Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bali: People and Pollution in Paradise

“It’s Galungan and I’m very busy,” Putri said as she was pouring me a drink. She works at the hotel where I was staying. It was already close to midnight and she would have a short night. Although she said she lived close by here in Nusa Dua, during the festival she would have to go to her parental village, which involves a 1.5 hour ride on her moped. And she will have to be ready to go to the temple to make offerings to ancestors with her family at 5:30 am. Galungan is a Hindu festival, closely related to Diwali, the festival of light celebrated in India. But Galungan – like Hinduism here in general – has a distinct Balinese twist. First, unlike the annual Diwali, Gadung is celebrated twice a year and celebrates the creation of the world. For Putri and many others like her employed in the booming commercial sector the traditional festival is a source of both devotion and stress. Tradition is alive and well on Bali.

Bali has the reputation of being as close to paradise as any place on earth. The mostly Hindu island in the world’s largest Muslim nation is known for its temples, relaxing lifestyle, friendly people and beaches of white sand. But there are mounting pressures that threaten the paradise-like setting. A place whose charm so much depends on its beauty and clean nature is particularly vulnerable to environmental problems.

The most obvious pressure comes from the sheer number of people. The tiny island has some 3.5 million permanent inhabitants, making it one of the most densely populated places on the planet. This is particularly striking to me, as my own country of birth lies at the opposite end of the spectrum: Finland with sixty times the land area of Bali has just 5 million people. Of course, Bali’s tropical climate and fertile soils have in the first place been able to support such a large and growing population, unlike the frigid conditions up north. Still, the place is increasingly crowded and despite the recent rapid urbanization it is overpopulated. As reported in The Jakarta Post (30 April 2010), according to Indonesian national standard, the maximum population to be supported in Bali in a sustainable manner would only be about 1.6 million people or less than half the current population.

The urban centres themselves present a slew of problems. With haphazard growth and inadequate infrastructure, pollution runs into the rivers and pristine places are transformed into townships. Denpasar, the capital, is now like a miniature Jakarta, crowded with people, cars, mopeds and pollution. The city has a distinct waste management problem that is acknowledged by Indonesian researchers and environmentalists. The city alone produces more than 1,500 m3 of garbage every day, rendering the city planners’ beautification efforts futile. Other growing urban centres are quickly following in its destructive path.

Nusa Dua at the southern tip of the island is an ecosystem in itself. Developed for tourism, the area is built with self-sustaining hotel complexes complete with numerous restaurants, spas, pools and sporting facilities. The entire area is spotlessly clean, neat and well organized with straight roads and perfectly manicured lawns. The main shopping centre, Bali Collection, contains a complex of shops and restaurants where the prices are fixed to a level that would be far above affordable to locals used to viewing bargaining as a competitive, if good-humoured and friendly sport.

Despite this cleanliness, tourism is one of the greatest causes of strain to Bali’s environment. Again, it’s the sheer numbers of people visiting the island. There are 1.9 million visitors annually to the tiny island! The Balinese receive the visitors well and are very tolerant of their sometimes less than gracious ways. In fact, the locals are so tolerant that Indonesian Muslim terrorists bombed entertainment establishments in 2002 and 2005. The earlier bombing in Kuta killed 202 people, including 88 Australian tourists. This put a dent into Bali’s reputation as a party destination and somewhat reduced its popularity among Australians and other Westerners. But whatever slack developed, it has been quickly taken over by others. Apart from the Japanese who have been there for a long time, Chinese tourists are increasingly visible, although most of them seem to be young couples or move only in small groups. What struck me in Nusa Dua was the number of Russians. The beach was crowded with shapely blonds trying to turn their colour darker in places where their tiny bikinis didn’t cover the flesh. The men already tended to sport a naturally redder colour on their bellies, which they started to fill with the refreshing Bingtang or Bali Hai beers from an early hour.

Tourism is blamed for overcrowding the island and straining its environment. In an article with the website Bali Discovery (18 May 2009), the Executive Director of WALHI, an environmental watchdog, Agung Wardana in particular highlights the role of tourism in depleting Bali’s precious water resources. He estimates that every hotel room adds around 3,000 litres to the daily consumption of water. And the golf courses that are converting agricultural land to artificial parks for the benefit of rich and spoiled visitors add another 3 million litres a day to the consumption. This can be contrasted with the average of only 200 litres per day used by the local Balinese. There have been well justified calls for limiting the number of tourists and the construction of new facilities to accommodate them.

