2011 when two incidents occurred that appeared odd to many Thai river-side communities and are still recalled now: a highly abnormal cold spell in March 2011 when Thailand is usually warming up ready for the hot season, and then a prolonged period of heavy rainfall that lasted much of 9 months in 2011.

In the Mekong Region, the hottest2 time of the year usually falls in April. It is the same month when Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos celebrate the water festival, which practically speaking is a great way to cool off as the temperature becomes sweltering hot. But back in 2011, a month before this large festive event, the average temperature in Thailand cut to almost half its normal rate to 18 degrees Celsius (°C)3 in Bangkok. In Ubon Ratchatani Province in northeastern Thailand next to the Mekong River, the temperature dropped to around 15 °C.

Basic CMYK

Meanwhile, as the average temperature seemed to struggle to go beyond 25 °C for the whole month of March, the monsoon brought in at least 4 large storms swelling the Mekong River.

To the communities living alongside the river, the most apparent effect of the chill and increased water volume was on the fishery. Local fisher folks hold an intimateknowledge5 of the Mekong fisheries that is passed on from generation to generation. They understand the seasonality of the Mekong River, including how the river’s ecosystems relate to the different types of fish migration, breeding habits, and behaviors. The fishers’ observed that the change in weather pattern and water level in March 2011caused many fish to become dull6 to find food and instead the fish started hiding behind rocks and in pools. As there were less fish swimming in the river, it affected the fish catch of fishers, such that many fishers gave up fishing during the period as it was uneconomical to spend money on diesel fuel when they knew they could find no fish.

The heavy rainfall that started in March continued on for another nine months. In July 2011, Tropical Storm Nock-ten made land fall, bringing severe flooding to North, Northeastern and central Thailand. Large swathes of farmland, as well as Thailand’s capital city Bangkok, were left under water.

2011’s rainy season added so much water to the Mekong River and made the current so unusually turbulent that many riverbanks and riverbank gardens were flooded or even washed away. Many riverbank farmers lost their crops and therefore their income. Assistance and financial help from the local authorities made their way to some communities, but many admitted that they still had to pay for another round of seeds and sprouts by themselves7 hoping that the river water would not flood their land a second time.

Fish and agriculture are the most basic foundation of the livelihoods and economy of the Thai communities along the Mekong River. Fish are a key source of protein. Riverbank gardens are the people’s homemade salad bar. They are both a steady source of income for many communities. The changing weather and its impact on the Mekong River have impacted both.

A Thai fisher with a fish caught from the Mekong River in Baan Muang, Nongkhai Province, February 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

A Thai fisher with a fish caught from the Mekong River in Baan Muang, Nongkhai Province, February 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

Climate change as experts (and greenhouse gas emitters) see it

According to studies done by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and theMekong River Commission (MRC), climate change will affect and change the Mekong River in the coming years. And there’s no guarantee that locals are ready to face those challenges. IPCC8 and MRC‘s data point out three things that would result from climate change:

1. Increasing temperature across the basin: One consequence of this is that there will be accelerated glacial melt in the Mekong headwaters, which in the long term will reduce the dry season water released from the glaciers
2. More rain in the rainy season; less rain in the dry season: this will greatly affect both agriculture and fisheries across the basin
3. Longer summers and shorter winters: this could lead to warmer water temperatures and could change fish behaviors, especially related to breeding and migration

To alleviate the impacts of climate change, many governments who ratified the Kyoto Protocol – created under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty to reduce greenhouse gases emissions – came up with an idea to create mechanisms to meet their carbon emission reduction goals. One of the mechanisms is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)9 which provides a long list of projects like renewable energy, methane capture, and reforestation as options to seek carbon credits. Though it sounds like a good mechanism, CDM was never designed to pressure emitters to reduce emissions, but simply to help emitters to “trade-off” carbon emission.

