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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

'Yes' to buffaloes, 'no' to sunglasses

Jan 26, 2005 - Jakarta Post
'Yes' to buffaloes, 'no' to sunglasses
Singapore mindful of local culture when giving aid to tsunami survivors in Meulaboh

By Tertiani Zb Simanjuntak

IT CAME as no surprise when the trucks full of soldiers with familiar faces passing along the main streets of Meulaboh on the west coast of Aceh were greeted by waving children and adults yelling 'Singaporeans, Singaporean soldiers have arrived'.

As the first of the foreign troops to enter Meulaboh, almost 80 per cent of which was devastated by the Dec 26 disaster, the Singaporean defence force has paved the way for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the small town.

Life has gradually been returning in the harbour town. While few fishermen are brave enough to set out to sea, the town has been almost completely cleared of rubble and flotsam, while the market and stores have reopened.

'The town is getting busier day by day - traffic jams everywhere. It's a good sign,' Colonel Tan Chuan Jin, who commands the entire relief operation being mounted from three Singaporean warships - the RSS Endurance, the RSS Persistence and the RSS Endeavour - laying at anchor off Meulaboh, told the Jakarta Post.

The neighbouring country immediately responded to the disaster by sending medical supplies and other forms of assistance to Aceh's capital city, Banda Aceh, and Medan in North Sumatra. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) later decided to focus relief efforts on Meulaboh, where access by road had been cut by the tsunami.

The unarmed troops have been busy restoring the shore and roads and cleaning up the city. They have also constructed two landing pads for helicopters.

Following the reopening of the road from Medan and the construction of the helipads, more relief workers and aid supplies have been arriving in Meulaboh.

The SAF initiated a coordination system with the Indonesian authorities in Meulaboh, ensuring that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) brought in only what the displaced people and locals actually needed.

From the RSS Endurance, Col Tan commands 'Singapore's biggest military operation ever', organising the work of up to 800 personnel, including medical teams and members of the Singapore Red Cross and NGOs.

He also has at his disposal six Chinooks and two Super Puma helicopters, dozens of bulldozers, diggers, excavators, forklifts, tractors, trucks and other vehicles.

Despite the humid and sunny weather of the coastal area, none of the soldiers wears sunglasses, especially among locals, as they find it 'rude and un-Asian'. The fatigue endured by the soldiers, who are mostly conscripts and have to travel from the vessel to shore every day at 7am and sail back at 5pm before completing their duties on board by 10.30pm, was quickly dispelled by the well wishes and prayers sent by Singaporean elementary school students.

Scaling down their operation in Meulaboh, which started on New Year's Eve, the soldiers sailed off on Jan 21 after the Muslim troops among the contingent celebrated the big day (Hari Raya Haji) with locals. The SAF contributed 20 buffaloes to be slaughtered for the festivities at several camps.

'We have set up a system here which can be continued by other organisations that have better capabilities than we have and will continue to deliver humanitarian assistance from Singapore and various NGOs and international organisations,' Col Tan remarked.

The Singaporean troops have also established a temporary command centre that can be used by whoever takes their place 'as a symbol of the start of reconstruction in Meulaboh'.

'Although we were the first to arrive, it doesn't mean we're the last to stay. I hope it means the relationship between the two countries is getting stronger,' Col Tan said.

This article appeared in the Jakarta Post on Jan 20.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Hostels/Budget Hotels in Singapore

 
 

The Chinese of Aceh (ESWN/Yazhou Zhoukan)

From ESWN's blogger site:
 
 
The following information appeared in two articles in the January 16, 2005 issue of Yazhou Zhoukan.  ESWN has translated only the sections that pertain to the Chinese in Aceh.  They are more detailed and credible than what was originally published in the Apple Daily.  In the three days of anarchy after the tsunami hit, the hungry survivors would have gone to any food store, Chinese-owned or otherwise.

At the southern end of the Indonesian province of Aceh, there is a city called Medan.  There, the Chinese can seek solace and comfort.  Medan is the largest city in Sumatra.  After the tsunami disaster, the Chinese society has become a support area for the disaster zone, as well as a safe haven for all the Chinese refugees who have fled to Medan.  

About six kilometers away from the city center of Medan, there is a village known as Metal with a population of about 2,700 persons.  In 1965, there was a bloody coup in Indonesia.  Of the 80,000 Chinese people in Aceh province, several thousands were slaughtered and three-quarters of them were forced to leave their homes and lose their possessions.  The surviving Aceh Chinese fled to Medan, and were received kindly by the local Chinese people who gave them a piece of land as a refugee camp.  This would become the village of Metal today.

At presently, there are still 2,700 Chinese residents in Metal.  In 1998, there was more anti-Chinese riots across Indonesia, but the people of Metal village decided to take up arms to defend their village against the bad elements that wanted to raid and loot their homes, even as the Chinese elsewhere in Indonesia suffered silently.

