LANGKAWI ISLAND, MALAYSIA - Pak Ahmad's mango orchard is a small one-acre plot just below the Seven Wells waterfall on Langkawi Island in the Andaman Sea just off the coast of mainland Malaysia. It's the only mango orchard in the valley, and its existence is threatened by plans to build a golf course.
Pak Ahmad's story is one of a growing number of golf-related conflicts in Southeast Asia. Golf course development is now emerging as a major environmental and social issue in Asia, as golf-crazy Japan looks abroad for sites for new courses and Asian countries work to attract Japanese tourists, and as other Asians, especially business people, take up the sport. The problem is particularly acute in Southeast Asia because of the sudden proliferation of golf courses, and because the maintenance of large, closely trimmed grassy areas is more difficult and environmentally hazardous in tropical areas which are home to greater numbers of pests, diseases and weeds.
The golf course development problems are quite evident on Langkawi Island, where there are already two golf courses and three more are planned. In order to build the golf courses, developers have cleared, or will clear, hundreds of acres of rainforest, says Gen Morita, a Japanese environmental activist who visited Pak Ahmad's orchard in April. In addition, he says, the golf courses bring a host of other environmental problems with them. Removing trees and vegetation from the sites brings about gullying and erosion, and in order to build the system of reservoirs and drainage pipes to irrigate the golf courses, natural slopes and ground water levels are changed. This weakens the underlying foundation of the site and makes it more prone to damage from wind, rain and earthquakes.
When heavy rain falls on golf courses, the water initially drains into holding ponds, and when the inflow exceeds capacity, these ponds suddenly release large amounts of water. Occasionally, the holding pond itself will be breached, causing damage downstream.
Golf greens' need for constant watering poses additional problems. An 18-hole golf course consumes 5,000 cubic meters of water a day, enough for 2,000 families, according to Morita, and this intense thirst for water can have perverse consequences. Just east of Langkawi, for example, the Malaysian government is paying more than $7.5 million for a pipeline to feed water to a golf course resort on Redang Island from the mainland area of Terengganu, where a cholera epidemic recently broke out because of an inadequate supply of clean water, according to Chee Yoke Ling, Secretary of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth Malaysia).
Reliance on toxic chemicals
Just before the visit with Pak Ahmad, Morita and a group of 15 other activists and journalists drove to the newly completed Datai Bay golf course on the other side of Langkawi. A staff official proudly presented the new facility and then, becoming suspicious in the line of questioning, asked, "Are you environmentalists?"
"No matter," she said. "We plan to bring in orchids from the forest and replace all our plastic signs with wood." When the group stared somewhat aghast at her, she fumbled a bit. "Don't worry, we use only organic fertilizer on our grass," she added hastily. Doubting this last assurance, Morita ventured outside to look at the grass. It's imported Bermuda and Tifdwarf, he says, grasses that will require tons of pesticides and soil hardening agents, some of which could be cancerous.
According to Morita, the average amount of agrochemicals used on a golf course is 1,500 kilograms every year. Mineral-, plant- and animal-based, and compound chemicals are used for soil improvement. These include zeolite, which consists mainly of silicic-acid, aluminum oxide and iron oxide, all potential carcinogens. The soil-coagulating agent used to strengthen the foundation of artificial lakes in golf courses uses acrylamide, which is a strong poison. Its contamination of underground water supplies has caused severe poisoning and disorders of the central nervous system.
"Not only do these chemicals pollute waterways, but up to 90 percent of the chemicals sprayed on the course ends up in the air. People don't realize that they are breathing in poisons," says Morita. A number of golfers, caddies and residents have been found to suffer irritations, skin diseases and other allergic reactions, he adds.
The dangers of the high pesticide and fertilizer use at golf courses was illustrated at the Sapporo Kokusai Country Club in Hiroshima township on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, where managers had organic copper compounds spread on the grass to keep it from rotting under the winter snow. When it rained, the chemical was washed into the water system, killing over 90,000 fish in a nearby aquaculture project.
As a result of chemical use at this course and six other golf courses in the town, many cases of allergic rhinitis, chronic rashes and asthma have been reported. The incidence of asthma in the town is five times the island's average.
In the United States, there has been at least one death from the use of pesticides on golf courses. Navy Lieutenant George Prior died 20 days after he fell ill immediately after a round of golf. A post mortem revealed that he had died from exposure to chlorothalonil, a pesticide used on golf courses.
Darryl Carlin, an environmental economics researcher from New Zealand, contends that golf courses are in fact an environmentally unsound form of monoculture where exotic soil and grass, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and weedicides, as well as machinery are all imported to substitute natural ecosystems.