Hydropower development is included in the list of CDM projects. Water is supposed to be a great source of renewable energy to generate electricity as it was at first assumed that dams don’t emit carbon. Yet, recent research10 has revealed this idea to be profoundly wrong and in fact large hydropower dams can have significant carbon footprints.

In 2002, Singapore researchers reminded scientists that greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower reservoirs are under-estimated11. Another report12 published in Nature Climate Change points out that hydropower is not as low-carbon as assumed; instead dams produce emissions as they trap sediments and vegetation in the reservoir, which then decay and release methane and carbon dioxide. An academic study by Marco Aurelio dos Santos13 and his team in 2006 indicated that greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower per megawatt could in some cases be as high as fossil-fueled plants, especially in tropical areas. In a letter in Nature Geoscience in 2011, a group of researchers14 called for significant consideration to be given to hydropower dams’ carbon footprint.

But it is not only a dam’s “carbon footprint” that should be of concern. The process of dam construction can wipe out carbon sinks by triggering deforestation within and beyond reservoir areas, as has happened at the Lower Sesan 2 dam15 site in northeast Cambodia. Dams also block sediments and nutrients from making their way downstream to replenish soils, as well as to rebuild the delta areas and avoid excessive river bank erosion. With less nutrients feeding the soil, farmers may opt for chemical fertilizers to replace the missing nutrients, but in the long term this destroys the soil health and creates a cycle of agrochemical dependency – as well as potentially farmer debt.

Climate justice not climate change

Treaties like the Kyoto Protocol should be designed to pressure high emitters of greenhouse gases to reduce their greenhouse gas contribution that lead to detrimental impacts on the earth and on communities, many of whom are being left in an increasingly vulnerable situation. But at the moment it appears designed to find a means to help these emitters’ behavior appear acceptable before the global community by skewing the climate change debate towards carbon credits instead of true reductions.

The Mekong River basin is home to over 65 million people. The ecological diversity16within the basin sustains the region’s food security17. The Mekong River is second to none when it comes to the amount and diversity18 of fish species which provide both food and income sources in Southeast Asia. But climate change is affecting many people now and it is not stopping. If high emitters of greenhouse gases are serious about addressing climate change, it is time that they started learning about climate justice. They need to learn about the myriad impacts of dams on people19 and the environment, which are already well known to millions of dam affected people globally.

Flooding of a riverbank garden in Phra Klang Toong village, Nakhon Phanom Province, Thailand in December 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

Flooding of a riverbank garden in Phra Klang Toong village, Nakhon Phanom Province, Thailand in December 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

The lower Mekong River is already feeling the impact of a series of dams built upstream in China. Thai riparian communities faced another flooding20 in the dry season that spanned between the end of 2013 and early 2014 when the Mekong River unprecedentedly and unexpectedly rose between one and two meters, which lasted for approximately a week before receding. Affected riverside communities lost21 their boats, crops, fish stocks and income as a result of the rapid rise in river level. There was no warning and no government officials reacted to the situation promptly. Locals were left to cope with the situation by their own means. Though no government came forward to confirm if the exceptional water rise and quick ebb were caused by China’s dams, local communities22 stood firm to point to upstream dams for the loss and damages.

With the waning of fossil fuels like coal that are also gaining a bad reputation for releasing large amounts of carbon and creating pollution, some developers and governments are proposing a turn towards hydropower projects and apparently with the support of the CDM. Yet such an approach will never tackle the problem at its root as the current development model champions industrialization and urbanization and still prioritizes high GDP pursued through the use of dirty and unsustainable electricity sources. Large dams are false solutions23 to climate change as they fragment free-flowing rivers and devastate24 local natural resources and communities. Instead a more radical rethinking of development is required, including how we relate to our rivers and the wider ecosystems that could sustain us for the present and future generations.

