The Future of Sustainability in Southeast Asia

In previous blog posts I have focused on issues ailing the Southeast Asian region in the past and present. This concluding post will deviate from its predecessors, instead focusing on the future of this vibrant, yet rapidly changing area.

The hurdles and challenges facing the people, governments, NGOs, and international agencies in Southeast Asia are countless. Nearly every aspect of development in this region needs reform in order to veer onto a sustainable path. While I have spent extensive time detailing environmental problems such as dams in the Mekong, fishery collapses, and deforestation, these large scale events are largely unfelt by the average global citizen. Take for example the havoc being wreaked on coral reefs in the region. In the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, coral is beginning to bleach and die in response to rising sea temperatures and changing climatic conditions. One local source details, “If the temperature rises to 30.5 [degree Celsius] in the Gulf of Thailand and 28 [degree Celsius] in the Andaman Sea, bleaching is likely to happen,” (Wipatayotin). While the need is clearly urgent, the average person is not directly or immediately felt by the loss of coral reefs and its ecosystem service. How far will it take then to have these environmental disasters felt by and trigger response from the average person?

While environmental degradation is not felt significantly now, it is incorrect to say that it is having no impact. In fact, nearly one in four deaths are due to environmental factors like air, water, and soil pollution, with the “most environmentally-linked deaths [happening] in Southeast Asia, which accounted for 3.8 million such deaths in 2012,” (“Deaths in SE Asia”). Southeast Asia, whether it is the cause of degradation or not, is facing the brunt of the consequences. To the average Western consumer sitting at their computer, life continues uninterrupted, but to the individuals living in these regions, the changes they are encountering are only the beginning. Ultimately, a combined effort of NGOs, national governments, international agencies, and local stakeholders are needed to prevent the situation from getting worse. However, if the West fails to realize, assist, and pay for the harm its people and society is having on regions like Southeast Asia through avoidance of climate change accountability, then it is painstakingly up to national governments in Southeast Asia to save their own people. Eventually, Western officials who refuse to acknowledge delivering assistance will be forced to deal with similar problems in a few decades, however by then the damage will be impossible to mitigate.

Governments in Southeast Asia have typically been slow and unresponsive to ideas of sustainability and green technology as a source of energy. Natural gas, coal, and oil dominate the market, leaving renewables like solar and wind for small-scale village electrification. In fact, “The region will need more resources for itself as it develops further.

Graph detailing the amount by which each sector accounts for in Southeast Asia’s energy consumption.

There will be fewer surpluses for export. This is already the case for oil,” (Symon 241). In another instance the paper states, “With urbanization and growing incomes, motor vehicle ownership has risen rapidly. In Manila… the number of cars has doubled every seven years,” (Symon 243). Clearly, as the region grows economically and in terms of population, energy resources are going to be needed in greater demand. With a system in set for more coal, natural gas, and oil imports and production, there is little room or incentive for renewables. This is the time when governments and organizations like ASEAN need to push for sustainable initiatives and energy. If these governments are not capable of establishing a precedent for sustainable energy and independence now, then once resources become strained and populations and economies grow, there will be no room for switching to green technology.

Map detailing which regions are vulnerable to climate change, with a greater numerical value equating to more vulnerability.

While the outlook for energy independence in this region looks bleak, sustainable ideas and programs are appearing throughout Southeast Asia. As aforementioned in previous posts, tourism has the potential to place power in indigenous people while developing local economies. However, tourism also has the potential to be environmentally destructive, with the industry accounting for 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions through pollution and waste (“UNEP”). When used effectively, countries and local people can make huge economic gains, as described “in the Galapagos Islands and Palau, [where] visitors pay an entry tax to protected areas,” generating over $1.3 billion in Palau annually since 2009 (“UNEP”). The future success of ecotourism is one that requires collaboration with local people, organizations, and governments in order to ensure that the actions committed are in fact sustainable and supporting indigenous groups and conservation.

