A Long-term Perspective on Environment and Development in the Asia-Pacific Region
I. Current Situation and Future Perspective
1.1 Characteristics of the Asia-Pacific region
In addition to its immense physical expanse, the region also presents a great historical, cultural, and ethnic diversity as well as a variety of stages of political evolution and economic development. The characteristics of the region are described here in terms of natural and environmental, economic, and cultural aspects. On the other hand, the social situation is described in terms of the roles of central and local governments, as well as the private sector and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which are increasingly playing and are expected to play in the future.
1.1.1 Natural and ecological characteristics
Ecologically, the Asia-Pacific region represents a unique and diversified natural environment. It spreads out from the Pacific Basin, to the South China Sea, Indian Ocean down to the Antarctic in the south. The climatic patterns, therefore range from the tropical to temperate climate zones. Topographically, the Asia- Pacific region is characteristically represented by the highest mountain peaks of the Himalayas ("the roof of the world") and the deepest ocean floor in the Sulu Sea.
The region can be subdivided biogeographically into the continental, archipelagic and small island ecosystems. In totality, related to the biogeographic characteristics, the region has a dominant marine environment. Here, the threat of impacts from land-based activities in the terrestrial ecosystem to the marine ecosystem must be anticipated in the long-term. This trend is common to countries with coasts; interrelatedness and interdependencies can be foreseen where water bodies are shared among countries.
Due to the great diversity of Asia-Pacific terrestrial and marine ecosystems, the whole area contains the greatest biological diversity on earth. This implies that a partnership among the Asia-Pacific countries can be a great prospective asset for the region in the future. At the same time, however, a great responsibility lies on us to utilize resources in a sustainable manner.
1.1.2 Economic characteristics
Over the last 20 years, the Asia-Pacific region has continued to keep high economic growth rates exceeding those in other regions, and has consequently come to be known as the "growth center" of the global economy. Over the coming years, it is expected to continue to enjoy the highest growth rates in the world and to serve as the engine of world economy.
The region is characterized by a larger population and stronger economic growth than any other, a rich diversity of both socio-economic and natural environment, and an abundance of natural resources including tropical rain forests and marine products. In recent years, these have been joined as salient features by a new wave of economic growth centered around the Huanan (South China) economic sphere, a quickening of intraregional trade, and rise in intraregional interdependence.
The countries (and territories) of the region are at various levels of economic growth. While Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and Singapore are categorized as highly industrialized countries, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam are regarded as low-income countries. Indonesia and Philippine could be categorized as middle income countries, and Thailand and Malaysia be as high income countries.
In the East Asian growth economies, outward-looking policies of trade liberalization and relaxation of restrictions on foreign capital are stimulating trade and investment activities and powering export-oriented growth. In a sequence beginning with the NIES and continuing with the ASEAN members and China, in that order, countries which got late economic starts are catching up with those ahead of them. And in the process, the latter are finding it necessary to restructure their industries. This expansion is expected to continue.
A particularly notable trend in the region is the on-going largely spontaneous formation and development of several economic spheres, in the Huanan, Yellow Sea rim, and Baht Economics Sphere, for example. These subrelations are unfolding without any special systemic provisions or official decisions, and underscore the vitality of the private sector in the region.
In 1991, the region's combined GDP came to 3.481 trillion (US) dollars and accounted for about one-sixth of the combined global GDP. Moreover, the scale is expanding. Whereas the average real GDP growth rate for the world as a whole was 2.3 percent in 1993, UN estimates put the corresponding rate for the developing countries that are members of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) for the same year at 6.7 percent. The overall Asia-Pacific economy is growing faster than any other regional economy and, is anticipated to be larger than that of Western Europe, and be equal with that of the Americas (North and South), by 2025.
1.1.3 Cultural characteristics
The high degree of cultural diversity characterizing the Asia-Pacific region results from a receptivity to economic development and the influence of civilization while preserving the indigenous ethnic culture. For example, Japan was strongly influenced by Chinese civilization, which entered Japan via the Korean peninsula, and incorporated a host of Chinese-born technologies and institutions. At the same time, however, the indigenous culture was not abandoned; instead, it managed to coexist with the imported one. This kind of historical process can be found in various parts of the region.
There are other similarities that can be seen in the region. In the lands between India and the island of Bali, Indonesia, the ancient epic "Ramayana" permeates the daily lives of the people. Languages spoken in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines belong to the same language family; these are all linked with those spoken in the Pacific, thus the term Malayo-Polynesian language. Indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand have deep linguistic ties with this language family.
An indigenous culture is the crystallization of the storehouse of wisdom accumulated through life at harmony with nature in the area in question from ancient times. All areas of the Asia-Pacific region have succeeded in nourishing cultures that fuse the indigenous ones with newer ones. This fusion is thought to be a major reason that the region's rich natural environment still remains relatively intact.
Rice culture is a common ecological feature of the region, particularly in continental Asia, Japan and Indonesia. The system of swidden agriculture can be observed in the way of life of the people. In some areas, though, the centuries-old practice of slash-and-burn methods in order to make way to rice, gives rise to land- related problems that need to be addressed in a sustainable way.
Another attribute of Asia-Pacific culture is strong ties with the sea. The ancient civilizations that arose in China, India and Pakistan made their way into the countries on their fringes mainly over the ocean. Similarly, many of the region's countries are composed of islands or have built their biggest cities on the coast. The proportion of seafood in the total consumption of animal-based food is higher in this region than in any other.
1.1.4 Central government and local initiatives
In most countries in the region, central governments have been playing a strong role in economic planning to achieve development goals. In many instances, they also led the formulation of environmental policies. However, many environmental problems are local in nature and implementation of legislation and policy tools have met many constraints. Stronger local initiatives in the environment are being observed in various parts of the region, because many environmental problems are immediately felt by local communities and solving them often requires local solutions. As a result, the need for greater autonomy of local authorities and participation of local people in efforts of tackling problems is increasingly important. Some countries are promoting measures to enhance local government capability for environmental management.
1.1.5 Private sector and NGOs
The Asia-Pacific region is also marked by a high level of private sector activity. It is mainly private energies that are behind its economic strides. Private sector activities are therefore likely to hold the key in future approaches to environmental problems, too. In many countries, there is a trend for governments to promote privatization of functions and services traditionally associated with the public sector.
All parties, from governments and political groups to business and NGOs, have the potential to become important actors in the arena of the environment and development. Above all, however, hopes are pinned on NGOs to assume an even larger role. Since the late 1980s, the region's NGOs have, while cooperating with governments, played a supplemental part in fields that are difficult for governments to address. More specifically, they have come to play a vital role in tackling poverty and environmental problems.