A community needing green regulations

[Sidebar to main article titled: China’s Mega Power Play]

THERE ARE supposed to be three ‘pillars’ that will support the upcoming ASEAN Community, but a long-time conservationist says it is in dire need of one more.

Aside from the pillars of politics and security, economy and trade, and social and cultural affairs, the ASEAN Community would need to have ‘environment’ as its fourth support requiring collective regional rules, says Pianporn Deetes of the non-profit International Rivers.

The 10-member ASEAN or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations comprises Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Of the three pillars for its envisioned Community, it is the integration into an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) that is proceeding steadily and is expected to be in force by the end of December 2015. But this is worrying groups like International Rivers, which is already noting an unregulated exploitation of natural resources – among them waterways – in countries in the region by parties within and outside Southeast Asia.

Once the regional economic integration takes place, the groups fear that such exploitation would only become more rampant if there are no safeguards in place.

“AEC is meant to facilitate greater flows of trade, goods, and people,” says Pianporn. “Yet there is no framework to take care of the environmental impact of liberalisation. This is why we have been advocating all along for the Environment to form the fourth pillar of the ASEAN community.”

International Rivers, for instance, has been monitoring mega-investment projects in the region that are touted to be necessary for development, but may end up disastrous for the environment. Pianporn says that the planned integration may unleash even more of these projects that will only leave those in the grassroots high and dry.

“Who will be held accountable for damages caused by big projects?” she asks. “Without any protection mechanism, villagers are the most vulnerable group.”

As things stand, China looms large as the force that would change the way of life of ASEAN completely – and perhaps even more so once the AEC is in place — particularly with its plan for hydropower dams in the region.

In ASEAN, and especially in Laos and Burma, China has consistently been among the top three foreign investors in recent years, reflecting the Asian giant’s aggressive hunt for the natural resources and manufacturing bases it needs to propel its own economic growth. But its presence in Southeast Asia has not always been welcome, and some of its major ventures in the region have become the subject of incessant criticism from both environment and human-rights groups.

Such Chinese projects include massive hydropower ones that have come under fire for being environmentally destructive, as well as for being without public imprimatur. In mainland Southeast Asia, this has taken place despite the existence of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which is supposed to promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources to benefit its members.  Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam make up the MRC, which was established in 1995.

The thinking among green advocates is that with a mandate over the environment, ASEAN will be better equipped in ensuring that investment activities in ASEAN will conform to regional environmental standards.

“This would make it possible to apply Environmental Impact Assessment and Health Impact Assessment processes to foreign investment projects, as mechanisms to screen clean investments and study cross-boundaries impacts,” argues Pianporn. “This is the approach that the civil society- organisations network has been calling for all along.” – Prakaidao Baengsuntia