There’s an old development theory that is supposed to predict what a country will do with its natural resources, depending on how rich it is. It’s based on the idea of the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), after Simon Kuznets. Stick with me. Basically, the theory says that, during the early stages of a country’s increase in wealth, it increasingly degrades its environment at a faster and faster rate. We can crudely compare, say, the Republic of Congo (which is still desperately poor and retains its vast forest estate) and Ghana (which is wealthier than Congo-Brazzaville, but still poor, and which has traded in much of its forest capital over recent decades). At some point, however, a country should make a transition towards protecting and, later, even restoring its environment. Today, we can see this in some developed countries that have undergone rapid reforestation in recent times. For example, the UK has seen an increase in its forest cover since a low point after the First World War; in fact, the Woodland Trust now aims to actively double native forest cover over the coming decades. Here’s a nice graph of the supposed process:
Assuming it’s a valid concept, we know that an indicator of wealth, such as GDP, should indicate when a country might make the transition to environmental protection. But what, in reality, causes this transition? One intuitively obvious notion is that increasing wealth provides the financial security to allow environmental matters to finally get a look-in.
Importantly, countries often “overshoot”; sympathies for the environment often come far too late, at a price of both the services that natural ecosystems provide and their component biodiversity. Moreover, the loss of primary habitat and its biodiversity is largely irreversible. An important question is therefore what makes some countries able to “transition” efficiently. In turn, this leads to the idea that a key “pressure point” could exist, for the conservation agenda at least, to persuade countries to make the transition in good time.
With all this in mind, I’m currently trying to figure out if this applies to Malaysia, and where Malaysia might sit on this supposed trajectory of development. I present exhibit A:
This is the front page of one of the regional newspapers; in fact, one of the first things I picked up after arriving. What does it mean that on the front page there is a plea to save an old tree? OK, forgive me, but I think this is significant. Combined with the frequent references to “biodiversity” (the Sabah Times trumps even the Guardian on this), as well as the popular knowledge of Sabah’s unique natural heritage that I’ve come across, this seems to show that Malaysian Borneo is thoroughly onboard with the conservation agenda. Has Malaysia, still burdened with extreme poverty, begun to make the Kuznets transition whilst retaining more than 60% forest cover?
Unfortunately, the jury is still out. Much of the remaining forest has been intensively logged (often twice), and is therefore of unknown conservation value (we’re looking into it!). Moreover, the national newspapers are state controlled – most of the articles are about government appointments or planning announcements. It makes for dry reading, I can tell you. Trying to get a sense of the national mood from them is, at best, hard work. At worst, it’s like trying to nail jelly to a tree. Frustratingly unfruitful. Even more importantly, any environmental sympathies at large may well be just lip service to the conservation agenda, when the real motivation is in developing tourism. And tourism and conservation are not always easy bedfellows.
Hopefully, some of this will become clear in the months to come.