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While the reasons vary from country to country in Southeast Asia, there is no doubt that each country in the region today faces serious environmental problems. This is especially evident in relation to their natural resources such as forests, minerals, soils and waters. Moreover, in the face of continued economic growth throughout most of the region and increased population pressure, deteriorating environmental conditions risk becoming much worse within a very short period.
The urgency of the situation is widely recognized and there have been a variety of responses as efforts are made to find adequate ways to manage Southeast Asia's natural resources before even more damage is done and to ensure the sustainability of development efforts. Many of these initiatives are fairly new and untested, having been devised quickly to deal with public pressure and a sense of crisis, and they are often based upon highly debatable technical and social suppositions. Unfortunately, assessment of the various approaches to natural resources management has only barely evolved beyond the level of ideology or rhetoric. Given the pressing need for adequate management, this is a situation that ought to be rectified quickly.
The Question of Goals
Considerable differences of opinion exist in regard to the goals of natural resources management. To oversimplify somewhat, the goals of management can be placed on a continuum. At one extreme, and the least fashionable, is management aimed at promoting maximum yields. At the other extreme, is the pursuit of preservation and restoration of damaged environments as widely as possible.(1) In between are a variety of strategies for partial use and preservation and for allowing some form of sustainable exploitation. Opinions concerning such goals are closely associated with beliefs about the magnitude and immediacy of environmental problems. There are those who believe that humankind is facing the threat of extinction unless drastic steps on a massive scale are taken immediately. The goal of such individuals is creation of a new non-exploitative world order in which human activities are oriented away from increasing consumption. Others hold much less apocalyptic beliefs and favor a variety of reforms aimed at lessening pollution, waste, and achieving modest levels of resource preservation. Finally, and sometimes forgotten among those most involved in debating environmental issues, there are the large number of people who remain only marginally concerned with environmental issues and who perceive the situation as one perhaps of irritants but certainly not of cataclysmic proportions. For such individuals, goals relating to natural resources management tend to be poorly articulated and are not given very high priority.
The pursuit of maximum yields entails, in effect, finding the means to catch and market as many fish, cut and sell as much timber, extract as much mineral wealth, and build tourist resorts on as many beaches as is possible. While not popular with many development specialists, this remains the goal of many in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the world. For those who view the pursuit of such a goal as courting disaster and threatening to create a nightmarish environment within which to live, the small progress that has been made in curtailing the rush to extract the maximum short-term yield from natural resources remains far from adequate. The case of coastal tourist development in Thailand provides a good example of such limited progress in the face of a rapidly growing crisis facing Thailand's coastal environment. Despite pronouncements by hotel owners about plans to improve the environmental record of the industry and government initiatives to better safeguard coastal and marine environments, relatively little has actually been done to improve the existing situation, and tourist development in environmentally sensitive areas continues with only minimal regard to the environmental impact.(2)
Environmental preservation in Southeast Asia is generally associated with the protection of remaining rainforests and pristine aquatic habitats around coral reefs. Those seeking maximum preservation would either deny access to these environments to all or to only a select few, such as the indigenous inhabitants who are perceived to use the resources in a non-threatening manner. One of the better known examples of an activity in this regard is the international campaign to preserve the Sarawak rainforest and the habitat of the forest-dwelling Penan. This campaign is led by a handful of non-governmental organizations within Southeast Asia and international non-governmental organizations concerned with environmental and indigenous issues.(3) This campaign and similar efforts have been criticized by Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia and other Southeast Asian politicians and government officials particularly as an expression of a Eurocentric view promoted by those in the wealthier nations of the Noah who would deny the poorer nations of the South the right to improve the livelihoods of their citizens.(4)
The goal of preservation also has come up against important practical problems. One of these …