issue 263 - January 1995
Chasing the little white ball
Golf courses are sprouting like mushrooms after spring rain across East and South-East Asia.
Malee Traisawasdichai finds that fairways make good business but bad neighbours.
‘My wife was a caddie. She is dead.’ So spoke 27-year-old Pong Kheungkham, father of a little boy and a poor farmer from Baan Thung Yang – a small village in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. Janpeng, his wife, was two months pregnant when she miscarried on the 17th hole at the Santiburi Private Community. A month later she was dead.
Her caddie friends witnessed the incident. ‘She might have thought she could manage to complete the 18-hole course distance,’ said one. ‘We caddies know how difficult it is to get our wage. Sometimes we have to wait for a week or two to get a round of work. So she might have tried to finish.’
Perhaps it was because she had carried the heavy bag over such a long course, or because of daily exposure to the chemical pesticides used to keep the greens – but the cause of Janpeng’s death was never clearly established. Her story shows how rich golfers’ élitist passion is satisfied at the expense of the poor. Golf constitutes an arrogant ‘power sport’ for the privileged few.
Around Asia the advent of the golf course means disruption of ecology and the human community. Japan, Asia’s most golf-crazy country, has at least 2,016 golf courses covering 2,227.7 square kilometres of land. The area exceeds that of Tokyo.1
In Thailand – the centre of ‘golf mania’ in South-East Asia – 200 golf courses have depleted the country’s limited water supply that is vital for rice farmers. In Malaysia over 160 golf courses have swallowed up tracts of rainforest. In Indonesia 91 golf courses have bitten a big chunk out of traditional farming wetlands and nature reserves, in one case expelling nearly 1,000 families.
China, Burma and Indochina are the new frontier of the corporate golf industry. A ‘golf-resort-plus-casino’ package is being introduced to Burma, Laos and Cambodia. In Laos, Thai developer Sompot Piyaoui’s plans for the Kon Phapheng Resort Development include two casinos and two courses, a 1,200-room hotel, an international airport and a power station. The complex will be built in the middle of the Khon Phapheng Fall, an area known as ‘the Niagara of Asia’. Thai journalist Ing K warns: ‘Setting up a resort complex in the middle of the Khon Phapheng Fall, which is ecologically sensitive and the habitat of unique fauna like the Irrawaddy dolphins, is in itself unacceptable. It is a black and white issue. It’s like you were going to poison the Mekong River right into Cambodia and Vietnam.’
Cheap land, weak regulations and feeble local opposition in South-East Asia – particularly Indochina – are a strong draw for Japanese developers. Back home in Japan strong local opposition has managed to halt the construction of 720 golf courses since 1988. For Asia’s poorest countries golf resorts provide a lure to draw easy money from wealthy tourists, expatriates and the local nouveaux riches.
But golf is an expensive game for poor countries. Gen Morita of the Global Anti-Golf Movement (GAG’M) notes: ‘Golf means using very large amounts of land. The average golf course uses about 100 hectares, whereas a football pitch is only one hectare. So for just one 18-hole golf course you could have 100 football pitches.’
How many ‘golf dollars’ stay in the host country is also a matter of debate. ‘When a tourist starts his journey he buys a Nikon camera and then flies with Japan Airlines,’ says Thai anti-golf activist Chyant Pholpoke. ‘Arriving in, say, the Philippines for golfing, he takes a Toyota limousine and checks in at a Japanese-owned hotel. He goes up to his room in a Hitachi lift where he takes a drink from a Toshiba fridge, turns on a Sharp air conditioner and a National TV.’
