Off course: golf in South-East Asia

June 9, 1993

In May, young people carrying a banner "United Front Against Golf Course Development" demonstrated outside the offices of the minister for youth and sport in Jakarta, leading to a heated polemic in the newspapers.

A private company had received permission to develop a 700-hectare golf course and resort that would swallow up three villages and their surrounds. There are already 93 golf courses in Indonesia catering to the tiny elite able to afford the expensive facilities.

The demonstration highlighted an increasingly controversial issue in South-East Asia. In April, environmental and social justice activists from around the Asia-Pacific region met in Penang, Malaysia, to discuss coordinating their campaigns against the development of golf courses.

The conference and protests are a response to the massive expansion of golf course development in the ASEAN region, often with the support of Japanese aid money or with investment by major cigarette and alcohol companies from the west.

This expansion has been wreaking havoc in the lives of thousands of peasant farmers, who are being pushed off their land with little or no compensation. Areas around golf courses have also been affected by toxic chemicals and pesticides.

Perhaps the biggest environmental and social impact posed by golf course development is consumption and disruption of water supplies. The construction of golf courses has destroyed forests and wetlands, important elements in maintaining water flows.

One golf course requires 3000 to 5000 cubic metres of water a day to keep the turf green. This amount of water could provide for a village of as many as 2000 families. In Malaysia, the federal government will spend M$20 million ($12 million) supplying mainland water, which is becoming scarcer, to the island of Redang, where a golf-based tourist resort is located.

According to APPEN (Asia Pacific Peoples Environmental Network), which hosted the Malaysia meeting, in some "tourist destinations" — i.e. countries

— developers are trying to open protected forests. The Tourism Authority of Thailand, politicians and business people joined forces in March 1993 to pressure the Thai government to open up 13 national parks for private investment in tourism facilities such as hotels, restaurants and golf courses.

Promoters try to create an environmental image by calling golf a "green" sport. Environmental impact assessments (EIA) have been conducted to seek justification for golf course construction.

One such case in Malaysia is on Redang, an island rich with magnificent coral reefs, mangroves and marine life. Experts who reviewed the approved EIA for phase one of a golf course say that it ignored several crucial aspects, including erosion rates and the socioeconomic impact.

Golf courses need many other infrastructures, such as dams for electricity and water supplies, highways, bridges, ports and airports. The construction of this infrastructure also wipes out an immense amount of natural resources.

To keep expensive imported grasses green, golf courses need large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The average amount of agrochemicals used on a golf course is 1500 kg per year. This includes zeolite, which consists mainly of silicic acid, aluminium oxide and iron oxide, which may be carcinogenic.

The soil-coagulating agent used to strengthen the foundation of artificial lakes in golf courses uses acrylamid, a strong poison. Its contamination of underground water has caused severe poisoning and disorders of the central nervous system.

As a result of exposure to chemicals, many caddies, greenkeepers and residents near golf courses suffer eye irritations and skin diseases in addition to allergies, rashes and sores. The APPEN conference heard that at a country club on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, organic copper compounds were spread on the grass to keep it from rotting under the winter snow. When it rained, the chemical was washed into the water system. More than 90,000 fish in a nearby aquaculture project were killed.

Moreover, most of the pesticides and fertilisers, and sometimes the soil itself, must be imported, using up foreign exchange. According to research by the Thai

environmental group Anita Pleumarom, the average cost of developing a golf course in that country is US$47.5 million. US$4 million is spent on importing machinery, grass and chemicals. Even the players' clothes and equipment are manufactured abroad.

In Thailand nearly half a billion dollars has been spent on importing such material over the last three years. Most of the courses have large foreign shareholders, who repatriate their profits abroad. Some 200-300 workers are needed to construct a course, but once it is operational only 40 people are needed, and if the course is mechanised, the number of jobs may be as few as 10.

In all cases, there are enormous capital flows out of the host countries — the tourist dollar eventually goes back home.

Many of the five star hotels attached to the courses are also foreign owned, and foreign companies are used for infrastructure development. Only a small elite, operating as the partners of foreign business, tend to benefit.

Many countries are supporting golf course developments as part of their search for the tourist dollar.

In the Philippines, there are 64 golf courses, of which 54 meet international standards and therefore use major amounts of water and chemicals. The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), has been active in developing a master plan for tourism in the Philippines which includes many more resorts with associated golf courses. To implement this plan in the Calabarzon area near Manila, the government intends to evict 150,000 people from their homes and farms, and to convert 15,000 hectares of farmland into industrial sites.

By the end of 1993 there will be 160 golf courses throughout Thailand. Popular organisations and environmentalists have fought long battles against the plan to allow private investments in national parks. Yet, in the name of eco-tourism, there are new attempts by developers to privatise 13 existing national parks by allowing the creation of "tourism zones" which could include luxury hotels and golf courses.

As a result of deforestation and the lack of proper water management, a water shortage has become chronic in Thailand, and drought is looming. Many reservoirs

that supply golf courses have dried up, yet golf course operators continue to channel water away from public irrigation systems.

The sixth Malaysian development plan (1990-95) signalled the government's intention to push the nation down the same ruinous road. The tourism development plan, conceived by JICA, has led to an astounding 153 golf courses, with more being planned.

There are also plans for a massive expansion of golf courses in Indonesia, where golf is not so much a part of the tourist industry as a hobby of the expanding class of new rich. It has won status by the public identification of President Suharto and almost the whole military leadership with the game.

Clashes between peasant farmers and golf course developers have taken place in rural areas around Jakarta, sometimes involving hundreds of farmers and physical confrontations with the army and police. Farmers have been paid as little as Rp30 (less than three cents) per hectare — a figure unrelated to the value of the land as a site for five-star resort development.

The conference delegates called for an immediate moratorium on all golf course development and an open and public environmental and social review. All existing golf courses should be converted to public parks, and where they lie in forest areas, wetlands and islands, there should be rehabilitation and regeneration of the land to its natural state.

The delegates also called on their governments to investigate and prosecute all illegal occupation of public lands and encroachment into protected forests, diversion of water, violation and evasion of corporate regulations and corruption.

The meeting rejected the myth of "pesticide-free, environmentally friendly or sensitive" golf courses. The adoption of the US Golf Association specifications as the international standard requires a total package of exotic grass, toxic chemical fertilisers and pesticides, high water consumption and turf maintenance equipment. All this is destructive of the entire ecosystem.

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