 This article was originally printed here on the Mekong Commons site.  It is reprinted with permission of the author.
Footnotes
  1. Chantawong et al. (2015) Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current. Published by Foundation for Ecological Recovery (Thai language).
  2. The Nation (2011) “More cold weather coming“. 29 March 2011.
  3. James Hookway and Wilawan Watcharasakwet. The Wall Street Journal. 19 March 2011. Thailand Braces for Tsunami, Then Cold Snap.
  4. Chantawong et al. (2015) Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current. p 184 Published by Foundation for Ecological Recovery (Thai language).
  5. A River, Its Fish and Its People: Local Knowledge of the Natural Environment at the Mouth of the Mun River. Mekong Watch. May 2004.
  6. Chantawong et al. (2015) Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current. Published by Foundation for Ecological Recovery (Thai language).
  7. Chantawong, Montree. “The Shifting Mekong and Damages to Downstream: Who’s Responsible?“. 19 March 2014.
  8.  IPCC (2000). IPCC Special Report – Emission Scenarios. Summary for Policymakers. A Special Report of IPCC Working Group III Published for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  9. Mira Käkönen. CDM and challenges in delivering to the poor: case study from Cambodia. Finland Futures Research Centre, University of Turku. 28 February 2012.
  10. Roberts, Kale. Mother Earth News (2015). “Renewable Energy Is Not Always ‘Green’: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Hydroelectric Reservoirs“. 2 July 2015.
  11. Li, Siyue and Lu, X. X. (2012). Uncertainties of Carbon Emission from Hydroelectric Reservoirs. Nat Hazards. 24 March 2012.
  12. Butler, Rhett. Mongabay (2012). “Tropical Dams Are A False Solution to Climate Change“. 27 May 2012.
  13. dos Santos, Marco Aurelio. et al. Gross Greenhouse Gas Fluxes from Hydro-power Reservoir compared to Thermo-power Plants. Energy Policy. (2006)
  14. Barros, Nathan. et al. Carbon Emission From Hydroelectric Reservoirs Linked to Reservoir Age and Latitude. Nature Geoscience. (2011).
  15. Titthara, May. Phnom Penh Post. “Call for Sesan 2 Logging Halt“. 1 July 2015.
  16. The Guardian. “Thorny frog and dementor wasp among new species discovered in Mekong“. 27 May 2015.
  17. International Rivers (2015). “The Mekong Feeds Millions: Dams Threaten Southeast Asia’s Vital Lifeline“.
  18. VietnamNet Bridge. “Hydropower plants likely to affect Mekong River’s fishery resources: experts“. 27 December 2014.
  19. Zaffos, Joshua. “Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise“. 20 February 2014.
  20. International Rivers (2014). “Mekong Floods: The Dampening of the Wintery Suffering“. 8 January 2014.
  21. Chantawong, Montree. “The Shifting Mekong and Damages to Downstream: Who’s Responsible?”. 19 March 2014.
  22. Clark, Pilita. Financial Times. “Troubled Waters: the Mekong River Crisis“. 18 July 2014.
  23. TERRA (2013). “The False Solutions to Climate Change: A Case Study on Hydropower in the Mekong River Basin“.
  24. Cronin, Richard P. World Politics Review (2015). “International Pressure Could Still Turn the Tide on Mekong Dams“. 25 March 2015.

 

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Filed under Agriculture, Cambodia, China, Energy, Laos, Mekong River, SLIDER, water

Kunming to invest in public electric car fleet

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The Kunming municipal government is moving toward the acquisition of all-electric cars that will be made publicly available by year’s end. Once delivered, the vehicles would become the centerpiece of a public transportation initiative designed to reduce general traffic congestion and cut down on overall tailpipe emissions in the Spring City.

Kunming deputy mayor Wang Chunyan (王春燕) traveled to Hangzhou on a fact-finding mission concerned with the scheme earlier this week. While there, he met with government counterparts and automotive industry leaders to discuss the city’s electric car-sharing fleet — a first in China when inaugurated in 2013.

Hangzhou officials have been lauded for the implementation of a public car rental system that relies on automation and cars using no gasoline. Wang wants Kunming to emulate this system. Following a meeting with Hangzhou deputy mayor Zhang Zheng (张耕), Wang told reporters he expects the Spring City to make an initial purchase of 2,000 electric cars by December 2015.