The future of sustainability in Southeast Asia is one that remains contingent on a variety of political stakeholders, two of those being the current global powerhouses China and the United States. With increasing Chinese influence, the United States has begun to intervene and divest leadership in these nations in order to remain sovereign. The idea of whether this is an American ploy to dominate the region is another debate, but one thing is clear, Southeast Asians are going to feel an increasing pressure from outside forces. As one article describes, “Southeast Asian nations are reluctant to choose sides, wary about being wed as pawns in a geopolitical struggle between superpowers,” (Nakamura). The theory has historical basis, with Korea and Vietnam serving as reminders of geopolitical struggles. The only solution is for global independence to be established, whether that be regional security through the ASEAN or security on a national basis, free from global powers. While establishing security, Southeast Asian nations would be in a position to launch and create sustainable agendas such as energy independence and environmental programs. Doing so would enable freedom from the oil and energy market while decreasing the need for reliance and influence from superpowers like China and the United States.

While Southeast Asian nations play an interconnected role in the global world as both exporters and importers of goods, the nation’s composing this region are at a crucial fork. An opportunity exists for these nations to become independent, free of influence from larger political entities, generating policies and development projects based on their specific economic, social, and environmental needs. Therefore, the future sustainability of this region is not bleak, but one filled with optimism that local groups, national governments, and international organizations can collaborate to promote independent, sustainable livelihoods, addressing the key issues facing the largest environmental crises of the 21st century.


“Environment to Blame for 3.8 Million Deaths in SE Asia since 2012, WHO Finds.” Malay Mail Online. Malay Mail Online, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

Nakamura, David. “Obama Welcomes 10 Southeast Asian Leaders to California Summit.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 15 Feb. 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

Symon, Andrew. “Fuelling Southeast Asia´s Growth: The Energy Challenge.” ASEAN Economic Bulletin 21.2 (2004): 239-48. JSTOR. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

“Harnessing the Power of One Billion Tourists for a Sustainable Future.” United Nations Environment Programme. United Nations Environment Programme, 5 Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

Wipatayotin, Apinya. “Andaman Coral Reef Sites May Close.” Bangkok Post. Bangkok Post, 10 Apr. 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

Deforestation in Indonesia: Who is to Blame?

Deforestation. A looming concept that each one of us is familiar with. Whether it be the expansive tracts of the Amazon, the dense growth of the Congo, or the tall flora of Cascadia. While deforestation in each of these regions is attributed to specific causes, the deforestation currently happening in Indonesia, one of the world’s major rainforests, is a complexity of seemingly unidentifiable culprits and multiple issues.

In discussing the deforestation problem plaguing Indonesia, it is crucial to set up a contextual background for discussion. Indonesia, while one of the planet’s most thriving and upcoming markets, is home to 10% of the world’s rainforests, containing an astounding amount of endemic fauna that are hypersensitive to any environmental change. Roll in climate change and deforestation, triggering havoc to local environments and causing not only one of the greatest species disappearance rates of all time, but permanent shifts in indigenous life. Traditionally, locals practiced sustainable agriculture and slash-and-burn techniques called today “swidden agriculture” (Dauvergne). Combined with modern globalization efforts taking place in the country, the government places forests, and its inhabitants, on the backburner when money is on the line.

Past, current, and estimated loss of forest in Borneo, the largest island in Indonesia

Four key reasons exist for deforestation in Indonesia: tropical government, developmental, environmental, and public policy. The first places indigenous people and their way of life as the cause of the forest destruction, an almost laughable argument. The development explanation and public policy are closely tied. Both agree that development has led to greater situations in which deforestation is necessary, such as the poor attempting to make a livelihood. The public policy explanation even goes so far to say that, “Aid agencies, multinational corporations, international finance, and Third World Elites, motivated by profit maximization and the international market, all contribute to destructive forest activities,” (Dauvergne 501). Coupled with the fact that the Indonesian government is highly corrupt, with 40% of its aid being lost to corruption, it is plausible to see a link between government, international corporations, and deforestation. In fact, the environmental and public policy explanations stress the importance of this connection, with both stating that the government has installed policies that encourage illegal logging and deforestation for monetary profit.

