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RECONCILING GROWTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT IN ASEAN

By Rene T. Domingo (email comments to rtd@aim.edu)

It seems that every third world country wants to be a tiger. As year 2000 looms nearer, ASEAN governments are planning and hoping for more accelerated industrial growth to cap the century. While development is essential to support and employ an increasing population, it can take its toll on the environment if not properly managed. Western nations and Japan can teach ASEAN a few lessons on the dire consequences of disregarding the environmental impact of rapid industrial development. The governments of industrialized countries have mostly been reactive in environmental issues, taking corrective action only after disaster has struck or mass protest forces them to do so. Only after companies and enterprises have wreck havoc on the environment and lives have been lost that legislation are enacted, fines imposed, arrests made, and compensation paid to victims.

ASEAN nations need not prepare for fruitless crisis management and costly damage control . They can plan for the preservation and protection of the environment as they plan for industrial development. They can take a more proactive stance now rather than repeat the mistakes of the West. While forests have been denuded and rivers polluted in many parts of the ASEAN region, it is not too late to enact more stringent legislation to avert industrial disasters and environmental crimes of the magnitude experienced by industrialized states. With its lack of environmental concern, ASEAN is still fortunate not to have catastrophes as horrific as Minamata (Japan), Thalidomide (Germany), Three Mile Island (USA), Exxon Valdez (USA), and Chernobyl (Russia). But the region may soon run out of luck for the most recent and deadliest environmental disaster occurred in Bhopal, India which is much closer to home and is very similar to ASEAN conditions.

While ASEAN have enacted some laws on the environment, these are not comprehensive and tough enough to change corporate behavior. Penalties for violation - e.g., for polluting the river - may amount to less than $10. With this degree of threat, corporations will not be excited to invest in multi-million dollar equipment to process industrial wastes before discharging them into the environment. With little or no legislation, profit-oriented companies will not voluntarily spend money on investments -- equipment and safety training -- which, in their view, will not give immediate payback and benefit to their stockholders. As we move full speed along the road to development without minding the environment, every ASEAN town or city becomes a potential Bhopal or Minamata.

There are various ways in which legislation and corporate policies can help preserve the environment to make it more safe, healthful, and life-sustaining. Preserving the environment is not just about making it "clean and green". It is not just about dredging rivers and planting trees. There are two ways man destroys the environment - he dirties it or he consumes it. Dirtying it means polluting it or littering it. The countermeasures are reprocess (e.g. waste water or industrial fumes treatment ) and recover (e.g. oil spills recovery). Reprocessing and recovery are steps in damage control and prevention.

While polluting the environment may be more sensational and newsworthy, the equally important crime is wanton consumption of natural resources and use of environment-unfriendly materials. The countermeasures in this regard are: replenish, reduce, replace, reuse, and recycle. These steps have to do more with increasing operational efficiency, rather than damage control or crisis management. We replenish when we replant trees used in logging. When designing or redesigning a product, companies can reduce its usage of scarce materials like wood or animal skin, or its usage of environment-unfriendly materials like non-biodegradable plastic, asbestos, or freon. The other option is to replace parts and materials with more abundant or more environment-friendly ones. To reuse materials, especially packaging materials (e.g. Coke bottles) is another way to reduce consumption and litter. Finally, if materials cannot be reused, they can be recycled. Some commonly recycled waste materials are paper, plastic, glass, metal, rubber.

As an offshoot of Total Quality Management (TQM) to improve product and service quality, some companies in the West are going into Total Quality Environmental Management (TQEM). TQEM is a refreshing development and a powerful business philosophy that can reconcile the corporate goals of growth and profitability with social responsibility to the community and environment. Companies are now beginning to realize that the quality and safety of the environment they operate in are just as important as the quality of the products and services they sell. It also means that customers include not only people who buy and use products, but also the community the companies do business in.. TQEM ranks safety the same as the business goals of quality, cost, and delivery. ASEAN governments and companies should look into TQEM as a useful framework and guide in reviewing and formulating legislation and policies that impact on the environment.


 

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