My purpose for being here was attending an international meeting, so one afternoon my fellow participants and I embarked on a cultural tour heading towards the temples in Taman Ayun and Tanah Lot. We passed through the booming town of Kuta, first driving through the touristic area with its rows of bars, restaurants and shops; then moving to the more traditional quarters where the locals reside. Ayu, our talkative guide, pointed out the canal running in parallel to the street, suggesting that it would not be a good idea to take a dip there. “The town has grown so quickly and there’s no sewage treatment. These canals used to be nice, actually,” she commented.

Nevertheless, the town does not by any means give an impression of a slum. It all looks rather upbeat unlike many others elsewhere in the developing world (or the USA). Nobody has the time to loiter around, as everyone goes about their business. The Galungan decorations are everywhere. Tall decorated wooden poles line the streets and statues by the numerous temples have been dressed up in checkered black and white clothes – yin and yang – intended to ward off the evil.

Ayu whose name translates into ‘beautiful’ keeps up a running commentary on the history and culture of Bali, as well as the present we can observe as we drive on. Ayu is a rather tall and lively girl whose constant white smile does indeed make her live up to her name. Both Ayu and Putri at the hotel would dispel any preconceived notions of tiny, waif-like Indonesian girls, neither one being particularly petite or shy.

We continue further inland and see construction everywhere. “Corn to concrete,” the observant Ayu remarks. Indeed, in the outskirts of Kuta farmland is incessantly being converted into buildings. But still every available plot in between has been dedicated to small rice paddies. Farmers still keep cows that roam freely in open spaces.

This land transformation – from agriculture and forest into cities, roads and, yes, hotels and golf courses – is one of the biggest problems affecting the future sustainability of the environment and even the economy of Bali. Apart from converting beautiful landscapes into sprawl, it negatively affects the ecological and water balance on the island. It even threatens food production. Every year, tracts of agricultural land is converted into non-agricultural uses.

It started to rain and the landscape turned dark. The traffic was really bad and we were barely moving forward. In the nearly two hours in the car we had gotten only half way where we wanted to go. Suddenly the driver had had enough and without saying a word decided to turn the vehicle around blocking the traffic further. We then headed back and found a roundabout route between agricultural fields where fewer drivers had wandered. Here the landscape was still serene with terraced paddies glistening wet. In spite of the rain that was getting heavier, some farmers were still working their fields. The hillsides were forested.

On the way, we made a stop at a private smaller place of worship at a traditional Balinese house in Baha Village. We caught the proprietor preparing candles and offerings to the deities. Dressed in a yellow blouse and a sarong, she went around from one shrine to the next, placing the candle and the offerings, then put her hands together in a silent prayer.

At the big temple at Taman Ayun the mood was dampened by the rain, but the hawkers along the parking lot beckoned us to shop for trinkets and soft drinks. No doubt, their business would have been better in less inclement weather. More and more busses brought in tourists as we entered. The temple complex is very impressive. Built in 1634 as the main temple of the historical Mengwi Kingdom, the area consists of a huge number of multilayered shrines known as Meru. In the middle yard there is a tower with wooden bells or Kulkul. The entire area is surrounded by a moat.

Wet and tired of sitting in the traffic in between the sights, we continued towards our final destination. Even Ayu was rather low key, only promising that the ride would not take long to reach Tanah Lot on the coast. The place turned out to be extraordinarily beautiful, the small temple of Tanah Lot being perched on a rock protruding into the Timor Sea. It has stood there facing the sometimes stormy (like now) sea since the 16th century when it was established by the Javanese priest Danghyan Nirartha. This was a spot from which to enjoy the sun setting in the west over the sea, but on this particular evening clouds obscured most of the daily spectacle. We were just happy to enjoy refreshing coconuts prepared by three sweet young ladies before settling in for a grilled seafood dinner containing fresh fish, lobster, prawns and mussels.

