In today's Clearinghouse, we present two documents that focus on ecotourism and wildlife conservation. Simon Elegant's article on Sabah, Malaysia, illustrates the fierce competition between tourism and other economic activities for the use of limited land resources. As ecotourism is much less profitable than logging and industrial agriculture, Sabah's wildlife reserves are being reduced to ever smaller areas.

The second article by Sagarica Rajakarunanayake highlights a controversial wildlife conservation project in Sri Lanka, which puts emphasis on ecotourism development. Arrangements for the US$45-million project have been made by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and it will be co-financed by the World Bank-led Global Environmental Facility (GEF). Sagarica strongly criticizes foreign aid and loan programmes that seek to control and exploit natural resources of poor nations to serve the interests of affluent countries and suggests there is good reason to question the tourism-cum-conservation policy of the ADB, which has financed environmentally and socially destructive mega-development projects such as the Mahaweli irrigation and hydropower project in Sri Lanka.

The campaign coordinating groups:

Third World Network

Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), Thailand

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia

Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia


Malaysia: Forest of Contradictions

Eco-tourism is touted as offering the best hope for saving Sabah's rich habitats. So far, though, it's done little to halt the pressure on wildlife. But even if it did, is it really sustainable over the long term?

By Simon Elegant

If ecotourism is going to work anywhere, it should be here in Sabah. In this Malaysian state, on the northern tip of the island of Borneo, visitors can get closer to a greater variety of wildlife than almost anywhere else in Asia.

Tourists can stroll on moonlit beaches almost every night of the year and watch sea turtles lay their eggs, visit young orang-utans being trained to return to the wild, or walk through vast caves where clouds of bats fly over their heads and 10-centimetre-long centipedes crawl at their feet. Perhaps most stunning of all is the dazzling array of wildlife along the tributaries of the Kinabatangan River. Here, troupes of proboscis monkeys crash through trees, hooting soulfully through their bulbous noses; kingfishers dart over the river, flashing cream, aquamarine and lime; two-metre crocodiles slip ominously into the river; and on the river  bank, elephantine grey shapes move like clouds behind the screen of trees.

Perfect ground, or so it seems, in which to fulfil the promise of eco-tourism. The theory is straightforward: Areas rich in wildlife or environmental interest can use those resources to lure in high-paying tourists. A successful tourism industry then helps safeguard the  environment. After all, there's no point in a community chopping down trees or killing animals if that's what's bringing in the dollars. For the same reasons, such a tourism industry is itself unlikely to want to harm the environment.

And yet for Sabah, it's clear that eco-tourism is so far not delivering. And it's not for want of trying. Tourism officials bill the state as a wildlife paradise, and have proclaimed it this year as "The New Millennium Adventure Destination." That sort of promotion has certainly paid off. For instance, in the area around the town of Sandakan, half an hour by air from the state  capital Kota Kinabalu, between 1,500 and 2,000 tourists visit each month to stay in simple riverside lodges--a classic eco-tourism success.

But if eco-tourists are rolling in, the state's trees and resources are vanishing even faster. Between logging and development for agriculture, the state's chief wildlife preserves are being reduced to ever smaller pockets. And that pressure on wildlife areas will only exacerbate what critics of eco-tourism see as its chief flaw: The more successful it is in bringing tourists into an area, the more it threatens the very environment it purports to  preserve. For Sabah, both the current benefits and future promise of eco-tourism look hollow.

Most of the pressure on the state's forests and coastal regions can be traced to a single source: money. Put simply, the returns from eco-tourism have so far been too low--and too slow in coming--to dissuade officials and private companies from seeking faster and easier cash elsewhere. In recent years, Sabah has undertaken massive clearing of its rainforest to make way for large-scale cultivation, most often of oil-palm plantations.

And there's more to come. The state is in talks with Chinese interests about establishing a huge plantation to supply pulp to China. Plans call for the clear-cutting of somewhere around 250,000 hectares, an area about five times the size of Singapore, most probably in the region surrounding one of the state's core areas of protected forest, the Danum Valley.

Drastic Development

Amid all this, even senior state officials admit albeit often in private--that the impact on Sabah's wildlife has been devastating. The state's efforts, especially regarding the benefits brought by eco-tourism, says Chong Kah Kiat, minister for tourism, environment and  development, are focused mostly on "conserving whatever is left after all the encroachment of the past years--especially the very drastic agricultural development."

Paradoxically, in the area that is the epicentre for wildlife viewing in the state, the lower reaches of the Kinabatangan River on Sabah's northeast coast, the frenzied pace of agricultural development has actually produced a rise in the number of animals visitors can  expect to spot during even the briefest visit. "Sightings of elephant and wild orang-utans have increased tremendously," notes Albert Teo, who runs Borneo Eco Tours, one of the largest tour companies operating in the area. "But that is mainly because of the encroachment of development from the outside pressing them into a smaller and smaller area."

Teo fervently believes, and a range of others, from non-governmental organizations to government officials, agree, that there's still time to realize the benefits of eco-tourism. The best hope of doing that lies in a 27,000-hectare wildlife sanctuary created last November [1999] by the Sabah government--amid much hype--in the Kinabatangan area as a "Gift to the Earth."

