Thursday, May 11, 2017

Biodiversity, politics and corruption in South East Asia: the invisible cage

In early 2016 I gave the keynote talk on human health and biodiversity at an ASEAN (Association of South East Asian States) conference on biodiversity, held in in Bangkok, Thailand. (My slides are here.) My strongest impression was of political oppression, lack of freedom, as obvious as smog which often permeates parts of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, due to the clearing and burning of forests, largely for palm oil. 

In my talk (shortened at the last minute to 20 minutes, even though I had been told for weeks I'd have 35 minutes or so) I raised several sensitive issues: corruption and palm oil plantations, useless, cruel and biodiversity-harming medicines, especially of body parts, and population pressure, development and biodiversity. (Human population pressure in Africa has recently been recognised as an important contributor to the survival of elephants, by Erik Solheim, director of the United Nations Environment Programme). 

A significant loss of species, not just charismatic megafauna such as rhinoceroses and bears "milked" for their bile, but lesser known creatures such as pangolins (scaly ant-eater) occurs because of unproven and implausible beliefs in the medicinal powers of their body parts (pangolin scales, rhino horns). Raising that issue may offend the Chinese (especially) .. but surely we should try.

A baby Sunda Pangolin
I suggested, as politely as I possibly could, that something like an anti-fur campaign could be tried to change the minds, to embarrass, the consumers of endangered species such as powdered rhinoceros horns. What is better for impotence? Chewing your nails (keratin) or swallowing rhinoceros horn powder (keratin)?

(Actually I lacked the courage to be quite so blunt).


These points were as successful as a lead balloon, and I only heard one other mention of corruption in the whole 3 day conference (also by a farang, i.e. not a local). My conclusion was that the hundreds of ASEAN attendees in a luxurious hotel owe their precarious and highly unusual (i.e. in the context of their ASEAN countries) middle-class status to conforming with spoken and unspoken rules, which form a highly effective speech-limiting device (and probably thought-limiting too). An invisible cage.

This feeling was heightened by my experience at a lavish dinner, where I sat with VIPs who seemed to have as much passion for biodiversity as Donald Trump. We were entertained by acrobatic representatives from different ASEAN nations, a colourful display completely dissociated from biodiversity.

Clearly, however, anyone with similar views to me, involved at that conference, but working in an ASEAN country (highlights: Thailand: military dictatorship, increasingly authoritarian; Burma: beset with civil war and government-endorsed ethnic cleansing; Cambodia: the most corrupt ASEAN nation; Indonesia: converting the native people and natural resources of West Papua to money and palm oil, not to mention Kalimantan, palm oil and the haze; Malaysia: a notoriously corrupt prime minister, also palm oil corruption, including allegations of quasi-slavery and human trafficking; Philippines: a president who openly supports killing without trial; Singapore: a well organised prosperous city state with little freedom and no wilderness); could not risk endorsing me, nor even speaking to me; and the ASEAN-born critics of these practices (who do exist, albeit in tiny numbers) probably couldn’t attend, due to its cost, perhaps blocked visas (I’m not sure of the visa rules within ASEAN), or perhaps as they are imprisoned, have been killed, or live in genuine and legitimate fear.

Given the invisible cage that operates even in supposed democracies the future does look bleak. Solutions do exist, but there is a very long way to go.


I think few people think politically in the way I do; the people in their "invisible cages" do not hate biodiversity, but are not fully conscious of what is going on. If the people at the top of these human pyramids genuinely wanted to protect biodiversity then the rank and file would probably, in general, act in ways that genuinely have that effect. But I think most people at the top see biodiversity as an abstract property which they can continue to degrade. They undoubtedly have access to their own green space.As a long as a few orangutan survive in zoos (or maybe Brunei) palmoil etc should be maximised. Maybe the officially sanctioned biodiversity movements have a tiny protective effect; I don't like to be so cynical .. but, then, think of West Papua; it is being continually transformed in the name of material consumption and political power for a few. The biodiversity of West Papua must be declining every day.

See also Romanelli et al. 2015. Climate change, biodiversity and human health. In: World Health Organization Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (eds.) Connecting Global Priorities: Biodiversity and Human Health. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity,: 222-237 (to which I also contributed).

See also Tibet, China, protest immolation and social medicine; and Tibetan protest self-immolation: ecology, health and politics