The latest promotional trend in golf course development is the "environmentally safer" methods of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). But Carlin says IPM still uses chemical pesticides in addition to other pest control techniques, such as biological husbandry practices, to reduce pesticide loads. The problem is that IPM on golf courses is untried and, owing to the lack of technically advanced expertise necessary to make it work, is unlikely to be an effective pest control technique in the short or long term.
A closed door process
Despite the significant environmental effects of golf courses, local communities are routinely excluded from any role in deciding if a golf course should be constructed and, if so, on what terms. When Carlin, who has just completed a thesis on the proposed Sho Lo Tung golf course in Hong Kong, called the Hong Kong Royal Jockey Club to ask its managers if they would be interested in talking to local activists, the official who answered simply said, "I don't deal with crackpots," and hung up.
The problem is that there is no law or regulation that requires consultation, or even information sharing with local communities. "In Hong Kong there are provisions for an environmental impact assessment, but the results are not open to the public. For that matter the golf course proposal does not have to be shown to local residents," says Carlin. The problem is similar in Thailand, says Anita Pleumaron of the Asian Tourism Network (ANTENNA). Environmental assessments may be conducted but the results are rigged, she says.
In the United States, the rules allow for public hearings. Yet Kay Varela, a member of the Hawaii Golf Course Action Alliance, whose community of Opihihale is currently being threatened by golf course development, says that regulators ignored testimony from experts at public hearings in her town that showed that three endangered species would be affected by the development, and that scarce fresh water supplies would be depleted.
Profits bypass the communities
The negative impacts of golf extend beyond the environment. In Thailand, developers buy up the land around a proposed site, and villagers living within this boundary have little rights of entry or exit and are forced to sell. A local Thai newspaper reported that one elderly woman in the north of the country was told by developers: "If you don't sell voluntarily, you'll have to buy a helicopter to use every time you leave your house, because whenever you go out and pass our land, we'll sue you."
According to research done by Pleumaron, the average cost of developing a golf course in Thailand is $47 million, not including the cost of hiring consultants. In Indonesia, the construction of a golf course in Cimacan, West Java, displaced 287 peasants in 1991. Villagers who lost their lands were paid 1.5 cents per square meter of land by the Badung Asri Mulia Construction Company.
In general, after losing their farms, villagers end up as laborers on their own lands. Working on these golf courses represents a drastic change from their once independent and self-reliant way of life. All too often, this kind of change leads to the collapse of whole rural communities. Those who are not employed by golf courses move to big cities, contributing to the urban problems of slums, traffic congestion and pollution.
Pleumaron says that, contrary to developers' claims, golf course developments rarely benefit the local economy. Instead, most of the profits are reaped by foreign investors and multinational companies. "The big losers are the local people whose government agencies neglect the social and environmental costs of superfluous golf resorts and even subsidize this fickle business by spending tax money on golf tourism promotion," she says.
The three sponsoring organizations are the Japan-based Global Network for Anti-Golf Course Action (GNAGA), the Thailand-based Asian Tourism Network (ANTENNA) and the Malaysia-based Asia-Pacific People's Environmental Network (APPEN). Twenty delegates from Hawaii, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand were also present.
Below is the statement of the Movement:
The transformation of golf memberships into a saleable commodity has resulted in widespread speculation and dubious practices. In many countries golf course/resort development (including time- sharing resorts) is in reality often a æhit-and-run' business. The speculative nature of memberships and associated real property transactions also makes the industry very high risk. In the wake of the current slowdown in the Japanese economy, many golf course and resort companies have become bankrupt, with investors and banks bearing the losses.
The bulk of the foreign exchange earned from golf courses and golf tourism does not stay in the local economy. The benefits which do remain are reaped by a few business people and their patrons.
The environmental impacts include water depletion and toxic contamination of the soil, underground water, surface water and the air. This in turn leads to health problems for local communities, populations downstream and even golfers, caddies and chemical sprayers in golf courses.
The construction of golf courses in scenic natural sites, such as forest areas and coral islands, also results in the destruction of biodiversity.
Golf course and golf tourism development violate human rights in every sense of the word.
The danger is that IPM will be taken seriously by officials involved in the approval of golf courses. Under scrutiny, the theory of IPM can be easily discredited.
It should also be stressed that considerable amounts of chemicals are used in the preparation of a golf course and in fertilizing the grass. These are toxic, too, and thus make golf courses a threat to the environment and health.
The Conference delegates call for the following: