Executive report of panel discussion by Panupong Boontongchuay (James), Program Officer SEA Junction
On 16th August 2019, 40 people concerned about the future of our world gathered at SEA Junction to attend the Panel Discussion “A Green Future for Southeast Asia?”, a collaboration between SEA Junction and the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature Thailand. Rosalia Sciortino, Associate Professor at the Institute for Population and Social Research (IPSR) at Mahidol University & Executive Director of SEA Junction introduced the event by quoting Kraisak Choonhavan,, a prominent Thai artist, politician & environmentalist, highlighting the urgency of mitigating environmental problems in Southeast Asia:
“Environmental problems are the people’s most urgent problems, connected as it is with all our survival. But in politics, not a single political party, no matter how new or progressive, is promoting environmental policies. That’s why the people have to agitate and build up pressure from below.”
The first panel speaker, Albert Salamanca, discussed “Emerging regional environmental issues in Southeast Asia”. As a Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Asia Center, Albert leads the Climate Change, Disasters and Development Cluster as well as other global projects on similar issues. His interest on environment stemmed from his background in marine biology as well as the fact that his country, the Philippines, is one of the most disasters-prone countries.
The Fifth ASEAN’s State of the Environment Report (2017) shows an increasingly deteriorating environmental situation, including 61% increase in air pollution level in 10 years, harsh deforestation for rubber and palm oil plantation in the last three decades, one-third increase in water demand and worsening waste management. Furthermore, Albert presented the data from the World Risk Index showing that Southeast Asian countries are at risks to environmental hazards, vulnerability, susceptibility and lack of coping and adaptation capacities. He pointed out that it is compulsory for countries not only to eliminate the impact of climate change, but also to elevate their adaptive capacity fostering quick and effective rehabilitation processes upon facing disasters.
In addition, Albert explained in details on how a rise of temperature of 1.5-, 2-, 3- and 4-degree Celsius poses significant threat to our environment. For example, at 1.5-degree temperature raise will cause inadequate water supply and food shortages in many countries as well as putting coral reefs at risks. In particular, in the Philippines and Indonesia more disasters are expected to happen and thus compromising the process of poverty alleviation.
The next presenter, Rizal Malik, focused on emerging environment and conservation issues in Indonesia”. Rizal is currently the CEO of WWF-Indonesia with more than 30 years’ professional experience in sustainable development, including serving as the Senior Technical Advisor at the UNDP office in Indonesia. His contribution in the field of environmental protection began when the Indonesian environment ministry under the Suharto’s presidency allowed civil society to engage closely with the government for the first time. Prior to this, the channel to voice public opinions for civil society had not been publicly available.
Rizal stated that in the next decade, one million species are threatened to be extinct and that in the last 40 years, the numbers of vertebrates have been declining by 60%. These shocking figures are based on research documented by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the WWF-the Living Planet reports, which debunked the notion of this phenomenon as a natural selection process; the problem is clearly due to the rapid and unrelenting rate of human destruction of the natural environment, which is dramatically impacting water and forests.
In the context of Southeast Asian countries, an increase in the number of middle-income people is another key factor contributing to the depletion of natural resources due to high demand for food, energy, and luxury goods. For example, in Indonesia, the destruction of land habitat, marine plastic, and food waste are the result of population growth and the expansion of consumerism.
There is still hope for long-term solutions; however, Rizal stress the importance of social pressure by civil society and citizens on government and companies/industries to change their policies in production and waste management. As an example, he cited Bali, which has banned single-use plastic bags. In addition, it is crucial to rehabilitate degraded environmental areas and be wise in selecting the infrastructure suited to specific geographical contexts.
Our the third and our last speaker was Natalie Phaholyothin, discussing the environmental situation in Thailand. Nathalie is the CEO of WWF-Thailand. Prior to joining WWF, she managed the Transforming Health System Initiative in Asia at the Rockefeller Foundation. She also emphasized that working on environmental issues is important to her personally to contribute to meaningful change.
“Globally, nature provides services worth around US $125 trillion a year and nearly 200 million people depend on coral reefs for protection against storm surges and waves.” Nathalie quoted these interesting facts from the 2018 WWF Living Planet Report. Unfortunately, Southeast Asia is reportedly one of the regions most affected regions by loss of agricultural land, logging, and hunting.
Thailand, specifically, provides a case study of how land and sea use are inter-connected leading to environmental destruction. For example, the construction of Dawei deep sea port near the Thailand-Myanmar border is adversely impacting tiger habitat in western Thailand where, just over the last ten years, 42% of the tiger population has been continuously declining due to prey depletion and loss of biodiversity. However, Nathalie also highlighted an example of co-existence of infrastructure development and wildlife via the building of animal crossings. The crossings will provide the natural settings for animals to live and prevent them from being killed by cars, motorbikes and other vehicles.
These presentations were followed by a Q&A session with the audience. Few of the key takeaways from this session include:
- It is hardly possible for civil society to act alone in promoting environmental awareness. Finding strategic partners among private companies is vital and we need to ask hard question about the economic model.
- The relationship between developed and developing countries’ consumption patterns is no longer a necessary point of discussion. We, lower income countries, are at this point due to past consumption patterns in higher income countries, so we now have two options: either to blame them, or to change our ways now.
- Finally, governments should incentivize corporate responsible behaviors and punish the polluters. For example, Thai fishing companies were compelled to improve both their human rights and sustainable fishing practices as a result from pressure from other countries buying their products.
Panupong Boontongchuay (James)
SEA Junction Program Officer
Panupong Boontongchuay has a bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences with a concentration on Southeast Asia Studies from Mahidol University International College. James is from Nakhon Si Thammarat Province, South Thailand and speaks Thai, English, Chinese and Indonesian. His passion of Southeast Asia was inspired by ex-Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, who strived to achieve ASEAN-for-all vision. In 2018, he represented Thai youth ambassador of goodwill for the forty-fourth Ship for Southeast Asia and Japanese Youth Program (SSEAYP). He is specially interested in issues on politics and cultures of ASEAN countries and enjoy learning languages and music to better understand the region. (I thanked you very much Fabio Saini, Catharina Maria, Rosalia Sciortino for assisting in editing and reviewing this writing 😊)