Opinion

Handbook of the Environment in Southeast Asia

Environment is embedded in the geographies, cultures, societies, politics, international relations and histories of the places where it becomes an issue. And in turn, the ways in which environmental issues are framed vary from one place to another.

We tend to think of the environment either in global terms, as an issue – or the issue – facing the future of the planet, or as a very local issue, one that governs our relationship with our intimate surroundings. Why produce a voluminous study of the environment at an intermediate scale, that of the region – in this case Southeast Asia?

The main premise for a regional approach to the environment is that context matters. Environment is embedded in the geographies, cultures, societies, politics, international relations and histories of the places where it becomes an issue. And in turn, the ways in which environmental issues are framed vary from one place to another.

A region such as Southeast Asia can be understood and described in positive environmental terms, as it is for example in tourist brochures that extoll the verdant forests, exotic riverscapes, pristine beaches or terraced hillsides that characterise the actual or imagined beauty of both natural and culturally created landscapes. The region can equally be understood through documentaries, news reports and direct experiences of the congestion, pollution, forest depletion and damming of rivers that come to define the environment as an “issue”.

Likewise, the environment can bring groups of different backgrounds and persuasions together in common cause in defense of forests (against loggers), rivers (against dam builders) or coastlines (against tourism developers or shrimp farmers). But by the same token, the pressures of development put environment at the centre of conflict, embedding it in the geopolitics of the region and structures of power within individual countries.

The Routledge Handbook of Environment in Southeast Asia was launched on 19 October at the Sydney Environment Institute and Sydney Southeast Asia Centre’s first co-hosted event, with a panel discussion hosted by SEI co-Director Professor David Schlosberg. The handbook brings together 38 environmental specialists working on Southeast Asia in a collection of 30 chapters that seek to understand the meaning of environment in a highly diverse region. The book starts with an overview of the ways in which Southeast Asia’s environmental past is imagined, documented and reconstructed, of how its environmental future is anticipated in relation to development choices, and of ways in which present-day environmental ideas and debates are embedded in culture, politics and economy.

The second section of the book takes theoretical and conceptual approaches as lenses through which to understand the environment as a subject that connects people with their surroundings and with one another. These include environmental history, political ecology, environmentalism, neoliberalism, decentralisation and environmental law, as well as longstanding questions about the relationship between population growth and the environment.

The third section of the book is more applied, looking at the situation of forests, water and rivers, fisheries and other resource sectors. It also considers ways in which the region’s rapid urbanisation produces particular urban and peri-urban environmental challenges, as well as addressing issues of climate change, migration and debates over shifting cultivation.

The fourth and final section considers the environment in Southeast Asia on a country-by-country basis, with ten country specialists drawing out salient ways in which the environment is understood and achieves meaning in each case. Additionally, the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) provides the basis for a chapter in its own right, as does the case of the transboundary Mekong River.

We were fortunate at the launch not only to have four of the five authors based at the University of Sydney on the panel, but also to have invited speakers Senator Lee Rhiannon of the Australian Greens and Michael Simon of International Rivers (and until recently with Oxfam Australia). Lee and Michael each drew on their longstanding engagement with Australia’s role in areas of environmental concern in Southeast Asia. They reflected on the need for a much more nuanced way in which we use our own experience of environmental and natural resource management, advising caution over the export of “models” to very different socio-environmental contexts.

 

Image ‘paddy fields’ by Chiara Abbate