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.

Fish Stocks in the South China Sea: Tragedy of the Commons

Water. A resource that is so critical, yet seemingly treated as if dispensable and limitless. Water is essential not only for its intrinsic biological, social, and cultural value, but more importantly what it holds. In this case, a supply of food to feed millions of individuals. However, as the global community and environmentalists have seen, the once bountiful oceans are becoming empty. Fish stocks are on the decline, with certain species pushed near, and beyond the point of recovery. Nowhere is this more evident than the South China Sea, a large subdivision of the Pacific Ocean. However, before the current situation in the area is discussed further, the political entanglements of the region must be discoursed.

Bordering nine countries and hosting an international shipping lane, the South China Sea has always been a source of conflict. The region itself is divided into exclusive economic zones, where only fisherfolk of each respective nation are allowed to catch. However, “with territorial waters being overfished, local fishermen are venturing farther out to sea and, in the process, coming into competition with other foreign fisherman,” (Coulter 378). As coastal regions become devoid of life, the strongest industries, like China, venture out beyond their zone, fishing in what they claim is their respective territory. Similar to how land grabbing is occurring much throughout the world over terrestrial food security, nations of the South China Sea are scrambling to claim zones and harvest fish, all in fear of a complete collapse.

Map showing the actual exclusive economic zone divisions compared to China’s claim

As if the current situation was not enough, the problem is only expected to worsen “as demand for fish rises and counties become more assertive in exercising their rights under their respective [zones],” (“Fish Wars”). A negative feedback loop is evident in the South China Sea regarding overfishing. As unsustainable trawling and illegal ways of fishing become more commonplace, fisheries become more depleted, leading nations to send out fishermen farther, resulting in more unsustainable fishing and further exhaustion of stocks. Consequently, the region is highly interdependent, with the unsustainable actions committed in one area having equally drastic effects on stocks in other areas, often due to the migration pattern of species in this sea (Coulter 379). However, while the scientific community has proved unanimously that fish stocks are dwindling, are the effects being felt locally or internationally?

Local communities have been slow in releasing the economic, social, and environmental catastrophes that have occurred because of fishery depletions, partially due to industry cover-up. A policy brief by the United Nations Environment Programme recently reported that “fishing effort would need to drop by 50% to restore many fisheries to sustainable levels,” (GIWA). While clearly not possible, many coastal communities are feeling the shock, with families in Malaysia and the Philippines forced to spend weeks apart due to strained economic conditions. Migration has also resulted, with certain coastal communities becoming abandoned as fish stocks dry up or ecosystem services like mangrove forests are desecrated. On an international scale, consumers are not feeling the burden, as subsidies and the market system keeps fish flowing into American stores, while malnourishing and depriving those who caught the exported seafood. What exactly can be done then to reverse this trend and prevent a complete global fishery shock that is felt across the globe, regardless of socio-economic class?

The recent phenomenon to combat the growing fishery exhaustion involves the literal farming of fish. Aquaculture has skyrocketed, with the industry deemed as the solution to the problems of the South China Sea. However, while aquaculture has the potential to be extremely successful, the methods of doing so in Southeast Asia are often highly unsustainable. Pollution emitted from these farms are problematic, along with the fact that the feed for this farmed fish includes smaller species from the ocean, resulting in the same problem trying to be defeated.

Different methods of aquaculture, with some proving to be more sustainable methods than others 

In terms of economic and social damage, shrimp aquaculture in Malaysia has “destroyed hundreds of hectares of mangroves in the district but also caused marine pollution and threatened fisheries,” (Idris). The daily income dropped from RM 100, to only RM 15. This is not to say aquaculture is inherently evil, but like most development projects, it needs to be incorporated better with locals to promote sustainability not only in the regional environment, but the livelihoods of coastal dwellers. While sustainable farmed fish are obviously going to play a part in the future of the region, many critics state that aquaculture is not simply enough to combat the growing crisis.

For those who have read my previous blog posts, it is easy to see that I am a believer in consumer power as a catalyst of change. While associations to monitor illegal fishing in these regions are weak, consumers have the right and responsibility to properly source the origin of their seafood. Choosing seafood from certified catchers deemed sustainable is one step in lessening the demand for illegal fishing and support for rejuvenating fish stocks. While transnational corporations, subsidies, and cheap labor still dominate the market, that should not stop individuals from building a small, but growing market for a more sustainable future. Sadly, unless the Global North wakes up one day to find seafood gone from its markets, only then will it create a great enough realization of what has been happening all over the South China Sea.


Coulter, Daniel Y. “South China Sea Fisheries: Countdown to Calamity.” Contemporary Southeast Asia 17.4 (1996): 371-88. JSTOR. Web. 4 Apr. 2016.

GIWA, comp. Challenges to International Waters: Regional Assessments in a Global Perspective. Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Programme, 2006. Global International Waters Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme, Feb. 2016. Web. 4 Apr. 2016.

Idris, Mohamed. “Fisherfolk Threatened by Shrimp Project.” Malaysiakini. Malaysiakini, 02 Mar. 2015. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.