At its inception, Hangzhou’s ‘micro-transport’ (微公交) system made available two thousand electric cars built by Zhejiang-based Kandi Technologies, a subsidiary of manufacturer Geely. People who need to rent a car for a few hours or days can present their national identification cards and driver’s licenses, along with valid credit cards, at rental centers resembling outsized vending machines. Once registered, customers choose between two- or four-seat cars, both with top speeds of 80 kilometers per hour and a single charge range of roughly 90 kilometers.

Two years on, the Hangzhou fleet has quadrupled in size to 9,850 vehicles. They rent for between 20 and 25 yuan per hour, a fee that includes insurance. Long-term leases are also available — 9,000 yuan for year-long use of a two-passenger car and 14,400 yuan for a four-passenger version. The cars can be re-powered, or have their batteries replaced, at any rental facility or at an expanding network of quick-charge locations.

Deputy mayor Wang said Kunming would adopt the Hangzhou project and adapt it for implementation in the city. Kandi cars will be utilized, but a pricing scheme has yet to be announced. Kunming urban planners want to alleviate at least some of the traffic jams that stifle commuters on a daily basis. Wang’s proposal also targets the related problem of perpetual parking shortages — which once caused some garage spaces to fetch yearly prices of 180,000 yuan (US$29,000).

Kunming’s frenzy of car buying perhaps reached its zenith in 2010, when 1,000 new cars were being registered in the city each day. Costly infrastructure projects aimed at easing traffic congestion have been largely hit-or-miss. This newest solution of publicly sharing e-vehicles has become quite popular in China’s largest metropolises, as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chengdu and now Kunming have all followed Hangzhou’s lead.

This article written by Patrick Scally was originally published here on the GoKunming.com site on July 16, 2015.

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Filed under China, Current Events, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Yunnan Province

Rubber and Sustainability in Southern Yunnan: A Tale of Two Villages

Will Feinberg compares Xishuangbanna’s rubber and sustainabilty in two of southern Yunnan’s ethnic villages. One monocrops while the other hedges.

Driving past new stores and half-built housing developments, you take a right into the forest. Keep going. The farther you drive, the worse the road gets until you burst through another patch of palms trees and cross a stream. Where are you? You’re in Mandian Village, just outside Jinghong, Yunnan and  right in the heart of Chinese rubber country.

Introduced to the area in the 1960s by the central government, rubber is big business in southern Yunnan. Large state plantations have steadily given way to private enterprises and the region has seen a proliferation of rubber planting in the past twenty years. Today in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Region, which Jinghong is the seat of, rubber plantations already make up almost one fifth of all land.

While the environmental costs have been heavy, the rubber explosion has done wonders for Xishuangbanna’s economy. For rubber farmers in Mengla Country, for instance, the average household income is close to $30,000/year, comparable to places like Shanghai or Guangzhou. The economic benefits of rubber harvesting were quite clear to me while traveling through the region late last month. During the trip, I visited two villages that I had been to in 2011. In both cases, rubber has transformed the local economy, however one village was clearly better off than the other. Why?

The first village I visited was the aforementioned Mandian Village. Mandian is largely inhabited by people of the Dai ethnicity, with a 20-family group of Yi people living in an adjacent settlement. Mandian, like many other villages in the area, practices rubber cultivation and relies on rubber as its main source of income. According to villagers there, the Dai started harvesting rubber over a decade ago, while the Yi settlement began their rubber industry only within the last few years. For the village economy as a whole, rubber has had a positive influence. Per capita incomes have risen as well as household consumption and the money from rubber has allowed the town to build a new school.