Our reporter went into the village of Metal recently, and saw several hundred volunteers at the town hall offering help to the refugees -- medical treatment, cooking, registration, donating money and ferrying new refugees in from the Medan airport.  Since the tsunami struck, more than 6,000 Aceh refugees have passed through the village of Metal, most of them being Chinese.

The temporary headquarters erected on the basketball court is stacked with food, water and clothing donated by people.  The villagers have converted the unoccupied houses into temporary shelters so that the refugees won't have to stay out in the open.  With the help of the refugee center, many refugees have found their relatives and are temporarily staying with them.  For now, there are still more than 200 refugees with nowhere to go.

44-year-old Li was born in Banda Aceh and had lived there happily with her 47-year-old husband and two daughters.  On the day of the tsunami, she had gone out on a business errand and she was swept away by water that came as high as her neck.  She survived, but her home was destroyed and her husband and two daughters are missing.  She was obviously distressed by the destruction of everything that she lived for.

A kind friend in Banda Aceh took Li in and then paid for an airplane ticket that was higher than market price to get her to Medan, so that she did not have to look at the dead bodies all over Banda Aceh.  Li showed the photos of her family to our reporter and said, "I have not seen their bodies.  There are thousands and thousands of bodies all over the city.  How am I going to find them?  I lost all my documents in the tsunami.  Without documents, I cannot get work."

Li is currently living in the shelter in the village of Medan.  This is not a solution to her long-term situation.  Although Aceh has brought her so much sorrow, she still wants to go back there because of the many fond memories.

There are about 6 million Chinese in Indonesia, or about 3.8% of the total population.  During the rule of former president Suharto, the Chinese were treated as second-class citizens who were pawns in the political struggle.

The local guide to the reporter had lived in Aceh before having to flee to Medan during the 1965 anti-Chinese riots.  This time, many Chinese had to bribe their ways to get out of Banda Aceh.  For example, the national airline Garuda increased its ticket prices out of Banda Aceh by 100%.  Other Chinese have complained that they could not receive essential supplies such as food and water unless they paid for it.  Many Chinese also found out that although their shops were not affected by the tsunami, they received warnings to leave and then their shops were looted.

The local guide said that the official response was slow at first, and many hungry survivors had to raid the stores to get food.  It just so happened that many of these stores were owned by Chinese people.  Since then, the situation has calmed down when the authorities reasserted themselves.

After the disaster happened, most of the Chinese people fled Aceh.  There are only about several hundred Chinese left in Banda Aceh.  There is a rumor that some Chinese were prevented from leaving by the authorities, or that only the children and elderly were allowed to leave while the able-bodied adults were forced to stay to help.  The Chinese community is concerned that since most of the Chinese left without helping, there may be some adverse reaction afterwards from the Indonesians.


In Aceh province, two major disaster areas are Banda Aceh with a population of 350,000 and Meulaboh with a population of 50,000.  About half of the buildings in the former are destroyed and 80% of the latter has been leveled.  There are about 400 Chinese-owned stores in Banda Aceh, and many of them were robbed during the three days of anarchy after the disaster.

According to a Mister Lee who fled to Medan, his three-story building was not destroyed, but all his merchandise was flooded.  Everyone was panicky, and epidemics were imminent due to the large number of unburied bodies.  That was why many Chinese fled from the city.  A Mister Zhang said that Chinese stores were looted in individual instances, and not in systematic campaigns directed specifically against the Chinese.  

In Meulaboh, there were about 150 Chinese-owned stores, and they have all been destroyed.  The military issued a warning about 20 minutes before the sea water came so that many people were able to find safe areas, but a small number of Chinese still perished.

Lhokseumawe is located on the northeastern coast of Aceh province and has a population of 150,000, of which about 3,000 are Chinese.  None of the 160 dead were Chinese.  After the tsunami, there were instances of looting but they were not directed against the Chinese alone.  Lhokseumawe was the fastest city to restore public order since it has a large military garrison.

Many of the ex-Aceh Chinese people in Jakarta and elsewhere in Indonesian have mixed feelings.  The disaster area was familiar to them.  They do not harbor any bitterness about being mistreated in the past, because they understood that it was an extreme action during a political movement.  A successful businessman Mr. Xu does not believe that the Chinese who were Indonesian citizens were not in danger, but they left because they did not want to get hurt in the chaos.

As for the looting of the Aceh Chinese, the rapes of the women and the differential treatment in receiving emergency relief materials, an Aceh human rights activist said that those were inaccurate information disseminated via mobile phone SMS's.  

Saturday, January 15, 2005

A catalyst for Medan's development

INDONESIA INSIGHT

A catalyst for Medan's development

Indonesian city will be a major beneficiary of the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Aceh after the tsunami disaster

 

 

By SHOEB KADGA

Business Times

 

IN THE wake of the tsunami disaster, business opportunities abound in Medan, where life has always been rather laid-back. Traffic snarls are stranger to the city's broad boulevards - unlike Jakarta, where a short 10-minute journey can take an hour in peak hours.