However, the government is not the only person to blame, the globalization era has also created an insatiable hunger for products, notably timber, which Indonesia can provide. The global network of supply chains and multinational corporations are equally partakers in the destruction of the forests, exploiting and supporting not only the corrupt government, but destroying balanced ecological systems and local livelihoods in the process. As an UNEP article debriefs, “More than 74% of the poor [depend] on ecosystem services for their basic livelihoods, depletion of these services could be detrimental to the wellbeing of the poor and the country’s overall growth,” (Benson). Not only is this a siphoning of wealth to the corrupt officials and international corporations, but it is an exponentially growing problem if sustainable forestry and environmental education is not put in place. So how can it be fixed, and who can the blame truly be placed on?

While the most obvious answer is the creation of federal or international programs to monitor forestry rates, with an unreliable government, such actions can only go so far. I am not discrediting the actions of organizations like REDD+, IUCN, and WWF, in fact I am acknowledging the work done by these establishments as crucial, however more needs to be done. Locals are beginning to take power not only through activism and protest, but through education and support of local forests and economy in ecotourism. Ecotourism itself is tourism taken with an approach of education, sustainability, and appreciation for the natural world. One example is increased visitations and interactions in orangutan reserves, generating income for local economies while creating conservation oriented mindsets and animosity against deforestation. The effects of these projects are well noted: “Genuine socio-economic incentives, control over the direction and size of the ecotourism development and control over the possible impacts would empower local communities making them willing actors rather than reluctant subjects,” (Drewry). Not only are these people gaining economic power, but combined with ecotourists visiting these centers, a core group preventing unsustainable development and logging can be established.

Infographic detailing which companies have been more successful in reaching their palm oil sustainability goals

One last tidbit about Indonesian deforestation that cannot be ignored is the dreaded palm oil industry. Thousands of acres per year of Indonesian forest are cut down, both legally and illegally, to support the unsustainable cultivation of palm oil and other palm related products. As one organization describes, “From Doritos to Colgate to Johnson & Johnson baby soap, palm oil is in so many products that it is hard to avoid,” (Rahmawati). While palm products are in nearly everything, I am a firm believer in consumers having purchasing power and the ability to dictate to multinational corporations what they will and will not tolerate in terms of consumer goods. Such is the reasoning behind projects like the RSPO, companies that have, after consumer demand and pressure, committed to the use of sustainable palm oil in their products. After all, if multinational corporations are driving Indonesian deforestation to produce products for consumers, do we not have at least some power, fault, or responsibility in fixing the crisis? All in all the Indonesian deforestation crisis is one that propagates and results from various levels, but one that can receive assistance and restriction on the national, local, and global consumer level.


Benson, Brittany. “Investment of $600 Million a Year Required to Maintain Indonesia’s Forest Cover, Critical to National Economy and Local Livelihoods – UN Report.” United Nations Environment Programme. United Nations Environment Programme, 8 July 2015. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.

Dauvergne, Peter. “The Politics of Deforestation in Indonesia.” Pacific Affairs 66.4 (1993): 497-518. JSTOR. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.

Drewry, Rachel. “Ecotourism: Can It save the Orangutans?” Inside Indonesia. Indonesian Resources and Information Program, July-Aug. 1997. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.

Rahmawati, Annisa. “Snack and Personal Care Companies Commit to End Palm Oil Deforestation – Who Is Taking Action?” One Green Planet. Greenpeace, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.

Environmental Sustainability in the Orient: An Introduction


      The Asian continent as a whole has a long history of agriculture and human interference in terms of geography and the environment. Not only has the Orient been a source of natural wealth and economic growth, but also serving as a center of exploitation. The series of blogposts I am presenting not only highlight the former and current environmental degradation and sustainable planning taking place in East and Southern Asia, but the interconnection of the world in these issues. Not only is this an issue pertaining to the region in which I am focusing in, but it has lasting consequences on both the global community and the individual, a system development crafted.