However, as rubber is Mandian’s only cash crop, the village’s fortunes are now beholden to the world rubber market. Nothing illustrates this better than what happened to the village in 2012. Last year, the bottom fell out on the rubber market and the price of raw rubber dropped by half, going from 30 yuan per pound (1 US dollar is roughly equal to 6 Chinese yuan ) to 15 yuan per pound. Two villagers that I interviewed described the effects. One, a middle-aged Dai woman told of how most of the villagers who harvest rubber had to work overtime to scratch out living and the quality of life dropped for many families. Though because the Dai also plant rice, no one in the village went hungry. A young Yi woman that I spoke to also described how the economic hardships as a result of the rubber crash delayed the building of their house. The Yi, who were recently resettled as a result of the building of the Jinghong Dam, were forced to return to their old fields as a way of producing food during 2012 crash and without these fields, many villagers might have gone hungry. The fall of the rubber price in 2012 was not isolated just to Mandian village. The drop was felt in villages like Mandian all over southern Yunnan and in other rubber producing areas like Malaysia and Brazil. But there was at least one village that was comparatively isolated from the crash’s effects.

Nanpanzhong Village sits on the slope of a ridge just an hour’s drive from the Burmese border. A collection of some 120 families, Nanpanzhong is an Aini village. The Aini are a branch of the Hani/Akha minority, a nomadic, transboundary ethnicity that typically practice subsistence agriculture in the mountains of Southeast Asia. What makes the Aini of Nanpanzhong special, aside from their incredible hospitality, is their economy. Like the Dai and Yi of Mandian, the Aini also harvest rubber, but the role that rubber plays in the village’s economy is quite different. In an interview with the village mayor, I learned that money from rubber harvesting makes up only 30% of the town’s income. Instead, their primary source of income, by a long shot, is pigs. The town raises hundreds of short-eared swine which command quite a high price in China’s metropolises. According to the mayor, his pigs’ pork sells for 130 yuan/pound, many times higher than the price of normal pork. In fact, most of the village’s pork can only be found in places like Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai; people in Jinghong can’t even afford it.

Pork sales now net the village almost sixty percent of its total income, but Nanpanzhong’s foray into the meat industry is a rather recent affair: villagers only began raising pigs in 2003. Its impact, however, has been astounding. According to the mayor, the average household income was hovering around 500 yuan per year at the turn of the millennium. Thirteen years later, that number as skyrocketed to almost 8,000 yuan and now, the mayor claims, Nanpanzhongcun is the envy of the surrounding valleys.

 When the rubber price plummeted last year, Nanpanzhong was largely unaffected. Of course, the mayor explains, villagers feel the effects when the rubber price fluctuates, but certainly less so than other places. The village is largely self-sustaining for food and the money earned from rubber, livestock and tea (which makes up a tenth of the village’s income) is used for electronics, vehicles and building materials. Both the mayor and villagers that I spoke with were convinced of the Nanpanzhong model’s superiority.

The evidence is hard to disagree with. Not considering the environmental concerns, of which there are many, rubber can be an unsustainable enterprise. Mandian, and hundreds of villages like it, have had a mixed experience with rubber. While it brought the village a new school and the villagers a higher standard of living, Mandian’s reliance on rubber and the fluctuations of the global market brought hardships to the village last year, forcing some villagers to leave in search of food. On the other hand is Nanpanzhong’s model. Rubber, while an important source of income for villagers, is part of a healthy balance. With families growing their own food and relying on two cash crops (rubber and tea) and livestock for their income, the villagers of Nanpanzhong are largely insulated from greater trends in the rubber market. The village’s exact model may not be able to be replicated in every village in Yunnan, but its general ideas can. Pairing rubber with a second cash crop and agricultural self-reliance are concepts that could give protection to villages like Mandian and offer a more economically sustainable path for thousands of people in the region.

 

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The 3rd Annual ICIRD Conference, Part II

Previously, I introduced ICIRD 2013, a Bangkok-based conference exploring issues of development, greater economic integration, and the idea of the regional commons. This blog post will delve more deeply into the background of the commons, an alternative way of organizing public goods that circumvents the hungry advance of neoliberal globalization. 

