The human-nature game

Environmental Movements in Asia
February 26, 1999

Environmental Movements in Asia is the outcome of an international workshop organised jointly by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at Copenhagen (Denmark) and the International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden (Netherlands). The book consists of a series of edited papers in which the authors aim to underline the nature of environmental campaigns in Asia - namely, the focus on local issues directly affecting the livelihoods of people.

They illustrate this excellently in the introductory first chapter through a comparison with large, global NGOs such as Greenpeace International and World Wide Fund for Nature, whose main interests are the protection of particular animals, plants or ecosystems. These traditional nature conservation organisations selectively advocate "green" issues based, among other things, on the interest of the supporters, the popularity of the issue and the anticipated result in an acceptable time span. This fact is explained by the example of Siberut, West Sumatra, Indonesia, which, since the late 1970s, has been elected for "saving" by various Indonesian and international organisations. Unfortunately, and somewhat predictably, many of the programmes initiated to protect the islands' forest reserves and traditional culture did not succeed, mainly due to weak local participation.

On the other hand, locally based NGOs, originating with forest dwellers, farmers or tribal people, are basically protecting their means of survival, and as such are usually engaged in a cause for practical rather than idealistic reasons. Additionally, the book aims to show that environmentalism in Asia is also used by local people as an acceptable instrument to raising objections, resistance and, in general, a cultural critique, in situations where open political action is hazardous. Although this may not be difficult to understand in countries with oppressive regimes, the authors show that it is also evident in developed democracies, taking the example of the anti-whaling campaign against Japan.

The organisation of local groups in response to local problems, and the intimate relationship between environmental and development issues, variously analysed throughout the book, using several case studies. These describe campaigns against logging and plantations in Japan and Thailand, tourist facilities in Indonesia, and waste collectors and nature reserves in India.

The book is intended for anthropologists, geographers, historians, political scientists and sociologists, as well as policy-makers and those with a general interest in environmental and development issues in Asia. In this respect, the book fulfils its aims.

However, the book's two principal themes - the dominance in Asia of local NGOs tackling local issues, and the connections of these environmental organisations to wider social and political problems - are not clearly related to in the subsequent chapters. The themes are touched upon, but not evident. Nevertheless, for the diligent reader, the book is a useful source of reference, and an interesting insight into the human-nature relationship in Asia.

Jayalaxshmi Mistry is lecturer in geography, Royal Holloway College, University of London.

Environmental Movements in Asia

Editor - Arne Kalland and Gerard Persoon
ISBN - 0 7007 0616 X
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £40.00
Pages - 296

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