 

 

Indonesia's third-largest city, however, is experiencing a renaissance of sorts since aid workers and international relief organisations made it their base for operations into the battered province of Aceh. Hotel lobbies are buzzing with activity and getting a room at any four-star hotel is a challenge - unlike pre-Dec 26, when one could just walk into any of the city's major hotels and find a room.

 

Occupancy rates at nearly every major hotel have shot up to 100 per cent, compared with just 40 per cent before the tsunamis ripped through Aceh. Car rental agencies are also doing brisk business as are restaurants and nightclubs. The city's trading community, however, has been significantly hurt by the tragedy that befell its northern neighbour. Medan has always acted as a gateway for Aceh and the surrounding region, and the tsunami disaster has been both a blessing and curse for the city's business community.

 

Before the disaster, 15 per cent of Medan's economy was dependent on Aceh as goods and services flowed both ways. Items like basic foodstuff, textiles, electronic goods, household items and vehicles were shipped from Medan to Banda Aceh and other destinations in the province, while agricultural produce from Aceh found its way to Medan before being distributed to the rest of the country.

 

Following the calamity, supplies from Aceh have stopped as the province's agricultural sector has been decimated and many Medan merchants have had to write off substantial debts owed by their counterparts in the province. With insurance almost non-existent, there is little hope of these debts ever being repaid.

 

But a silver lining has emerged for many of the traders affected by the tragedy. As aid flows into Aceh pick up, Medan has become a major sourcing centre for sugar, cooking oil and other basic necessities being transported to the worst-hit areas.

 

Demand for some items such as sugar is so great that it has created a supply shortage and driven prices up in the city.

 

Looking at the longer-term picture, the catastrophe could be a catalyst for the future development of the city. Medan will be a major beneficiary of the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Aceh, given the city's strong cultural and economic ties with the province. If the government in Jakarta is able to develop a comprehensive and clear reconstruction plan for Aceh, Medan's businessmen will be quick to grab the opportunities that will surely be created.

 

Vice-President Jusuf Kalla has already said that it will take five years and US$2 billion to rebuild Aceh's infrastructure. Roads, bridges, hospitals, power plants, schools and many other public amenities will have to be constructed, and all these projects will require cement, steel, glass and other building materials.

 

Nearly all of these items are expected to reach Aceh via Medan. Over the next decade, the rebuilding of Aceh, if it proceeds smoothly and without massive leakages, could help Medan's economy expand by up to 25 per cent, some businessmen and economists have estimated. And if the Acehnese themselves concentrate on rebuilding their lives and their province instead of waging war with Jakarta, the benefits to the whole region will be multifold.

 

But moving to that phase of economic activity will require detailed planning, strong commitment and, most importantly, security in the area. No businessman will risk his capital if Aceh continues to be a conflict zone. The tsunami, while having taken tens of thousands of lives and cost millions of dollars in damage, has at the same time created a window of opportunity for the people of Aceh and Medan.

 

Friday, January 14, 2005

Enter the Chinese Dragon, Now Bearing Minicars

 

New York Times

January 7, 2005

Enter the Chinese Dragon, Now Bearing Minicars

By CHRIS BUCKLEY

 

EIJING, Jan. 6 - After a year in which dozens of Chinese corporations went global with their plans, the Chery Automobile Company has joined them with an ambitious gamble to become the first Chinese automaker to sell cars in the United States.

 

The company announced this week that beginning in 2007 it would export 250,000 cars to the United States in partnership with Visionary Vehicles, an auto import and distribution company based in New York. Visionary Vehicles said the Chery cars would be 30 percent cheaper than comparable models sold in the United States and would offer a 10-year warranty.

 

The plan's scope, and the company's own peculiarities, give the undertaking a faintly quixotic hue. For starters, there is the company's whimsical name, made up of two Chinese characters that suggest astonishing good fortune; its hometown amid the rice paddies of Anhui Province in eastern China, one of the country's poorest areas; and its American partner, Malcolm Bricklin, perhaps best known for his attempt to sell the clunky Yugo to American buyers.

 

In 2002, he planned to bring a new line of Serbian-made cars to the United States and sell 60,000 a year. He said recently that he moved on to China because of concerns about quality issues at the Serbian plant.

 

There is also Chery's history of generously drawing inspiration from other carmakers' designs. General Motors is suing Chery, claiming that Chery's QQ is a clone of its Chevrolet Spark, a minicar sold in China. Volkswagen has in the past complained that Chery poached parts of VW models.

 

But the hardest part of the plan may be the production scale envisioned. With sales of about 80,000 vehicles last year, Chery is China's eighth-largest automaker, standing deep in the shadows of major multinational competitors like Volkswagen and G.M. To even produce the number of exports planned to the United States, Chery would have to nearly triple current output, though it says has the capacity to do so.

