issue 263 - January 1995
Strip-mining the future
Walden Bello unearths the seeds of a fresh grassroots agenda
that is challenging East Asia’s growth mania.
‘Although the Newly Industrializing Countries may be regarded as tigers because they are strong, ferocious traders, the analogy has a darker side. Tigers live in the jungle and by the law of the jungle. They are a shrinking population.’
This ominous statement by a senior US Treasury official aptly captures the mood of the trade war between the United States and the fast-growing economies of the East Asia-Pacific region. Trade, however, is but one front of a larger war. The official view in the US is that their massive trade deficit with Japan and the Asian Newly Industrializing Countries (NICs) is not a result of fair market competition but of massive subsidies, industrial targeting and protectionism – all orchestrated by the state. There is a fundamental clash between two different strategies of development: free-market capitalism and state-assisted or NIC capitalism.
Political leaders, economists and technocrats in Latin America and other parts of the Third World are following this struggle with keen interest. Many an envious gaze is being cast at the Asian success story.
It is, however, ironic that free-market economics has achieved unparalleled hegemony in development discourse. For the most striking NIC achievements on the ground have consistently violated free-market principles. In the now-famous phrase of economist Alice Amsden, their high-speed growth has been achieved ‘not because they got the prices right but because they got them deliberately wrong’.
In the face of the US trade and doctrinal assault, Asian political and economic élites have remained steadfast. They have not merely refused to ‘roll back’ their interventionist policies but are seeking to legitimize a positive role for an activist and protectionist state. Japan’s formidable Ministry of Trade and Industry, for instance, criticized the doctrinal approach institutionalized in World Bank/IMF reforms as being responsible for the almost universal stagnation of Third World economies under structural adjustment.
Élites on both sides of the Pacific continue to battle over whether the direction of Asia-Pacific development should be along free-market or state-assisted capitalist lines. But over the last few years non-governmental organizations (NGOs), people’s movements and progressive academics across Asia have evolved a powerful critique of élite models – and the beginnings of an alternative.
Sustainable development is no simple-minded import from the North. It is the product of a myriad of grassroots confrontations with the alienating and repressive results of both kinds of development ‘from above’. While it is shaded with the red of independent Marxism and the green of Western environmentalism it is much more than that – primarily an indigenous effort to address the contradictions of four decades of Western-style development. As sustainable development steps into the vacuum created by the collapse of traditional socialism, it is becoming a vehicle for the aspirations of those who have been dealt out of Asia’s economic miracle.
The sustainable development critique sees clearly enough the differences between the free market and NIC approaches, but prefers to concentrate on their similarities. Both models:
- fetishize economic growth as the be-all and the end-all of development.
- generate and perpetuate social inequality even as rapid growth occurs. High growth allows absolute income to rise despite the worsening of income distribution, as in the Korean, Taiwanese, Singaporean and Thai economies over the last decade.
- are ecologically destructive to the point of unsustainability. They tend to run down ‘natural capital’ (clean air, soil fertility, usable water), as ecological costs are seldom included as real costs of production.
- uproot and destroy communities, particularly of indigenous peoples. The stories, particularly in south east Asia, are depressingly similar: big-dam schemes imposed from the center; displaced people; the silent erosion of community identity through resettlement.
- are agendas of the élite, though in the case of the NICs the state élite has managed to discipline the short-term profit seeking of the private sector and made it follow a strategic ‘national development’ path.
Alternatives: the theory
East Asian NGOs are often criticized for being long on critique but short on prescription. This is changing. Despite differences of national emphasis an alternative development strategy is emerging in Thailand, the Philippines, Korea and Taiwan with the same basic core of key ideas:
- The ‘invisible hand’ of the free market and the hierarchical, centralizing thrust of the NICs would be replaced by decision-making devolved to communities and regions.
- Sustainable development de-emphasizes growth in favor of equity, the quality of life and ecological harmony.
- Agriculture and the reinvigoration of rural society become the centrepiece of the development process.
- The dependence on capital-intensive high technology in industry and chemical-intensive agriculture would be reversed in favor of more appropriate labor-intensive techniques for industry (to take advantage of people, the Third World’s greatest resource) and organic, chemical-free agro-technology.
- The popular sector organized through the NGOs would become a third pillar of the political and economic system with the state and business.
- Sustainable development would expand the ‘commons’ – community or ancestral property that cannot be disposed of either by the market or by the state.