By way of illustrating, one of the most pressing current issues surrounds the Mekong River, the classic example of a regional – and transboundary – commons in Southeast Asia. Crossing six countries, laden with social and historical significance, and layered with overlapping claims and uses, millions depend on its shared resources, while growing hydropower development threatens large-scale devastation and destruction of riparian ecosystems. But forms of the commons can range in scale from municipal parks and shared community fishing sites along river banks, to oceans and digital commons on the far end.

The Commons as Social and Historical

Certainly in the context of greater regional integration augured by the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the concept of the commons becomes an increasingly important, if imperiled, way of organizing assets and resources within communities. Introducing the Focus on the Global South Round Table I, Shalmali Guttal offered the following definition of the commons: it is a collection of assets that are actively managed for the good of the collective and should be accessible by everyone. They include not only natural and physical resources, but social, cultural, political (e.g., concepts like justice) and intellectual wealth as well.

But that’s not all that the concept offers: there can be no commons without a certain type of social relations based on sharing. It’s important to remember that the commons are entwined within the history of Southeast Asia, just as its growing commodification is embedded within the larger context of globalization. As Dr. Victor Savage (National University of Singapore) mentioned in an earlier panel, historically the Southeast Asian region has lacked traditional notions of private land ownership. Here, instead, usufruct rights guaranteed the rights of access for communities, and the commons functioned as safety net and social insurance.

But over time, as  Dr. Walden Bello (Member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives) reviewed, the transition to capitalism became inextricable from the plunder of non-Western societies, in a process that continues even now. He argued, for example, that the ADB and World Bank are central in enforcing ideologies of private property and codes to delegitimize communal traditions.

The tension between these divergent worldviews, one based upon the primacy of private property and the other upon the social relations upholding the commons, is ultimately not about choosing between a given set of choices, but rather about entire ideological frameworks brought together in one current, historically-informed confrontation.

Resistance and Alternatives

Pervasive throughout the ICIRD panels was the idea that everywhere the commons are being threatened by a neoliberal logic that seeks its enclosure and commercialization. The growing commodification of nature makes itself readily felt in the rise of issues like land grabbing, water privatization, and rampant hydropower development in the region, all of which were repeatedly raised in the course of the conference.

Neoliberalism, in Dr. Bello’s account, lost much of its legitimacy, due in part to the role of research organizations and scholars who documented its high human costs, as well as the internal crises of neoliberalism, erupting spectacularly in the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the global crisis in 2008. He argues that while neoliberalism has been largely discredited, the lack of alternative paradigms means that it remains a source of default strategies for technocrats.

It may be partially true that business as usual continues for lack of other competing visions. But power also incentivizes its own perpetuation. And raising alternative possibilities is one way to counter the naturalization and legitimacy of dominant neoliberal globalization as it is taking place.

In seeking alternative forms of state-community relationships, it makes sense to step back from the lens of the nation-state. Yong Ming Li’s presentation (subtitled “Seeing like a chao baan/neak tonle,” in reference to James C. Scott’s seminal tome) offers one such narrative. By shifting down to the scale of the local, social-natural relations take on a new centrality that includes “a multiplicity of grounded perspectives and practices from the chao baan (villagers) of Chiang Khong, Thailand and the neak tonle (villagers living on the Tonle Sap lake)” (from ICIRD paper abstract). These social-natural relationships defy conceptualization based solely on market relations with nature.

The role of the research and academic communities seems clear – to keep giving voice to critical analyses of the changes taking place in the region and what’s at stake. To illustrate, the “Encouraging Green Growth in Thailand” forum was based on the appealing premise that “green economies will lead to higher resource efficiency, and investments in green innovation will benefit green pioneers with new markets, higher productivity, and human capital development” (from panel summary). Yet the forum ended in a robust debate about whether green growth (with its undeniable focus on growth) represents merely another reconfiguration of capitalism being pushed towards a new frontier.