 

While analysts are skeptical of Chery's immediate prospects in the United States, many of them describe it and other Chinese manufacturers as ambitious and dogged players focused on the long term.

 

"They might be trying to run before they can walk," said Michael Dunne, the president of Auto Resources Asia, "but don't underestimate the Chinese resolve to compete." Auto Resources Asia advises carmakers investing in Asia.

 

Mr. Bricklin, chief executive of Visionary Vehicles, said his company would initially sell five models of Chery cars, including a small sedan, a sport coupe and an S.U.V., through 250 dealerships across the United States. He said he hoped to sell a million Chery cars a year in the United States after five years.

 

If Chery's ambitious move succeeds, it would be a breakthrough for a company best known for the QQ, a minicar with a $4,000 cost that appeals to China's budget-conscious consumers and is the backbone of Chery's revenue. The QQ will not be sold in the United States, owing to the G.M. litigation, analysts say.

 

But Chery has a track record of unlikely breakthroughs. The company was founded in 1997 in Wuhu, a small port city on the Yangtse in the heavily agricultural Anhui Province, far from carmaking hubs like Shanghai. It is state-owned, and controlled by the Wuhu local government. Chery officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

 

Many investors and competitors were initially doubtful that Chery would survive, said Mr. Dunne, who has visited its headquarters in Wuhu. "They quietly got it done and surprised the market," he said.

 

Mr. Dunne recalled that when he visited Chery's plant he was surprised by its advanced building and equipment. Chery has developed Japanese-inspired production management to ensure quality and has used top international consultants to design its newest cars, he said.

 

But those expensive investments must be recouped, and looking abroad is partly a survival strategy. As car sales in China slowed from breakneck growth of 80 percent in 2003 to about 20 percent last year, the country's 37 carmakers have been cutting prices, and competition is fierce. Chinese carmakers that have invested heavily in expensive technology are looking abroad to outrun even cheaper Chinese competitors.

 

"Now the party's over and they're starting to think, 'Let's make our way in the international market,' " Mr. Dunne said, referring to Chinese carmakers.

 

Those pressures are acute for Chery. It sold about 40,000 QQ's last year. But its higher-end cars, the A15 Qiyun and Son of East models released last year, failed to catch on. Other Chinese companies, like Great Wall Motors and the Geely Holding Group, are also developing plans to export in large numbers, analysts said.

 

But more than purely commercial calculations may be driving Chery, whose main export markets so far are the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. Chery and its rivals are also spurred by the cachet and brand recognition that come with exporting to the United States - even if it is to the low end of the market.

 

"They feel they haven't arrived until they have successful export markets," said Ashvin Chotai, director of Asian auto research for Global Insight, a market analysis company in London. "It's this prestige thing. If they're successful abroad, they're a serious player."

 

Chery will face a barrage of doubts from prospective dealers and purchasers as it prepares to enter the United States. Chery will also have to meet more stringent safety and emissions requirements than in China, will face questions about reliability and after-sales service, and probably be subject to a counteroffensive from Korean and Japanese competitors keen to protect their share of the economy car market.

 

Chery also risks the fate of Hyundai, which had steep losses in the United States when it sold its lower-priced cars there in the 1980's.

 

"You can get it wrong and go too early," Mr. Chotai said. "In a sense, it's a little bit naïve."

 

To succeed, though, Chery and other Chinese manufacturers must evolve from being mimickers of other company's cars to innovators, Mr. Chotai said. To do that, Chery will have to have a steady stream of new models and innovations to control costs and attract new buyers. It has established a research and development center and hired engineers from big American carmakers in that effort.

 

Whether it succeeds will also depend ultimately on its performance in China, which will remain its greatest source of revenue and a testing ground for new cars.

 

"China's a cutthroat market now," Mr. Chotai said. "If Chery comes out in a good financial position, its prospects will be good, but that depends also on new products."

 

In the United States, the challenges are different. But like Japanese and Korean car companies before them, Chinese automakers are likely to one day be serious competitors in America, analysts say.

 

"If you look at long-term trends, I would say that it's only a matter of time before China-made cars crack the U.S. market," said James Sun, head of the greater China automotive practice of A. T. Kearney in Shanghai.

 

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

In death, imperialism lives on

http://www.guardian.co.uk/tsunami/story/0,15671,1381295,00.html

 

Comment

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In death, imperialism lives on

 

For the western media, it is clear that a tourist's tragedy is more important than that of the 'locals'

 

Jeremy Seabrook

Friday December 31, 2004

The Guardian

 

The number of fishing boats from Sumatra, Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu at sea when the Boxing Day tsunami hit will never be known. There is scarcely any population tally of the crowded coasts. Nameless people are consigned to unmarked graves; in mosques and temples, makeshift mortuaries, people pull aside a cloth, a piece of sacking, to see if those they loved lie beneath. As in all natural disasters, the victims are overwhelmingly the poorest.