During the evening we were also treated to a delightful performance of traditional Balinese dance. The dancers in delicate outfits glittering with colour and gold performed elaborate dramas from history and mythology. The movements of their eyes are as important as the movement of other parts of the body. A skilful band of stone-faced musicians sitting on the floor behind their Gamelan instruments produced a hypnotic yet dynamic accompaniment to the dance. Later, we witnessed a performance unique to the Tanah Lot region. The music accompanied Barong, a story-telling dance about the fight between good and evil. Completely different from the Gamelan, the music reminded me more of the rituals seen in the South Pacific.

On a different night, I grabbed a taxi to Kuta in order to observe first hand the impacts of backpacking and party tourism on a local city. It was around 11 pm when the driver dropped me off at one end of the beach boulevard. The strip was quieter than I had thought, probably expecting to see a replica of some similar coastal towns in Thailand. This was not the case, at least yet. There were of course numerous bars lining the street, including the ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafe, but the scene was generally quite sedate. As I strolled along the waterfront, I was several times approached by local men offering young women for massage or hashish and marijuana – a particularly stupid proposition in a country where possession of drugs carries the death penalty. Most often, they only offered ‘transportation’, meaning a ride on the back of their light motorcycle. Nusa Dua was too far to make such offers attractive. Another thing that was conspicuous was the extensive construction that was going on even after midnight on this weekend night. New hotels were coming and traditional quarters were being erased to make space for them. Clearly, the local financiers and tourist industry were not paying heed to the warning calls about overcrowding the island or overextending its environment.

Bali is still beautiful and the Timor Sea surrounding it is still full of fish and accommodating to humans who wish to join them for a swim. Ample water is a key element of Bali’s attraction. It is essential equally for the survival of the traditional way of life and agriculture and the tourism-based economy. One can only hope that the quest for money will not entirely spoil the basis of which life and the rich culture rely on. At least today, we can still enjoy the beauty and hospitality of Bali and its people to the soothing sounds of Gamelan.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Second World: Geopolitics vs. Globalization

Geopolitics vs. globalization. Now that’s an interesting juxtaposition and it’s at the heart of the book The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Competition in the Twenty-first Century by Parag Khanna. The focus of the book is fresh and delightfully geographical. Khanna, a senior fellow and program director at the New America Foundation, takes us on a whirlwind tour around the world hopping from one region to next focusing on the ‘second world,’ emerging countries that are no longer part of the third world but have not quite reached the first world status. The author’s credible claim is that much of the future of the world will depend on what happens in these countries, many of which are now finding their place amongst the larger geopolitical scene. Geopolitics is the great game in which countries and especially the dominant powers vie for influence and advantage over others. Khanna sees globalization as a potential counterforce to geopolitics wherein the interconnectedness of the entire world makes it a safer place. He is no starry-eyed idealist who believes in an overpowering positive force of globalization. Geopolitics is alive and well there is no doubt it. Khanna also recognizes that the United States is no longer the sole superpower as it might have appeared at the end of the Cold War. In fact, he makes a convincing case that its star is fading. For the first time, we live in a tripolar world, with the US, the European Union and China making claims at being dominant powers, both regionally and on a global scale. This constellation and how these three powers interact with the second world is at the heart of the book.

Like a good regional geography, the book is organized in five sections along continental lines. The first part, entitled The West’s East, focuses on the eastern periphery of Europe and the aspiring members of the EU. The second part, Affairs of the Heartland, covers the Eurasian landmass, Central Asia, which is now again the chessboard in a new Great Game, this time played by the three new dominant powers. The title of the third part, The End of the Monroe Doctrine, says it all. US dominance is no longer a given in its own backyard where the links with the old colonial powers in Europe remain strong while China is making inroads into the region. Part IV, In Search of the “Middle East” hones in on the turbulent Arab world, while the fifth part makes a call for Asia for Asians. On this tour of the world, Khanna takes us to close to forty countries or autonomous (some more than others) regions (like Tibet, Xinjiang and Palestine) all of which belong to the second world. Some are covered in a detailed and insightful manner, while others receive more superficial treatment. Some (think Azerbaijan or Syria) are covered in a couple of pages, while others stretch out over much longer passages (the longest section, at 21 pages, is dedicated to China; and this is the main section on China, not including the Tibet and Xinjiang parts or the frequent references to it throughout the book). Despite this regional treatment, as is the wont of good regional geographies (and judging from the extensive bibliography, Khanna is quite aware of the geography literature), the different parts do hang together in an exemplary manner and the author constantly reminds us of the interlinkages between places and issues. When I say that the book is very geographical, I mean that the author is acutely aware of how geography plays into the geopolitics of the places. Factors such as natural resources, mountain ranges, sea lanes, pipeline routes or urban dominance are often mentioned explaining strategic and tactical choices that countries make.