Ultimately, as former Philippines Senator Dr. Orlando S. Mercado (who holds the distinction of being the first permanent representative of the country to ASEAN) told me after the Focus panel:

“We have to struggle to have our voices heard. But we should not only just be making our voices heard. We have to be able to move within the system to affect changes by taking advantage of various crises that erupt. To me, as a scholar interested in disaster mis-management, I feel that the cause of protecting the commons is served very well by making sure that each crisis, each disaster, each calamity, is taken advantage of to show that there must be people championing the cause of those who are adversely affected by its lack of management and the privatization that is ongoing as a consequence of economic development – all on the altar of creating a community that is ‘prosperous’.”

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Filed under ASEAN, China, Current Events, Economic development, Environment and sustainability, Governance, Mekong River, Reviews, SLIDER, Thailand, water

The 3rd Annual ICIRD Conference, Part I

With the ASEAN Economic Community set to launch in 2015, it’s not surprising to see a heightened level of uncertainty, concern, and even apprehension about what this enhanced sphere of regional integration will mean for Southeast Asian nations.

Holding this backdrop firmly in mind, the 3rd Annual International Conference on International Relations and Development (ICIRD) recently commenced at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, on August 22-23, 2013. This year’s timely theme, “Beyond Borders: Building a Regional Commons in SE Asia,” showcased established voices, civil society organizations, and a new generation of scholars rising to the challenges of this historical moment. Over forty panels traversed diverse but interrelated topics from environmental justice and human rights, to sustainable economic growth.

While few would deny the problems of development in Asia as they have manifested so far (e.g., environmental degradation, growing income disparity, and resettlement), finding a consensus on a way forward proves much more difficult. As Dr. Siriporn Wajjwalku (Assoc. Prof., Thammasat University) noted with some urgency in the opening remarks, “2015 for us in the region is approaching… It’s extremely important for us to think about the commons and go beyond the borders that we are facing now.”

Dialogue and discussion are a good place to start. Thus Dr. Carl Middleton (Lect., Chulalongkorn University), a member of the ICIRD Executive Committee that organized the event, proclaimed the conference “a success in that there was plenty of sharing of knowledge, experience and ideas amongst the participants, and a wide range of examples of the commons and how they support peoples well-being and create public space were discussed.” Continue reading

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Burmese Teak: Turning a New Leaf

It’s prized the world over for its durability and beauty and has long been a status symbol; to own something made from teak really means something. But what is teak and why does it matter today?

Teak, or Tectona Grandis, is a large, deciduous, hardwood species found throughout Southeast Asia in environments under 900m in elevation that receive over 500mm of annual rainfall. Teak is known is primarily known for its durability; it is naturally water-resistant and contains resins that repel and termites and slows rot. Because of these qualities, teak wood is valued for its ability to resist the natural elements and is often used in outdoor furniture and yacht and sailboat building.

Teak is native only to India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. Of the estimated 29 million hectares of naturally occurring teak forests, almost half are found in Myanmar. It is important to note that only Myanmar does not enforce a logging or export ban on teak, so all legally-harvested natural teak on today’s market is Burmese. The cost of this Burmese teak can be quite high – the market price for some wood can reach than $4,000/m3. This represents the most expensive teak, as natural teak is valued higher than its planted counterpart. There are several reasons for this disparity. First, plantation teak has smaller dimensions than natural teak and rarely reaches the size of a natural tree. Secondly, there is a perception among many buyers that plantation teak is less dense than natural timber and thus is of a lower quality. In addition, natural teak is a rare resource. As mentioned, Myanmar is currently the only country exporting natural teak and its forests are decreasing every year, making prized Burmese wood rarer and more expensive.

teak 1 Continue reading

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About East by Southeast

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The East by Southeast team is made up of scholars, development professionals, logistics experts, environmentalists, green entrepreneurs, and policy makers. We all live and work in the region – some were born here and some are implants. It is in the framework of the wide variety of our opinions that we seek to promote a deeper discussion of regional challenges. Some of us write under pen names to allow discussion to flow freely.