This time there was something different. The tsunami struck resorts where westerners were on holiday. For the western media, it was clear that their lives have a different order of importance from those that have died in thousands, but have no known biography, and, apparently, no intelligible tongue in which to express their feelings. This is not to diminish the trauma of loss of life, whether of tourist or fisherman. But when we distinguish between "locals" who have died and westerners, "locals" all too easily becomes a euphemism for what were once referred to as natives. Whatever tourism's merits, it risks reinforcing the imperial sensibility.

 

For this sensibility has already been reawakened by all the human-made, preventable catastrophes. The ruins of Galle and Bandar Aceh called forth images of Falluja, Mosul and Gaza. Imperial powers, it seems, anticipate the destructive capacity of nature. A report on ITN news made this explicit, by referring to "nature's shock and awe". But while the tsunami death toll rises in anonymous thousands, in Iraq disdainful American authorities don't do body counts.

 

One of the most poignant sights of the past few days was that of westerners overcome with gratitude that they had been helped by the grace and mercy of those who had lost everything, but still regarded them as guests. When these same people appear in the west, they become the interloper, the unwanted migrant, the asylum seeker, who should go back to where they belong. A globalisation that permits the wealthy to pass effortlessly through borders confines the poor to eroded subsistence, overfished waters and an impoverishment that seems to have no end. People rarely say that poor countries are swamped by visitors, even though their money power pre-empts the best produce, the clean water and amenities unknown to the indigenous population.

 

In death, there should be no hierarchy. But even as Sri Lankans wandered in numb disbelief through the corpses, British TV viewers were being warned that scenes they were about to witness might distress them. Poor people have no consoling elsewhere to which they can be repatriated. The annals of the poor remain short and simple, and can be effaced without inquiry as to how they contrive an existence on these fragile coasts. What are the daily visitations of grief and loss in places where people earn less in a year than the price that privilege pays for a night's stay in a five-star hotel?

 

Western governments, which can disburse so lavishly in the art of war, offer a few million as if it were exceptional largesse. Fortunately the people are wiser; and the spontaneous outpourings of humanity have been as unstoppable as the waves that broke on south Asia's coasts; donations rapidly exceeded the amount offered by government. Selflessness and sacrifice, people working away at rubble with bare hands, suggest immediate human solidarities.

 

But these are undermined by the structures of inequality. Promises solemnly made at times of immediate sorrow are overtaken by other urgencies; money donated for the Orissa cyclone, for hurricane Mitch in Central America, the floods in Bangladesh, the Bam earthquake - as for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq - turns out to be a fraction of what is pledged.

 

Such events remind us of the sameness of our human destiny, the fragility of our existence. They place in perspective the meaning of security. Life is always at the mercy of nature - whether from such overwhelming events as this, or the natural processes that exempt no one from paying back to earth the life it gave us. Yet we inhabit systems of social and economic injustice that exacerbate the insecurity of the poor, while the west is prepared to lay waste distant towns and cities in the name of a security that, in the end, eludes us all.

 

Assertions of our common humanity occur only at times of great loss. To retrieve and hold on to it at all other times - that would be something of worth to salvage from these scenes of desolation.

 

· Jeremy Seabrook is the author of Consuming Cultures: Globablisation and Local Life

 

comment@guardian.co.uk

 

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Asian Pulp and Paper (APP) & Cambodia

A forest falls in Cambodia

By Keith Andrew Bettinger

ASIA TIMES

 

 

The lucrative logging industry in Southeast Asia has always blurred the lines between legal and illegal, with huge payments  greasing the wheels of easily corruptible bureaucrats and politicians. As a result, entire industries have learned to accept inputs gotten by hook or crook, causing profit-hungry firms to fall over each other to meet rising demand.

 

Asian Pulp and Paper (APP), founded in Indonesia in 1984, has drawn criticism for its logging activities, as well as for jilting investors. (The firm became the largest corporate defaulter in emerging market history when it stopped payments on US$14 billion in debt in March 2001.)

 

APP's most recent rebuke has been in Cambodia, where it has set up several firms - Green Rich and Green Elite - to log concessions, which have for a long time been a favorite target because the government has been less than scrupulous in handing them out. Recently, however, the Ministry of Environment has been sending signals that it will no longer tolerate any shenanigans, including the cutting of ancient forests in national parks.

 

Exploit then pull out

Huge logging companies, many based in Malaysia and Indonesia and with ties to powerful families and external sources of capital, have established a modus operandi in which they exploit irreplaceable, biodiversity-rich forests in remote locales where they can log for a few years and then pull up stakes before the protests of environmentalists and watchdog groups are heard.