The style of the book is rather unusual in the sense that it is at the same time erudite and quite personal. The many anecdotes suggest that Khanna has indeed visited all of the countries and territories he writes about. In that sense, the book occasionally takes the form of a travelogue (and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a perfectly legitimate literary form). On the other hand, as witnessed by the 23-page bibliography and 65 pages of endnotes, this is a very well researched book. What put me off slightly in the beginning was Khanna’s somewhat breathless writing style. It seems that his aim has been to write a book, which doesn’t mince words and in which surprising insights sometimes shock the reader. One gets the impression that the book has been written at a flow-of-consciousness speed. At times, this has led to bad similes that make one cringe (“Latin America’s dances—salsa, samba, rumba, tango—all involve swift, jerking maneuvers, even unpredictable lurches. The same is true of Latin politics.” – p. 130).

At other times, Khanna’s attempts to move fluidly from one subject to the next has produced apparent non-sequiturs: (is it just me who cannot fully follow the logic in this passage: “In the great informality of Arab encounters, the culture of wasta—personal connections—is preferred to modern institutions. Beyond the narrow elite, which seems lost without the use of English, bloated public sectors from Libya to Saudi Arabia and also Iran remain bastions of stultifying inefficiency.” – p. 202)

Then again, this is never a dull read and the style grows on you (admittedly, some chapters are better argued than others) and the non-diplomatic language is refreshing when, for instance, Khanna writes about tiny, poor Georgia in the Caucasus that bought wholesale a neoliberal, almost libertarian stance to its development after its release from under the Soviet rule. Khanna writes: “Imagine a country of abandoned villages, collapsed buildings, battered trucks belching clouds of foul exhaust, women selling corn on the roadside, children bathing in drying riverbeds, and haggard beggars in the capital city. Now imagine that its citizens are white (p. 48).” Having visited Georgia earlier this year, I can attest to the vast differences between the lifestyles of the regular people and the new elite driving around in big German cars.

Or when he writes about America’s leading partner in the Middle East in securing the flow of oil and fighting terrorism: “Globalization appears to accelerate history, but in Saudi Arabia, history moves at two completely different speeds, one for the head and another for the heart. There are limits to how far a civilization can advance when people pray five times a day and live in the paralyzing heat of an endless desert (p. 240).” It is worth noting that Khanna is equally sanguine about the situation in Israel-Palestine, sparing no words in assessing the reality of the dual and highly unequal nation.

The author was prescient in writing the book. My paperback edition was published in 2009 and some events that Khanna predicted have already taken place, like in the case of the Central Asian ‘Stans’ when he writes that “it is a shock that there have been no major conflicts in the region (p. 76).” Well, the Kyrgyzstan coup and ethnic-based slaughter took place soon after the publication of the book.

He is critical of America’s imperial pretensions and stubbornness when it comes to dealing with ‘rogue’ nations, noting that “America’s childish silent treatment of Iran ignores the reality that in the geopolitical marketplace, attempting to isolate a country is about as effective as ignoring its existence ... Iran is diplomatically sophisticated enough to derive benefits from multiple powers simultaneously—particularly if those powers have competing motivations. The United States has focused strictly on the military potential of Iran’s nuclear program, ignoring its civilian uses and Iran’s other commercial needs (p. 230).” This is a theme that pervades the book: second world nations have a choice in the global marketplace and by trying to isolate them the United States ends up isolating itself.