"I firmly believe it's going to be a test bed for eco-tourism," says Teo. "If we succeed, then  eco-tourism will be seen as a way to preserve biodiversity as well as contributing to the  socio-economic development of the local communities." The alternative, he notes, is stark. "The government can't do it alone. The private sector will have to ensure that it succeeds or other land elsewhere will fall prey to logging plantations and so on."

But if the Kinabatangan area's past is anything to go by, the future doesn't look bright. Even the state's 27,000-hectare sanctuary looks less a bold attempt to preserve virgin forest than an acknowledgment that the area was of little use for agriculture. Most of the land that could be taken for agriculture has been taken, says Geoffrey Davison, who heads the Sabah branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature, "and the majority of remaining land is demonstrably better suited for wildlife than agriculture."

Chong dismisses such arguments as defeatist. "The very fact it's taken so long to get it gazetted tells us that there are still people who want the land" for agricultural development. He adds that the current and future benefits brought by eco-tourism, though still small as a  proportion of the state's overall tourism income, were key to creating the sanctuary.

For Davison, however, there are other barriers to the uptake and success of eco-tourism. Its benefits, he says, "are long term and the growth rates are slow. Some of the spin-offs are difficult to identify sometimes, too." And, specifically in Kinabatangan, he adds, "we're all working within a constraining situation, the constraints being the pattern of land use, and  fragmentation of the sanctuary so that it is not a single ribbon but different parts which are disconnected."

The fact that the chunks of the sanctuary are separated by wide swaths of oil palm has grave implications for the area's wildlife, especially for the larger mammals such as elephants and orang-utans, which require huge ranges.

Patrick Andau, who heads the state Wildlife Department, says he believes the current arrangement is viable for limited numbers of large mammals such as elephants. But he emphasizes that the Kinabatangan sanctuary isn't there just for the big mammals. The  sanctuary "holds ten species of primates and a range of cats including the clouded leopard," he points out.

The problem, of course, is that it is precisely the large mammals that many tourists come to see. One solution presented by Andau is translocation, to preserve smaller populations. Elephants, for example, might be moved to other areas of the state better able to support them if the population exceeds the sanctuary's carrying capacity. In what many would view as a clear result of the increasing fragmentation of Sabah's wildlife reserves, Andau notes his department is already undertaking such steps.

Another solution to the fragmentation in Kinabatangan has been attempts to provide corridors connecting some of the divided sectors of the sanctuary. But as Teo of Borneo Eco Tours puts it, "unfortunately, elephants can't read road signs." And, as even Environment Minister Chong acknowledges, to unify the sanctuary would require alienating large areas of land already held by private companies and paying compensation for repossession.

A long-term future?

But even if Sabah did do more in real terms to encourage eco-tourism, would it really offer a  sustainable future for wildlife in the long term? At the core of the eco-tourism argument lies a Catch-22 contradiction: The more successful an eco-tourism destination becomes, the greater the threat to the very attraction drawing visitors in the first place.

That is a problem the Kinabatangan sanctuary is already facing, says Teo of Borneo Eco Tours. "I have been very concerned for several years about the future of eco-tourism in the area," he says gravely. "The time is rapidly approaching when we exceed its carrying  capacity." Other operators agree: One company manager says privately that because of continued clearing for agriculture and increasing overcrowding he has already discounted the Kinabatangan and set his sights on other possible eco-tourism areas in the state, notably the Tabin forest reserve.

Teo, for his part, says he is committed to the Kinabatangan and is attempting to persuade operators to adopt a common code of conduct that would limit the number of passengers in boats on the river, enforce the use of electric motors in the smaller tributaries and so on. But he says he isn't optimistic about his chances of success. "In the end, the area's success will also be its downfall. That's why limits have to be set by the government."

One solution he and other operators have proposed is that the government allocate areas along the river to particular tour operators. "If I'm given an exclusive area I will set limits on the number of people I bring in and I'll put money into it."

To its advocates, the undoubted limitations of eco-tourism, many of which are exemplified in the problems besetting the Kinabatangan, aren't the issue. Focus instead on its unquestioned benefits, they argue. "We are very supportive of tourism," says Davison of the WWF. "It's not totally benign but it's definitely for the better." The bottom line is simple, Davison says: "If  there was no tourism, then this wildlife sanctuary would not exist."

This article was published in Far Eastern Economic Review, 14 September 2000


Sri Lanka: Foreign Funding - Will it Really Benefit Wildlife?

by Sagarica Rajakarunanayake

Sir Arthur C Clarke, who recognizes the current year, 2001, as the start of the new millennium, points out that the last century has been one of the bloodiest in human history. He considers it of the greatest importance to have hope for peace in the world in the millennium just dawned. So much for human affairs, but what goes on with regard to the environment and species besides man?

Much is spoken about protection and preservation of the environment and other species by world leaders and environmentalists, but here too, violence is the order, violence against nature by rapacious human exploitation.

