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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #29 (July 19, 2005), page 15.

The Tigersí green stripes

A Land on Fire: The Environmental Consequences of the Southeast Asian Boom

By James David Fahn

Westview Press, 2004

Paperback, 365 pages, $18.95

By Andrew J. Weber

James Fahn knows what it means to live in the developing world. One night, without any kind of warning, bulldozers obliterated the pristine park below his Bangkok balcony, turning it into a laborersí slum and commercial driving range. With no one to blame, Fahn could only lament the newest acre of urban sprawl and start looking for a new apartment.

The loss of Fahnís favorite greenspace might have been nothing more than a single, unfortunate incident, if not for the fact that construction was running so rampant in the region at the time that some civil engineers estimated 20 percent of the worldís building cranes could be found in Thailand alone. How many other similar acres of parkland and wilderness were disappearing every day? Fahn was left to conclude that this was the heavy price of progress in a country obsessed with modernization, no matter what the cost.

A long-time environmental journalist for the Bangkok daily The Nation, Fahn has a gift for turning individual stories like his into meaningful allegories for the broad changes that swept across the Southeast Asian landscape in the early 1990s. Reading like an adventure story while blending politics, history, and science, A Land on Fire connects the dots of personal experience to create a compelling portrait of the huge environmental challenges faced by the Asian "Tigers" at the start of the 21st century. The book is also a clarion call to the West; the future of the Earth will undoubtedly be determined in Asia, home to 60 percent of the worldís population and most of its fastest-growing economies.

Fahnís wake-up call comes not a moment too soon. Southeast Asia still has vast tracts of untouched wilderness and other natural resources worth protecting ó astonishingly, the source of the Mekong River was not discovered until 1994 ó but it also has huge numbers of people hungering for admission to the elite club of industrialized nations, and often corrupt and tyrannical governments willing to stop at nothing to get there. How these powerful forces eventually reach equilibrium could prove to be either a model for the developing world or an unmitigated environmental disaster.

Since environmental issues are inevitably global, how (and if) the West chooses to address the problems will no doubt have a considerable effect on the outcome, and this is the impetus behind Fahnís bringing his work to an American audience. Unfortunately, large cultural, political, and ethnic issues divide Asia from the West, barriers that must be overcome in order for effective and lasting solutions to be found and implemented.

Encapsulating the deep divide was the uproar over the Hollywood film The Beach, shot on a restricted-access island along Thailandís fabled Andaman Coast in 1998. Local Thais were outraged that a protected national park would be thrown open to the filmmakers, who hoped to supplement the natural beauty of the limestone cliffs and turquoise seas by planting palm trees along the sand to better fit the stereotypical image of a tropical paradise.

The trees were planted, lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio was pilloried by protestors, and the setting appeared in the film in only one brief scene. Afterwards, an attempt to replant the native vegetation failed and a monsoon ended up washing a large portion of the newly exposed beach into the sea.

This regrettable series of events arose from the intersection of two fantasies, one held by the Thai government about tourist dollars and the other by the American film crew for whom Thailand was nothing more than a blank canvas. Itís a safe bet that almost no one who saw the movie in the West was aware of the outrage felt by the Thais. Imagine the American publicís reaction if a Thai film crew wanted to move some of the giant sequoias in Yosemite to make the setting "more photogenic."

The failure of the two sides in this dispute to come to any sort of a consensus over a relatively simple issue does not bode well for the future, where far more complicated problems with much higher stakes await. Itís enough to make any informed individual flee in fear, just as a University of Hawaii air-quality research team did from Bangkok in the 1990s, when they realized the health implications of their findings.

But like much of the best environmental reporting, A Land on Fire also presents many reasons for hope. Although The Beach proved too strong an adversary, Fahn nonetheless documents many other significant cases where local citizens were able effectively to make their voices heard. Particularly inspiring is the defeat of the Nam Choan Dam project, which Fahn credits for sparking the re-emergence of Thailandís larger democratic movement in 1988. One can only hope that this, rather than the overnight disappearance of the park below Fahnís balcony, proves the best example of future development throughout the region.

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