 

In the 1990s, logging concessions were used as a foot-in-the-door tactic into countries with officials amenable to closed-door deals. These sorts of concessions required nothing in the way of planning, tendering, environmental assessments, or background checks on the firms to confirm their suitability and reputations. According to Global Witness's Cambodia campaigner, Mike Davis, pressure from environmental groups has put an end to this avenue in most countries in the region, though the logging conglomerates have designed a new strategy. "Now the vehicle of choice is economic land concessions nominally for the creation of plantations that happen to be situated on forests, which are then cut," Davis said.

 

The problems caused by illegal logging could fill a chapter in an environmental science textbook: fuel for civil wars (Cambodia), loss of biodiversity (Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia), disruption of agricultural production (Cambodia), and deadly landslides (Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia), among others. All of the countries of Southeast Asia have suffered from at least some of these negative consequences. Many of the problems are regional. The falling levels of the Mekong River are an environmental catastrophe in the making, while the siltation and salinization caused by erosion from poorly planned clear cuts is affecting fish catches throughout the region and threatening the livelihoods of fishermen across Southeast Asia.

 

At the same time, destruction of rainforests from Indonesia to China affects rainfall levels, causing droughts like the one that has gripped several provinces in Cambodia. The new tactic of creating plantation forests destroys habitats and biodiversity by replacing what is in effect a botanical garden with the equivalent of a patch of cabbage. Animal habitats are destroyed, as well as potentially crucial genetic resources. Yet logging continues unabated as powerful transnationals establish shell companies and corporate facades in various countries to take advantage of weak institutions. With promises of jobs, foreign exchange and payoffs to officials, these firms are welcomed with open arms. Only much later is the extent of the damage understood, as ecological calamities manifest themselves. All too often those who bear the brunt of the damage are the least powerful, and those who benefit from the graft suffer no consequences, as corrupt judicial systems and family and political ties enable them to buy their way out of trouble. Meanwhile, the transnational logging firm sets up another corporate entity or establishes a new joint venture to begin the process anew down the road or up the river.

 

These logging companies are not bound by considerations that constrain traditional Asian conglomerates, such as long-term viability, because the very nature of their business creates perverse incentives to log as much as possible before the sun sets, so to speak. Furthermore, there is a whole sub-economy based on the extraction of hardwoods and other forest resources; stop-gap measures that are employed rarely address the true root of the problem - demand.

 

Asian Pulp and Paper

APP's business model is a tactically aggressive one: it turns huge profits by quickly stripping forests bare, exploiting age-old forests and indigenous peoples, and leaving town before the environmental consequences are felt. By the time communities and governments lodge complaints and lawsuits, APP has divested itself of local interests and assets.

 

Currently APP is restructuring its debt burden. On Sunday the Financial Times reported that the firm appeared to be moving toward a debt resolution that would pay creditors a tiny fraction of the more than US$4.5 billion it owes them: at the end of January, APP is expected to put a $5 billion restructuring system in place at three of its four main Indonesian subsidiaries.

 

Meanwhile, evidence that Cambodia's Ministry of Environment may be serious about cracking down on firms came from Minister Mok Maret. "[Green Rich] has always continued sneaking in [to] cut our thick forest ... The company has to face the legal procedure before the law," the minister told IFocus, a Cambodian publication.

 

While the charges seem startling, an international conglomerate boldly defying a national government to denude a precious jungle reserve, they are not new. Environmental groups in Cambodia and abroad have known about the clear-cutting for months. Furthermore, observers in Cambodia note that Mok Maret's threats to sue come only after months of criticism for his role in signing off on the illegal concession document in the first place. Cambodia has a long history of sacrificing its forest resources to line the pockets of those who have power.

 

Thus, the timing of the announcement is somewhat opportunistic. Cambodia, a nation dependent on foreign aid for an estimated 50% of its official expenditures, has recently endured its periodic consultation with donors, a biannual exercise in futility in which donor nations admonish Cambodia to work harder to reign in its epidemic problems in human and drug trafficking, official corruption and environmental piracy. Each time this meeting convenes the donors threaten to stop aid to the country, the term "donor fatigue" is bandied about quite frequently, and at each meeting the government, perpetually headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, promises to get tough and crack down on the aforementioned problems.

 

The money continues to flow, in some cases exceeding the requests of the Cambodian authorities. But it is well known that the roots of each problem are so intertwined with the government that the government could not function without the revenue generated by illegal activities. Furthermore, there is a sense among government officials that such actions are rooted in hundreds of years of tradition and political practice, so that what falls under an official's purview includes the right to exploit, mine and chop; the essence of the idea is that the land is one's to do with what one will. So each conference is followed by statements of intent and promises that are rarely if ever followed through, while the donor community continues to treat Cambodia like a delinquent child that might change his ways if given enough opportunities to reform.

 

Thus, while the Environmental Ministry's recent actions gain the praise of environmental groups and international observers, congratulatory statements are tempered by conditional statements indicating a skepticism that has developed over years of interactions with Cambodia's ministries. Says Mike Davis of Global Witness: "If followed through, this would be a crucial first step towards terminating the recent rash of illegal economic concessions that threaten Cambodia's protected area system."