Writing on the Arab region, one has to agree with Khanna when he observes that “America considers the region strategically important, but that does not guarantee it a right to military interventions, particularly since its blunders, not Arab genetic defects, are widely held to be the chief cause of terrorism, proliferation, and conflict (p. 253).”

In general, Parag Khanna is quite critical of the United States and how it sees itself in the world. America believes in military power as its strength. However, it has misunderstood both Hobbes and Darwin in the sense that it thinks that it can dominate others just by being the strongest bully on the block: “The real lessons of Hobbes and Darwin are that no single power will dominate others; rather, the most adaptive system will prevail (p. 322).” He points out that America’s prestige has waned fastest where it has been most aggressive, in Arab States and East Asia.

Similarly, America’s soft power is on the wane as the EU, China and many second world countries rise. America’s arbitrary visa restrictions stifle fertilization of the scientific and professional fields. Leading scientists have a choice of gathering elsewhere. In the moneyed sphere, hedge funds and gambling are increasingly moving to Hong Kong and London. The Al Jazeera network is effectively competing with American cable networks, except in the United States (writing this as I am in Indonesia, I can confirm that Al Jazeera is indeed a preferred source of global news). In the world of sports, America is alone not understanding soccer and cricket, the most popular sports on the globe. Even many of Hollywood’s latest successes are based on innovations from Hong Kong and Japan. Higher education has for half a century been dominated by American universities from Harvard to Yale. Now, more Indonesian kids go to universities in China than in the United States. Who would have thought that would happen so soon?

Like many observers today, Parag Khanna is upbeat about what is happening in Asia and how the Asian model provides a viable alternative to the West, and especially the United States. He praises Asian values, which feature “open societies but closed polities, restoring democracy to its place as a means to an end—not the highest virtue, but just one agenda item among many (p. 266).” He makes the extremely valid point about how East Asian traditions challenge American notions of human rights. Americans give utmost priority to economic freedom and individual rights, even if they infringe on other people’s freedoms, while Asians emphasize communitarian wellbeing. As in Europe, human rights are seen as encompassing the right from need and want for all, rather than individual liberty to do whatever one wants irrespective of its impacts on others and the larger communal good.

He astutely observes the differences between how Asians and Americans view government. In America—witness the lunacy of the Tea Party movement—government is seen as something apart from the people, something that hinders innovation and development. In Asia (and in much of Europe, especially the northern fringe where I hail from) government plays a key role in inserting capital and innovation into the system, while at the same time ensuring that the excesses of capitalism do not destroy social fabric. Khanna makes a clear distinction between the United States and Europe in this regard. He remarks that Europe is by and large welcomed in Asia for developing capacity and providing new models.

Khanna is by no means na├»ve, so he does not see Asia as a monolithic success story. Somewhat surprisingly, he is rather dismissive of India, stating that “India is big but not yet important. Outsourcing has made it a leading back office for Western firms, but except for a few segregated twenty-first-century oases of development, India is almost completely third-world, most of its billion-plus people living in poverty (p. 276).” He sees China, and still also Japan (as well as Korea, Singapore and Taiwan), driving change in Asia and globally.

He passes a pretty rough judgment on Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation. He appears to think that as a country Indonesia has little right to exist as a sovereign state. According to Khanna, the Indonesian archipelago is impossible to govern, by either dictatorship or democracy. The distances – both geographically and socially in this world’s largest Muslim nation where some parts are primarily Hindu – are just too great to bridge easily.

Understandably, China and its role in the world is one of the important themes that permeates the book. In many sections, he describes China’s emerging role as a donor nation and partner to poorer countries. Years ago, I have myself witnessed China’s rather heavy presence in less developed countries, such as Laos, in its backyard. The Chinese footprint could be seen both in commercial connections as well as state-sponsored projects. Both had the tendency of leading to the depletion of forests and other natural resources, while helping the country to develop its roads and other infrastructure (partly to facilitate the said extraction of natural resources). Khanna describes in some detail how China has expanded its horizons and is making similar inroads into Central and Western Asia, Africa and Latin America, often competing with the United States and other developed countries. This was again confirmed by several African participants at a very recent meeting I participated in on harmonization of development aid. The Africans, at least at an official level, tend to see this mostly in positive terms. China gives as well as takes, and this is seen as a fair exchanged with little strings attached as it comes to social or environmental safeguards that more traditional donors tend to harp on. (China is not alone in this. For instance, in Portuguese-speaking Mozambique, Brazil has stepped in with its own commercial and aid programs.)

