Why ASEAN Economic Community Can't Ignore the Environment


It is with tentative optimism that European bystanders watch the birth of the Association of South East Asian Nation’s (ASEAN) newest endeavor: an EU-style common market, slated to begin operations by December 31, 2015. Like Europe’s own internal market, ASEAN’s will rely on the four fundamental ‘freedoms’: the free movement of goods, services, labor, and capital. If successful, the project will boost ASEAN’s already hefty global clout, thanks to its combined GDP of $2.4 trillion.

But when you get to the nitty-gritty details of the upcoming ASEAN common market, all comparisons to the EU stop. If the European Union was born out of the devastation of World War II and the trauma of the Holocaust, which acted as the collective glue to push forward supranational integration, ASEAN has no such drivers. Its members have trumpeted their opposition to following the EU’s institutional blueprint. Instead, the sovereignty of ASEAN’s member nations will remain a priority and their individuality paramount.

While the EU has relied on the unbridled supra-nationalism of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), that unsung hero responsible for ensuring the harmonization of standards for all member states, the ASEAN economic community shies away from such lofty institutions. And unlike the EU, ASEAN emerges in a completely different historical age, one where concern for the environment goes hand-in-hand with growth. Without the strong hand of the ECJ orchestrating the binding common standards that put the word ‘sustainable’ in ‘sustainable development,’ ASEAN risks sending its already embattled ecosystem off a cliff.

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The Southeast Asian region is home to some of the world’s most magnificent and biodiverse rainforests, but today these countries’ environments are being increasingly threatened with environmental disasters that have yet to be addressed seriously. The illegal bauxite industry in Malaysia, which has emerged in response to Indonesia’s ban of mineral exports in 2014, has been polluting the water supply and endangering both human life and Malaysia’s eco-system. The “red sludge” toxic waste, a byproduct of the mining, has been slowly polluting the water supply and harming the health of the population due to the lack of any waste management procedures of unlicensed miners. However, given that the industry reaps large profits both for miners and the Malaysian government, the authorities have been inefficient in putting a stop to illegal bauxite miners and have largely failed to establish enforceable health and safety guidelines to protect the environment and the country’s population from the disastrous effects of industrial activity.

Then there’s the region’s notorious haze problem, a direct result of the “slash and burn” method employed in Indonesia to make way for plantations. The resulting smoke has billowed so significantly that it has drifted over neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, shutting down air traffic. Last year, Indonesia overtook Brazil as the world’s deforestation champion, after cutting down roughly 60,000 square kilometers of virgin forest over 12 years. On September 14, Indonesia declared a state of emergency as the haze problem spiraled out of control, leading to school closures and a halt on outdoor activities. While the effect on the human population can be alleviated, the devastation caused to the wildlife of the region is irreversible: natural habitats are being systematically destroyed with seemingly no thought as to how the terrain can be restored, and with it the diverse pool of wildlife that has been evicted from its natural habitat.

Overfishing also remains a regional concern throughout Asia’s waters, particularly in Thailand where unregistered and unregulated trawler vessels are catching any and all fish, leaving the seas depleted. The international demand for cheap seafood will sustain the illegal industry past the point where the seas can.

These are all issues that ASEAN has a moral obligation to deal with as its members race to meet the December 31 deadline. With better communication, less regional backslapping, and a stronger ethic to work together, ASEAN would likely be able to form an inter-communal strategy to protect the environment and support its own interests. But whether ASEAN’s newly buddied-up economic community will have enough foresight to tackle these issues in a united manner, or whether the every-man-for-himself style of economic growth will take precedence over environmental protection, remains to be seen.

ASEAN is, it seems, at the mercy of the plague that befalls many international organizations. It means well; it has built an infrastructure to support its purpose; it has developed a number of institutions to break down and delegate the tasks of the organization. Yet for all this outlay and for all this effort, it is hard to see what has actually been done by the regional neighborhood. Friendly handshakes and self-congratulation for cooperation comes after … what, precisely? The unregulated bauxite mines are still causing pollution problems with the water supply. The haze is still drifting over Singapore and Malaysia. The seas are still being overfished.

The new common market brings with it the potential for the ASEAN to redeem itself. With proper inter-state regulation of industry, a tactical and coordinated push to protect the environment, and a generally more synchronized regional plan of action, ASEAN just might be able to transform itself into a serious international economic contender with a formidable and sustainable foundation.

Rob Edens is a London-based researcher.

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