 

APP has a history of moving from country to country and ignoring laws, moratoriums and official proclamations. Despite the fact that then-Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri declared illegal logging a capital offence punishable by firing squad last summer, it was not until the end of October that APP decided to stop logging in Indonesia. Still, according to a recent Greenpeace report, up to 90% of all industrial wood extraction in Indonesia is illegal. And despite the fact that the Ministry of Environment in Cambodia has threatened to sue, sources inside Cambodia say the trees continue to fall, and that even if APP loses its concession within the Botum Sakor National Park, they have other concessions in Cambodia that dwarf the maximum allowable by law.

 

A history of questionable activity

From its beginnings, APP's activities have always been legally questionable, but it has always had powerful friends. The firm has operated in various countries throughout Asia since 1984 and has been listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Before 2000, APP aggressively issued bonds and was seen as a good investment by many brokerage firms. The bullishness toward the firm came to an end in 2001 when it defaulted on $14 billion in debt. Although some banks have written off the debt and APP has been delisted from the New York Stock Exchange, the US Import-Export bank has pursued action against APP, as have some hedge funds. Of course, the firm is in the process of restructuring its debt burden, but observers note that APP has a history of manipulating arbitration processes and debt negotiations. And while "reputable" institutions in the West have abandoned APP, there are still powerful friends in China, Cambodia and Indonesia.

 

Although APP has left a sour taste in the mouths of many close to the devastation in Southeast Asia, the company and its subsidiaries have had great success in ingratiating themselves with Chinese banks and local officials, and thus China has become a larger variable in the APP profitability equation. APP has made tremendous investments in Yunnan province, including building the largest pulp mill in China, a country notorious for its low-level corruption and decentralized control in these matters, with local party chiefs functioning as plenipotentiaries and brokers of all deals.

 

Contributing to APP's penetration of China is a seemingly endless supply of credit. According to Greenpeace, Chinese banks are still willing to lend to APP despite the firm's pariah status among Western firms and Southeast Asian banks. And although several Japanese, European and American conglomerates have pledged to no longer do business with APP, the loose regulation and wild-west style of business in China creates short-term opportunities.

 

The firm has made the most of its Chinese connection; it has increased production capacity far beyond the ability of its eucalyptus plantations to supply. This leads observers to suspect that APP counts on access to illegal timber from Cambodia, China and Laos in its profitability forecasts. Greenpeace, Global Witness and the World Wildlife Fund have all observed that APP has a habit of opening mills without first securing a sustainable pulp wood supply, and sources familiar with the issues say APP has its sights set on Russia and Myanmar, two nations known for corruption.

 

APP and companies like it have succeeded in creating a new business model reliant on a regional lack of accountability.

 

Forests are especially attractive as nations try to improve macroeconomic figures to attract investment and dress up their economic performance. Thus, natural resources are unsustainably used to create short-term returns for multinationals and to artificially boost gross domestic product figures. Weak institutions and a little money changing hands also helps to facilitate the timber laundering industry, which has been active between Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia. Bribes facilitate nation-of-origin stamping and can purchase visas for seaman, truck drivers and others involved in transport. There is an entire timber economy functioning throughout the region.

 

As Asia cleans up in the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in history, many people are starting to pay attention to the warnings of environmentalists, examining how industrial expansion and non-sustainable extraction have exacerbated the damage. Experts suggest that over the past 50 years half of all the mangrove forests in Asia have been destroyed. While the long-term deleterious effects on reefs and coastal ecosystems has long been known, this slow death is down on the list of considerations in a region struggling to develop. It takes a cataclysm's pause for reflection; experts say that if mangrove stands still existed in places such as Thailand, the damage caused by the tsunamis would have been greatly reduced. The same could be said for the long-term damage caused by short-term profit-driven logging throughout Southeast Asia. While deadly landslides are tragic and have caused Thailand and the Philippines to ban logging, the damage caused by illegal logging will have much more profound effects on the region, both economically and socially.

 

Keith Andrew Bettinger is a researcher and journalist currently based in Kuala Lumpur. His interests include development and environmental issues, as well as US and international politics. He is a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, and has advanced degrees in international affairs and education. He can be contacted at kisu1492@yahoo.com.

Aceh Tourism website

This is the beautiful website of Aceh Province's Tourism Department.  Have a look at what has been destroyed.
 
 
 

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Back from Hainan / Email Problems

Dear All,

 

I returned to Singapore from Hainan, China last Saturday.  I had a wonderful trip, although that was somewhat discolored by the tsunami tragedy that overwhelmed the world last week.  To those of you who hadn’t made donations to the many disaster relief funds that have appeared since, please do contribute something. 