The developed or affluent countries must take the rap for the over-exploitation of nature everywhere in the world. Not only have these countries destroyed their own natural environment setting up concrete jungles in its place, they have also, ravaged and plundered the wealth and natural resources of countries they conquered and colonized. The emission of carbon dioxide by the "developed world" is today recognized as the main cause for global warming.

Even today the affluent countries, continue to dictate and control the destinies of the poorer nations. They succeed in controlling and manipulating the natural resources and wealth of these countries to serve their own interests. This is done not through open plundering as in the past, but deviously, through aid and loan programmes, and bilateral agreements giving them access to the natural wealth and resources of these countries.

The reason why developed countries can control and exploit our natural resources so easily is due to governments of developing countries seeking foreign aid for development projects of dubious value, without any serious study of the long-term effects of such projects on the ecology, environment and people of their respective countries.

There is little transparency about the terms of agreements reached between governments and these funding agencies, and the manner in which funds are utilized. Moreover studies regarding foreign aid to developing countries have shown that funding by affluent countries has created a kind of dependency syndrome in governments and people of recipient countries where they have come to believe that nothing can be achieved through their own efforts without the pumping in of foreign funds.

In Sri Lanka, the biggest recent development project implemented is the Mahaweli Development Scheme, for irrigation and hydropower. Responding to requests by the Sri Lankan government, several developing countries, came up with large sums of aid and grants. A great deal of these foreign funds went back to the donor countries by way of payments to experts and technicians involved in the project.

Without consideration of the colossal loss to the environment, thousands of acres of land, much of it forest land was denuded. All this led to an exodus en masse of fauna, including elephants, into areas close to human habitation where they have been tragically pocketed, being unable to get to safer habitats. The Mahaweli Authority appeared to have achieved its targets of obtaining water for irrigation and hydropower, but the government is now increasingly having to face severe droughts when the reservoirs run dry.

Regardless of the impact on the Mahaweli and all our river systems, the government allows more forest cover to be cleared and hills cut down. This causes soil loss and erosion and prevents the absorption of water into the soil during rainfall. This in turn dries up the springs and waterways that feed the rivers.

At present the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has arranged for a package of soft loans, grants and other aid amounting to nearly US$ 45 million, for a project to conserve the country's wildlife resources. The project will be co-financed by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) too.

This project has come in for severe criticism by the conservationists, for the total lack of transparency with regard to drawing up of the agreement. Discussions between the government and the funding agencies involving core issues of public interest in conservation of wildlife were not made open to the public. The views of conservationists, NGOs and the public were not sought with regard to the development of the agreement in its final stages.

There is a serious anomaly in appointing the Director Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) and the Additional Director as Project Director and Coordinator. In accordance with the organizational chart of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Director is the head of the department, as well as, of all funding agencies. He must be in a controlling position over them, and not be part of funding projects.

The ADB project emphasizes the need for developing eco-tourism in the country. Their arguments for this include making use of private sector skills to enhance economic growth and diversification, and to link bio-diversity conservation with poverty alleviation in some of the poorest areas in the country.

It appears to us that this concern for economic growth and poverty alleviation is a concession offered to the government whose prime interest is bringing economic relief to people. The ADB ought not to lose sight of the fact that wildlife in this country is highly endangered and therefore the protection and conservation of wildlife must be carried out single-mindedly as an end by itself and not as a means to achieving any other goals. We appreciate that one has to be realistic, and communities living in areas bordering National Parks and other wildlife habitats must be encouraged to make sustainable economic use of wildlife resources.

How will Sri Lanka benefit by the introduction of eco-tourism? Will it actually protect wildlife and nature, benefit local communities and generate national revenue? The best we can do is to look at the experiences of other countries, where its merits are being questioned. There are reports from Thailand to Belize of eco-tourism opening doors to more forest destruction, and opportunities for encroachments, illegal logging, mining and plundering of biological resources.

The latest threat to Sri Lanka and other developing countries is bio-piracy by tourists and investors aided by some of our own unscrupulous experts and entrepreneurs. The only hope for preventing this threat of bio-piracy in developing countries would be the emergence of community leaders who will mobilize people to stand up to governments, foreign funding sources and investors to prevent over-exploitation of natural resources.

The trouble with foreign funding for wildlife conservation is that instead of the DWLC identifying certain critical areas for development, aid agencies are allowed to take over the reorganization of the entire institution. The end result is that the department is left structurally more bankrupt than earlier. Even the development of a national bio-diversity conservation plan is handed over to the foreign funding source.

Past experience, particularly with the last project for the conservation of wildlife by GEF, has shown that at the end of the project the department had not undergone reorganization in any significant way and projects undertaken were no properly implemented, through the entire period of the GEF project. However, a large slice of GEF funds were paid out as expenses for these projects and as salaries for experts and consultants.

There is a saying amongst our rural folk that one must avoid falling in broad daylight into the same pit one fell at night. Having seen the total loss, the GEF project was for wildlife and the country, we must surely be extremely wary of other such projects, ask for greater transparency regarding terms of agreements and have much more public discussion with regard to the handling of our natural resources by foreign funding agencies.

This is a slightly shortened version of an article published in Daily News, 17.1.2001