“South China Sea: Fish Wars.”, 3 Apr. 2016. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.

Indigenous Land Entitlement as Sustainable Development

Colca Canyon agricultural terraces

While I lived on an organic farm in Peru, every day I saw contrasting images of sustainability and development at play. The farmers I worked for farmed in traditional Quechua fashion, which is similar to permaculture farming. They attempted to re-use everything; bamboo that was overtaking other plants was cut down and then used as poles to tie weaker plants to, stones were used to beautifully line pathways and any extra food was given to the chickens. However, an hour away from this fertile, sustainably focused valley lay such bad traffic that we never left the farm except for at five a.m. Cars spewing fumes furiously vied over limited space darting and swooping with little regard for the pollution caused. Tragically, I believe that the bustle of cities is seen as better developed than the quiet farm where we lived, practicing centuries old traditions of earth stewardship.

Now that I have provided some basic information on sustainable development, the Peruvian economy and an example of a current, successful grass-roots development project in my previous post, I would like to take this post to examine land rights for indigenous peoples in Peru and how this relates to sustainability and development.

In 2011 the Peruvian government approved a bill that gave indigenous people the “right to prior consultation on legislation or infrastructure projects that would affect them or their territories” as detailed in The Guardian. However, the government’s goals with this bill are questionable because their main aim was to increase foreign investment by decreasing the likelihood of social conflict over extractive practices. Furthermore, despite the increased protection, the Peruvian government still has the final say if conflicts arise. Despite these glaring setbacks, this was a landmark bill that “mark[ed] an important moment for Latin America,” according to Carla García Zendejas (as quoted in The Guardian).

A report later produced by Peru’s national indigenous group Aidesep berated Peru for “failing to protect the rights of indigenous people in its Amazon rainforest, [and] putting at risk the individuals and the carbon stored in their lands,” according to the Peruvian Times. Aidesep argues that the real cause of deforestation is “explicit colonization programs on the part of the government,” as quoted in the Peruvian Times. Community leaders have asked for land titling and protection but to no avail, which demonstrates how hollow the 2011 bill giving rights to prior consultation was. The report goes on the request legal and financial support from the government for indigenous groups to chart their own development trajectories and asks for structures to “ensure economic interests do not trump all other considerations” (as quoted in the Peruvian Times).

The Center of Development for the Amazon’s Indigenous People (CEDIA) is one example of land titling as sustainable development and has reportedly managed to protect extensive tracts of the Amazon rainforest due to their strong relationship with the Peruvian government according to the Blue Moon Fund Group which works to financially support mitigating climate change. One of CEDIA’s current projects listed on their website is Community Forest Management for Biodiversity Conservation through the Titling Territories and Institutional Strengthening Community in three watersheds of the Southern Peruvian Amazon. This project seeks to increase conservation areas and to build capacity for communal management of territories. As CEDIA explains in a report of this project, “many communities in the basin of the Apurimac, Urubamba and Alto Madre de Dios rivers still lack recognition of their ancestral territories and consequently were not entitled. In other cases their communal territories are not entitled to use their ancestral areas and require expansion. Many of these territories over which they have no title, have been invaded and are currently under coca cultivation and illegal logging.”

I believe that the movement to entitle native land could have a significant impact on sustainability efforts. As I explained in my last post, the Quechua culture is very much tied to the land. As I read in the article “Fragile Lands, Fragile Organizations: Indian Organizations and the Politics of Sustainable Development in Ecuador,” traditional practices are often sustainable “by virtue of their biological diversity and structural congruity with the natural environment.” Although this article is written about Ecuador, the countries border each other and both contain the fragile lands of lowland Amazonia and the Andes, and both are home to the Quechua people. The authors of this piece see traditional practice combined with modern technology as the most ecologically and economically viable strategy for environmental stewardship and note the importance of local organizations in mobilizing these strategies.

Because of the importance of traditional strategies for sustainable development, land entitlement and rights take on a new meaning in terms of development and sustainability. Land rights are of the utmost importance in restoration and in working to debunk the myth that development needs to come with bustling, polluted cities, mass consumption and distance from indigenous land stewardship practices. As we saw with the example of CEDIA’s work, community managed sustainability projects can reach a long way.



Works Cited:

Bebbington, Anthony J. et al.. “Fragile Lands, Fragile Organizations: Indian Organizations and the Politics of Sustainability in Ecuador”. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 18.2 (1993): 179–196. Web.

Cabitza, Mattia. “Peru Leads the Way for Latin America’s Indigenous Communities | Mattia Cabitza.” The Guardian. 12 Sept. 2011. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. <>.

“Community Land Management–Current.” Cedia: Centro Para El Desarollo Del Indígena Amazónico. 2013. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. <>.

“Peru Criticized for ‘Disregarding’ Rights of Indigenous in Amazon.” Andean Air Mail and Peruvian Times. 5 Dec. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. <>.

“Working with Peru to Support Long-term Conservation in the Amazon – Blue Moon Fund.” Blue Moon Fund Working with Peru to Support Longterm Conservation in the Amazon Comments. Web. 23 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.