Emigration rates are one indication of the need for sustainable alternatives. They reveal deep-seated apprehensions. The numbers of people leaving Taiwan, Singapore and even Korea for the West have not declined with the spectacular growth rates.
Perhaps this reflects a sense that NIC development is really a strip-mine process that destroys the future for the sake of the present. Hsu Shen-Shu, founder of Taiwan’s eco-feminist New Housewives’ Association, points an accusing finger at her own country’s economic and political élites: ‘After benefiting from the exploitation of the island, they send their children to the US because it’s too polluted here in Taiwan.’
Alternatives: the practice
Sustainable development is not just some fancy new theory. Indigenous and peasant communities have long sustained a way of life in harmony with their natural surroundings. The Karen, who live in the mid-altitudes of Thailand’s northern highlands, have practiced a sustainable agriculture for generations. Karen agro-technology is based on rotational farming. Leaving some cultivated fields unplanted for a few years allows the soil to regain its nutrients; diversified multicrop planting also enhances soil fertility. There is no need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Such practices have, in many cases, been abandoned under the pressure of uncontrolled market forces and state-imposed development projects. Profit-driven technologies have impoverished peasant and indigenous communities. Displaced farmers are eventually pushed into the hoards of migrant workers that crowd into Bangkok every year.
Nonetheless, with the deepening crisis of orthodox development strategies, alternatives aimed at reviving traditional practices of sustainable development are now under way all over the Asia-Pacific. Two notable success stories are worthy of mention.
Mangrove forests are a vital component of complex coastal ecosystems in the tropics. Yet they have been ravaged with breathtaking speed by logging concessions, destructive fishing practices and especially by prawn or shrimp farming.
In Thailand between 1969 and 1989 the mangrove forest area declined by 50 per cent. But villagers in Si Kao and Kan Tang districts in the southern province of Trang have successfully created a 250-hectare community mangrove forest. Destructive fishing methods have been effectively banned. Since the fishing was stopped, marine life and other indicators of coastal ecology have improved dramatically.
The island of Cebu in the central Philippines exhibits many of the disheartening problems plaguing the Philippine agrarian economy as a whole: erosion due to massive deforestation, deteriorating living conditions of peasant smallholders and an almost total absence of government programs to support peasant productivity. Agricultural land is being converted into commercial real estate. The result: massive migration of the displaced peasants to the cities.
But, like the Thai villagers in Trang, some Filipino farmers in Cebu have put into motion strategies of community-based development to save their livelihoods and their surroundings. BAPAKA, an exciting 14-year-old experiment in farmer self-reliance, has enjoyed some success in countering displacement and dispossession on the island of Cebu. Now covering 27 villages in four districts and encompassing some 2,880 members, BAPAKA has evolved a multi-pronged assault on peasant poverty. This consists of a food-security program resting on small production teams that maximize yields from individual farms. A loan-and-savings fund is providing for members’ emergency and production needs. Local livestock and poultry processing has been set up. There is even a research-and-development program to propagate indigenous and organic farming methods.
So far this handful of fragile success stories is confined to the local-community level, an enclave under constant assault from both market and state. To make sustainable development an alternative at the national level an alliance of NGOs in the Philippines has successfully pressed the government of Fidel Ramos to create the Philippine Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD). While the thrust of the Government’s economic policy is to make the Philippines ‘a NIC by the year 2000’, the PCSD allows NGOs to question this vision and propose credible alternatives.
If sustainable development is to be credible in an increasingly integrated region it must address regional issues. The Americans have the Asia Pacific Economic Council (APEC) and Asian leaders are gravitating towards Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir’s idea of an ‘East Asia Economic Group’. This would leave state-assisted capitalist structures in place while excluding from membership the US, Australia and Canada.
But already NGOs are taking the first steps towards a viable regional model. Two Bangkok conferences, the People’s Forum (1991) and the People’s Plan 21 (1992), brought people’s organizations from all over Asia together to begin articulating a different vision of an Asia-Pacific future.
That vision is, more than ever, a necessity. For while the rampant consumerism that comes with high-speed growth continues to dazzle many, there is also a spreading feeling that super-industrial growth accompanied by the decline of agriculture, greater inequality and uncontrolled ecological degradation is a recipe for an unlivable future.
Walden Bello is co-author of Dragons in Distress: Asia’s Miracle Economies in Crisis (Penguin Books, London, 1991). He is presently engaged in setting up the Center for the South in Bangkok.