 

My personal email server (weecheng.com) has been experiencing some problems since 25 December.  Emails sent to me have either bounced or gone missing.  For those of you who had emailed me since 25 December, please send the emails again.

 

In Hainan, I visited the ancestral house where my father was born, an ancient building with high ceiling and unique Hainan-style ceiling frescoes depicting farming life and Hainan’s subtropical flora.  I walked along the country lanes and chatted to the prawn farmers and rice peasants who are my distant relations and family friends over the past few centuries.  Among them, I learned the many tales of tragedy, courage, glories and humiliation that relate to these people at the far southern edge of China. 

 

I traveled across to the island’s southern edge, to the beach resort city of Sanya, which recently hosted for the second time, Miss World.  The many seafront hotels, holiday villas, golf courses, malls and endless miles of beaches with coconut palms reminded me not of China, but of Miami Beach and Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. 

 

I hired a taxi to the ancient city of Yazhou to the west, where an ancestor of mine seized military control over eight centuries ago.  I also explored the Hui Muslim villages in the western suburbs of Sanya, where the locals were descendents of a people who once built a powerful Hindu kingdom in what is today central Vietnam.  I went to the central Highlands of Hainan, where the Li’s, a formerly ferocious tribe once feared for their magic and admired for their embroidery skills, still live. 

 

A few portions of the famous Hainanese chicken rice, and I decided that I prefer the Singapore version, with its smooth tender texture and fiery chili sauce with ginger.

 

I did not uncover more information about my ancestors, but I have brought back with me many books and much source material.  This is only the beginning of a search process.  Maybe a further trip to find out more about this land.

 

That’s all this time.  I will write more about my Hainan journey.

 

Regards,

 

Wee Cheng

Monday, January 03, 2005

A Colombian in 'the Louvre of Asia'

A Colombian in 'the Louvre of Asia'

Michael Vatikiotis

Thursday, December 23, 2004

International Herald Tribune

 

SINGAPORE 'I'm of the old school," says Fernando Botero. "I believe art should give pleasure."

 

So, has this Colombian master, one of the most successful living artists in the world, chosen the right place to mount one of the biggest exhibitions of his work? Singapore, the nanny state that banned chewing gum and demands a permit even for free speech, doesn't exactly conjure up images of pleasure.

 

But things are changing in this balmy city state, where in contrast to many contemporary Asian cities, the palm trees are real, old buildings are preserved and culture of all kinds attracts the sort of funding that many western capitals are starved of. "We see ourselves as the Louvre of Asia," gushed a Singapore Tourist Board official at the launch of some 20 of Botero's monumental sculptures and almost 80 paintings in early December.

 

Indeed, Singapore is trying to brand itself as a "global arts city." The exercise is part of a lurch toward liberal creativity that Singapore's leaders believe is imperative for attracting the kind of talent it needs to build its economy on banking and biotechnology rather than relying on the cheap chips and circuit boards that sustained it through the 1990s.

 

The Botero show is a dry run, it seems, for a more ambitious Singapore Biennale in 2006.

 

The cynics still carp about the superficiality of it all. The imported cultural extravaganzas come across as forced, as ersatz western in a city populated for the most part by Chinese immigrants who excel at math and find little time to have sex, surveys show, let alone enjoy art.

 

Some visitors wondered how easy it was for Botero to persuade conservative Singaporeans to parade giant bronze images of a woman being raped by a swan, or a reclining nude with a cigarette in hand. Nearby, a bronze figure from another era, the city's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, looks on with an unamused air. But then this is the city that has recently allowed gay bars to operate openly and even produced a brochure advertising gay entertainment in the "pink city."

 

Kwok Kian Chow, director of the Singapore Art Museum, is quick to dispel the old stereotypes. He points to the public interest in outdoor art generated by a recent exhibition of the Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming. Botero's monumental sculptures are not just being shown in the park, they are dotted around prominent public places like Changi Airport, where a giant standing woman now greets visitors approaching the immigration desk.

 

Botero himself sees his art as conveying a whole range of Western civilization, from the geometry of the Italian Quattrocento, to the luminous extravagance of the Spanish masters Goya and Velázquez. His paintings, he says, "speak in a language that is universal and transgress the barrier of locality." The compression of civilization Botero achieves in his art is perhaps just what busy Singaporeans and other Asian spectators need - a quick and easy take-away.

 

As a Latin American, Botero is acutely aware that rather like the wealthy Asians who now quest the artistic imagery of the West for their investment portfolios or growing acreage of real estate, he is more of a spectator than a participant. "When you are from a third-world country like I am, you have a panoramic view of Europe." This perhaps explains why Botero's images seem to go down so well-and why talk of healthy sales is already in the air.

 

After Singapore, Botero's sights are firmly set on China, where he has already had some success. The other day, a Chinese buyer walked into his atelier in Florence and paid cold cash for a monumental statue (which can go for up to a million dollars). Botero says with surprise: "He wanted it for his garden."