China itself is still a developing country. Or as Khanna says, there are really four Chinas: the southeast region that houses Shanghai and Hong Kong (as well as Taiwan that is technically a separate country but economically and culturally integrated into the motherland), and contains 60 percent of China’s wealth; the northeast quadrant, including the imperial capital of Beijing, that is not equally rich but certainly no longer third world either; then the two western quadrants (including the autonomous provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, which are ethnically and culturally separate from the Han China, but increasingly integrated through migration and economic links), which are still seriously poor and undeveloped. Like one Chinese official told me earlier this year, “China has seven Least Developed Countries in its west.”

Parag Khanna predicts that China will not democratize before it reaches its goal of a increasing the material standard of living of all its populace by mid-century. However, he also recognizes that the heavy-handed censorship of thought and jailing of China critical thinkers – and China remains “a country where telling the truth and telling lies are equally dangerous” (p. 320) – its international reputation will continue to suffer. He thinks that the country is now strong enough and its economic development so compelling that the government and Party could well afford to relax the controls.

One of the main conclusions in this interesting book focuses on the fluidity and uncertainty of the geopolitical landscape where the United States, Europe and China form competing spheres of interest, and where the increasingly powerful second world nations act as pieces on a great chessboard. In this tripolar world, each of the aspiring superpowers in its own way undermines the international architecture of global governance, “eroding the fiction that laws and institutions alone can restrain imperial competition (p. 335).”

The outcome of such a competition is not a given and each of the three have their weakness, summarized by Khanna: “America may not be able to afford its excessive consumption, nor Europe its expansion, nor China its environmental and social burdens (p. 321).”

The United States’ role is increasingly challenged in economic, financial and moral spheres. This is witnessed by how America today has must go it alone as its supposed allies balk at the military ventures, as well as America’s flaunting of international law and institutions (for example when it comes to trying to manage global climate change). The United States was central in creating the United Nations, but now disregards the organization in a way that Khanna calls “abusive negligence” (p. 336), which gives other nations the excuse to downplay the UN role equally.

One of the last chapters in the book is posed as a question, America: from the first world to the second? Referring to Toynbee, who seems to be an intellectual father of the author, Khanna recognizes that historically the most common causes of the decline of great nations have been increasing militarism and the deterioration of the creative minority. These both are evident in America’s recent developments. He observes what we living in the United States see every day, that America is no longer a middle-class nation. While the middle class is constantly squeezed, America is polarized into extremes of a superrich privileged class and a vast base of poorly educated and economically disadvantaged people. These are sure signs that the United States is inevitably slipping into the second world. In terms of income equality, the US is now competing with nations such as Brazil in displaying the widest differences.

Meanwhile, the second world is realigning itself in relation to the three poles as well as forming alliances amongst themselves. As Khanna observes, “the second-world anti-imperial belt of Venezuela, Iran, Kazakhstan, Libya, Malaysia and others will continue to focus as much on building ties among themselves as with Washington, Brussels, or Beijing (p. 325).” This process is dramatically changing the world geopolitics.

Khanna compares the tripolar world order to a stool, which can only be stable if all the three legs are steady. He calls for a new equilibrium in which the United States, the European Union, and China jointly determine the rules of the geopolitical game. He places some hope in the power of globalization that has linked the world into an intricate web of mutual interdependences that increasingly makes conflict a non-win situation. He ends the book by stating: “A century ago, globalization was defeated by geopolitics, unleashing World War I. The question is whether history will repeat itself a century later. The answer remains unknown, for as the second world shapes both geopolitics and globalization, diplomacy becomes ever more an art (p. 341).”

The Second World is an insightful and refreshing book in its politically incorrect frankness. Even if one were not to agree with every detail or prediction that Parag Khanna puts forth – as is inevitable in such a wide-ranging treatise – it seems impossible to ignore his basic arguments and conclusions about the great geopolitical changes that we are witnessing. The world will no longer be what we grew up with.