The State, Local Government, and Resource Management in Southeast Asia: Recent Trends in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand

Article excerpt

Environmental policy in Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, emerged as the responsibility of national governments (i.e., the state).(1) In countries with longer experience in the field, large national institutions have arisen, backed by the legislation and sanctions of the state. In the developed countries of the North, these institutions have assumed substantial political power by virtue of the increased public and political profile of environmental issues and their mandated role in regulating and evaluating the effects on the environment of various kinds of development activities in all sectors. The classic example, frequently cited as an explicit organizational model, is the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States.

The assumption by the state of the substantive mandate and authority for environmental management is consistent with the concentration of political control over natural resources utilization at this level. The latter trend has been commented on widely by many other authors as a universal correlate of modernization in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. As these authors have pointed out, the creation and enforcement of centralized state control over natural resource utilization either ignored or explicitly rejected the institutions, values, and practices by which communities had managed their local environment for centuries. While some of the indigenous methods were not suited to the scale and intensity of resource utilization which demographic pressures now compel, and others had sweeping long-term ecological impacts over large regions, some were both highly productive and ecologically sustainable. On the other hand, recent experience with natural resource management under the centralized authority of the state, with its modern financial and technical resources, has been widely accepted to have had a disastrous consequence on natural resource quality throughout Southeast Asia.

It is the thesis of this article that the locus of political and administrative control over natural resource management is shifting in Southeast Asia, although for different reasons and under different circumstances in the various countries of the region. This article outlines the cases of three countries which have very different historical, economic, and resource situations: the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

At the risk of oversimplification, I suggest that Thailand and the Philippines are the nations in the region with the most traditionally centralized political and administrative control of national development. In the case of Thailand, this stems from a long and consistent history of paternalistic and feudal administration. The civil administration in Thailand traditionally has served king and country first and, until very recently, remained a bastion of professional and social status and respect to all Thais. The local representatives of central government offices, as the visible symbols of the king's authority, were in a powerful position to implement centrally-determined development decisions.

In the case of the Philippines, the colonial and feudal elites consolidated their control over productive natural resources in order to serve their economic benefit. The establishment of modern forms of administration and independent government reinforced the centralizing tendencies which were well established during the colonial period. Of course, central control of the disposition and utilization of natural resources (as well as other features of the economy) has always been problematic in its enforcement due to the geographical isolation of many parts of the archipelago.

In both cases, the historical results during the recent period of modernization were similar: a strongly centralized technocracy made the decisions and clung to authority over natural resource utilization and access to external assistance through the state, and the modus operandi of international assistance agencies which deal (in the first instance, at least) directly with state agencies. …