Warwick ASEAN Conference

Addressing the Elephant in the Room: (Un)sustainable Development Practices

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.


Following the footsteps of the 4 Asian Tigers, Southeast Asia is now seen as a booming region with remarkable growth potential, nurturing more ‘tiger cubs’ within the region. However, the current development model, or development in is largely based on exploitative practices – not only on human labour conditions, but also on natural resources. While the former issue is being avidly discussed and highlighted, the natural resources across SEA seem to be left out of the picture. I therefore intend to take an ‘environmental turn’ in this article; by highlighting the unnoticed natural resources of the region, I call for an approach which facilitates a more mindful development model which can hypothetically and hopefully transform into a distinctive achievement of the region in the future.

With exponential growth and regional cooperation, the region has certainly received increasing attention in the international political arena regarding its approach to development. This is evident in the debates around the future of ASEAN states, its values and its cooperation model. It appears that whenever Southeast Asia is mentioned, its natural amenities are unlikely to be the first element that comes into mind. They receive far less attention in comparison to the Amazonia in South America. When in fact, Southeast Asian rainforests are of the oldest, most consistent rainforests on Earth. It also has one of the highest levels of biodiversity which is unparalleled in comparison to other rainforests, with at least six listed in the world’s 25 ‘diversity hotspots’. [1]

In the name of development, environmental degradation has been permitted in numerous aspects. Take the case of Thailand as an example. At the beginning of the 20th century, over 100,000 elephants graced the Siamese (Thai) countryside; now there are fewer than 30,000 left on the entire planet. [2] Shrimp farming has also destroyed 50-60% of the mangroves that used to protect the coast. Deforestation and other human activities such as mining have degraded this rich and biologically diverse jungle. From 1990 to 2010, the region lost a forest area that is larger than Vietnam in terms of size within 2 decades. [3]  Not only this, but air pollution also has direct impacts on mortality rate across the region, causing long-term illness such as cardiovascular disease and lung cancers. [4] The continual destruction of environment affects all of us.

Why is it important to contemplate this tension between environment and development? I believe that Southeast Asia currently stands at a crossroad – while acknowledging the inevitable impacts of climate change as a consequence of a long history of environment exploitation, there is also an urgent need  to improve living conditions across the region. Southeast Asia, being close to the equator, means that climate change will hit harder than most other regions, creating impacts that are impossible to ignore – rise in temperature and sea level, more extreme weather conditions, and so on. [5] The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) predicted that climate change could have the largest impact on South and Southeast Asia, potentially resulting in GDP contractions in 2060. [6] Hence, there is an urgent decision to be made – whether to pursue the same economic growth model back in the 20th century, boosting growth and cleaning up later, or to adopt a green growth strategy that takes future generations into account.

The contemporary exploitative approach undermines the interrelation between human well-being, economic growth, and the environment. Rather than seeing them as separate spheres to be managed and dealt with, it is more effective to adopt an approach that considers the big picture instead. Natural resources are the natural wealth of the region, but they are finite materials, unless they are  managed sustainably. They not only provide the raw materials crucial to key economic activities, including agriculture and forestry. Substances such as water and air are also vital to our basic survival and health. These already give us some basic and fundamental, yet good reasons to care about the development approach.

One may think that these issues are too ‘vast’ for us to tackle on an individual level, but these issues are more personal than we assume. When travelling to the region, consider supporting ethical tourism and taking baby steps towards sustainable development. With affordable accommodation, remarkable sceneries and distinctive cultures, ASEAN states are undoubtedly increasingly popular destinations for vacations. Tourism is great for facilitating the economic growth, but that typically happens at the expense of the environment. Earlier this year, the animal rights NGO, World Animal Protection, revealed that the majority of elephants used for elephant rides are taken as captives. [7] While we may enjoy interacting with them, it is fundamentally a commercialised practice embedded with cruelty behind the scenes. Unethical and inhumane practices such as forcefully removing animals away from their natural habitat, and treating them as commodities, continue to put the biodiversity of the region – the greatest natural wealth under great strain.  

Ironically, elephants have a history of serving as a key symbol in Southeast Asian myths, histories and cultures. [8] Elephants can be found in multiple representations of political parties across SEA because they symbolise wisdom and royal power. In popular beliefs and practices, elephants also appear in shrines and temples, not only as sculptures or paintings, but also part of the architecture, as they also represent the ideas of wealth and fertility. It means that apart from the practical reasons for pursuing a green growth, there is a sense of interdependence between humans and nature embedded in the culture. Following the historical philosophies, ASEAN states may take the initiative to be the pioneer of alternative development through implementing a green growth model, with an admiration and connection to the nature reflected by history.

While we may have efficient transportation, high-speed internet connection, shops that are open 24/7 everywhere, gained by disregarding our nature. The Prime Minister of Malaysia was right in recognising that ‘economic development and climate action are not competing goals, but common ambitions.’ Such ambitions certainly require collective efforts. Individually, more mindful choices can be made. A shift in policy orientation should be simultaneously implemented at higher levels, including but not limited to careful land-use planning, regulation of infrastructure standards, and restriction on emissions. In an era of competing to become the next ‘tiger’, I believe it is of vital importance for us to nurture a consciousness of our relations to the surroundings and fellow living beings, so that we may truly preserve diversity beyond the anthropocentric worldview.

Works Cited

1. https://www.nature.com/articles/35002501
2. http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/about/facts-about-elephants/
3. https://www.biogeosciences.net/11/247/2014/bg-11-247-2014.pdf
4. http://www.searo.who.int/mediacentre/releases/2016/1640/en/
5. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/538586/climate-change-why-the-tropical-poor-will-suffer-most/
6. http://www.globalchange.umd.edu/iamc_data/iamc2014/IAMC_Chateau.pdf
7. http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2101518/big-problem-thailand-leads-pack-asia-abuse-tourist
8. https://seap.einaudi.cornell.edu/elephant-key-symbol-thailand

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