In addition to blog posts, look forward to weekly new digests, book reviews, and data that will help better inform your understanding of this dynamic region.

 

WHY WE WRITE:

There are many good blogs about China and many from Southeast Asia, but it is surprising that there are few blogs looking at the connections between China and Southeast Asia given shared development challenges, centuries of historical and cultural interaction, and rising volumes of trade and people movement between China and Southeast Asia.

In the 1990s, nations and ethnic groups that were cut off from cross-border interaction during the Cold War began to reunite as peace spread throughout the region, and arguably, China’s rise has reinforced stability within the region to deliver deepened integration.  Fast forward twenty years, the region is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world and rapidly changing urban spaces. It is also known for its abundance in natural resources and biodiversity, and development trajectories are converting those resources into cash crops and energy commodities for trade and consumption. On mainland Southeast Asia, a lack of policy coordination and communication between governments and stakeholders has already created a variety of trans-boundary issues like fisheries depletion in the Mekong watershed.  As a result, for the first time, the region faces threats to food security and a potentially gross mismanagement of its resource endowment.

In addition to the growing connections between China and Southeast Asia, the East by Southeast blog team will examine China’s footprint across its southern borders to provide answers to some of the big questions surrounding China’s global rise. We seek to understand the effect and return of China’s outpouring of aid and investment to its Southeast Asian neighbors and monitor changes in China’s approach to foreign policy as its interests spread across the region. We want to know how China’s neighbors are adapting to its rise and how effectively China’s soft power is spreading. There is much room for discussion and exploration of the gaps between China’s rhetoric on its peaceful rise in the region and its ability to continue expanding its resource base to feed the needs of a rapidly growing economy. Lastly, we are concerned with China’s adaptation and response to a new and concerted US foreign policy toward Southeast Asia.

From a different perspective, the blog team will look at how the space between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors is decreasing at a rapid rate as transportation infrastructure, advances in information transfer, and trade linkages reach across borders and states use what Yale scholar James C. Scott calls in his 2009 watershed work The Art of Not Being Governed, “distance demolishing technologies” to connect areas that were once the frontiers beyond all frontiers. For example, energy from hydropower plants is sent from Laos to the China’s east coast development zones, you can now drive a container truck from Kunming to Bangkok in less than a day on what was once previous non-navigable terrain, and in 2015 the ASEAN Economic Community promises to drop the barriers to the movement of labor and goods through the region. In addition to understanding the trajectory and obstacles of regional integration,
we want to explore how rapid and sudden improvements in connectivity reshape individual livelihoods, communities, and regional relationships.

There are so many stories to tell of the people who are shaping the region for better or for worse and of the people who are affected
by regional decision making. Narratives from the varied and violent histories of the Cold War, colonial, and pre-colonial eras can help demonstrate how history can inform the present challenges. In addition, the blog will expore many regional question marks such as the tenuous path to democratization in Myanmar (and Thailand and Cambodia), Kunming’s rise as the Bangkok of the north, a high-speed rail system through Laos, and the effects of salinization in the Mekong Delta.  Can cities and rural areas in the region learn how to provide each other with sustainable solutions to development challenges? Are there lessons to be taught as countries like Thailand, China, and Indonesia seek to escape the middle income trap?

The East by Southeast team is made up of scholars, development professionals, logistics experts, environmentalists, green entrepreneurs, and policy makers. We all live and work in the region – some were born here and some are implants. It is in the framework of the wide variety of our opinions that we seek to promote a deeper discussion of regional challenges. Some of us write under pen names to allow discussion to flow freely.

In addition to blog posts, look forward to weekly new digests, book reviews, and data that will help better inform your understanding of this dynamic region.

If you’d like to join the discussion, feel free to leave a comment after our posts, or if you’d like to contribute to the blog by becoming a team member, send us a message to eastbysoutheastmail@gmail.com.

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