      It is no mystery that anthropogenic sources are factors in changing climate and landscape of the planet. Moreover, certain human activity is more destructive or altering than other behavior. For example, the Global North, while accounting for a significantly smaller proportion of population compared to the rest of the world, accounts for over two thirds of total carbon emissions. In a similar case, regions of Asia are also huge greenhouse emitters. As a Washington Post article describes, “Southern Asia has about 90% of the global rice fields and represents more than 60% of the world’s nitrogen fertilizer consumption,” (Mooney). The historical and economic context of this region with rice coupled with high fertilizer and agrochemical use illustrates it as an area of environmental concern. This facet only highlights these regions as needing specialized development care, as local economies are rooted in rice production associated with fertilizer use, something that cannot be easily altered.

      While the historical context of communities in these regions with agriculture and land use is deeply rooted and difficult to change, the role of East and Southern Asia on the global scale has shifted dramatically over the past few decades. Particularly in East Asia, stress has been placed on economic development. As one article describes, “The environment remains generally at the fringes of domestic and international politics and in East Asia conventional security concerns continue to dominate,” (Maddock 20). The concept of “security” is one that will be reoccurring in my blog posts, as individuals often place security in material or economic terms, not in agricultural or livelihood perspectives often tied to land use or the environment. Furthermore, sustainable development is often regulated in these areas due to externality issues, in which a decision made in one country, such as the construction of a dam, often has more drastic consequences on a country downstream of the project. Coupled with exponential population growth and agrochemical intensive agriculture, a context is created for serious environmental degradation and global climatic consequences.

      Although future prospects of sustainability remain bleak in these areas, a number of growing sources allude to hope in restructuring the rooted system. The Asia Pacific region of UNEP has recently taken major steps to implement environmentally sustainable livelihoods and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. For example, a meeting for major leaders of the Asia Pacific UNEP region has declared to “[finding] solutions to pressing environmental and health challenges, which can adversely affect the region’s future economic development and poverty reduction,” (“Asia Pacific Environment Ministers”). While the underlying focus is still on economic security over that of environmental safety, at least officials are pressing for urgency and action. On the other hand, companies are beginning to take initiatives themselves. Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), one of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies has agreed to derail itself from deforestation by 2020. In fact, the company has committed to the Forest Conservation Policy (FCP), in which it will produce “pulp and paper that is free from fibre or activity linked to deforestation,” (“Asia Pulp and Paper”). Not only is this directly assisting in creating a sustainable world, but also putting forth an eco-conscious business stance that will hopefully spread to other corporations. The attempts to establish a setting or culture of the importance of environmental security is one crucial to the long term economic and environmental wellbeing of the region.

      The continent of Asia is one that has long focused on economic security and outlooks in the short term over that of long term and community level environmental security. Spikes in population, increases in agrochemical use, and rising industrialization all have strained land use and natural resources, creating long term economically and environmentally unsustainable communities who have reached their ecological limits. The purpose of these blogposts is not to simply highlight the fragility in Southern and East Asia, but to pinpoint the exact actions being taken, whether they are sustainable or not, focusing on improvement for the long term. More importantly, connections will be drawn to illustrate how this not only a regional issue, but a global crisis and warning that affects nearly every market and individual, including you and me.


“Asia” from The General Gazetteer; or Compendious Geographical Dictionary by R. Brookes. Eighth Edition. Dublin, 1808.

“Independent Study Shows Asia Pulp and Paper Has Sufficient Plantation for Its Zero Deforestation Commitment.” Asia Today. Asia Today, 5 Sept. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

Maddock, R.T. “Environmental Security in East Asia.” Contemporary Southeast Asia 17.1 (1995): 20-37. JSTOR. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

Mooney, Chris. “The Hidden Driver of Climate Change That We Too Often Ignore.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 9 Mar. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

ROAP News. “Asia Pacific Environment Ministers Chart Course for Region’s Development.” UNEP Regional Office for Asia Pacific. United Nations Environment Programme, 12 May 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.