The golfing craze and its jetset lifestyle raise crucial questions: how are limited natural resources to be used and for whom? One Vietnamese entrepreneur has his doubts about whether exclusive new clubs can attract enough members to be viable. ‘Golf is a completely new thing in Vietnam,’ he says. ‘There’s still no middle class... We won’t see big numbers of expatriates living here in the next five years.’ The Japanese-owned Song Be Golf Resort in Ho Chi Minh City is expected to charge a fee of $30,000 for corporate memberships. The average Vietnamese would have to work 100 years to join.2
Golf is the sport of the powerful and influential. In Indonesia half the existing golf courses are owned by President Suharto and his family3. Bruce Bennett exposed this closely-knit world in his award-winning documentary The Green Menace: The Untold Story of Golf. The film notes that golf is the preferred sport of the Thai officer corps. ‘The Thai military takes after the American model. The US armed forces have 300 golf courses, maintained at a cost of $60 million a year to the American taxpayers.’ According to Thai Lieutenant General Sanan Kajornglam: ‘Most generals have to play golf because it’s a high-society game. Golf is expensive. If you are known to be good at golf and you play with the right clans, then let your superiors win, you can curry favour and get promoted.’
A few years ago the Bangkok Nation published a photo showing golf superstar Jack Nicklaus hitching a ride on a Thai Air Force helicopter to survey the site of the Nicklaus-designed Golden Valley project. This misuse of public funds started a scandal which escalated when course-construction crews blew up a state-owned mountain and encroached upon the KhaoYai National Park.
The Green Menace film caught Jack Nicklaus in a particularly expansive mood in Thailand: ‘You’ve got great land. You’ve got plenty of water, with the amount of rain that you have. Certainly, you don’t have problems from our standpoint.’
Thai farmers are not so sure. In 1994 Thailand experienced its worst-ever drought year. The Royal Irrigation Department (RID) discovered 13 golf courses illegally diverting water from irrigation canals. The Government, however, prohibited farmers from growing a second rice crop while golf courses went on pumping water from the reservoirs.
It’s a delicious irony that Army Chief General Wimol Wongwanich held the ‘Thai Golf Day’ in April to raise funds for drought-ridden farmers. An independent survey conducted by Bangkok’s Mahidol University confirmed that an average course consumes 6,500 cubic metres of water per day – enough to satisfy the domestic needs of 60,000 rural villagers.
Suradej Vongsinlang – a water-resource engineer who quit his golf-course job – is candid about water-theft tactics: ‘Some golf courses near rivers dump rocks and sand into the river to make the water level rise, so it will flow into their golf course.’
Caddies and course workers also fall victim to pesticide poisoning. Caddies interviewed at Santiburi golf course in Chiang Rai said they all suffered skin disease, dizziness and kidney problems after just a year’s work. Dead birds are found almost every morning after greenkeepers have sprayed pesticide at night. In the US a Golf Course Superintendent Association’s study confirmed that: ‘Among golf-course superintendents there is more lung cancer, more brain cancer, more cancers of the large intestine and prostate. Especially lung cancer.’
The image of Thai women is often used to sell the country to tourists – golf tourism is no different. One promotion leaflet entitled ‘Thailand Paradise Golf Plus’ pulls few punches: ‘The splendour of the courses and club houses is unrivalled in Europe. And the service offered by the caddies, who are young, friendly, knowledgeable – and usually female – is unparalleled in the world.’ A receptionist at the Santiburi golf course revealed: ‘I have been approached by golfers many times to go out. Once a Malaysian pro told me if I went with him he would give me all the money he won from the game. But I managed to refuse his offer gently.’
Amid uncontrolled proliferation of golf courses worldwide, GAG’M has been formed by networks from 16 countries to deflate the pro-golf rhetoric. They declared 1994 ‘No Golf Year’, calling for a world-wide moratorium on golf-course construction, a ban on introducing golf as an Olympic sport and a halt to the heavy promotion of golf-related tourism. GAG’M’s spokesperson Gen Morita draws lessons from his native Japan: ‘Our job is to let people – particularly those in the Third World – know about the destruction golf courses cause… In Japan we have experienced all these mistakes… and suffered and lost so much; the river, the wetlands, the forest and the whole social atmosphere.’
It remains to be seen whether the ‘nature-loving’ golfer can be convinced.
Malee Traisawasdichai is a journalist with the Nation in Bangkok.
1 GAG’M Newsletter, May 1994.
2 Far Eastern Economic Review, 14 October 1993.
3 Far Eastern Economic Review, 5 May 1994.
Special thanks to Anita Pleumarom, who provided useful information for this story.