|NGOs and Natural Resource Management in Mainland Southeast Asia
The following article was published in the TDRI Quarterly Newsletter, vol.
10, No. 3, September 1995. The TDRI Quarterly Review is a quarterly
newsletter of the Thailand Development Research Institute Foundation,
Sunil Subhanrao Pednekar
Natural Resources and Environment Program (NRE)
Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI)
Since the late-1980s, mainland Southeast Asia has been undergoing
increasingly rapid economic change and progress. At the same time, there
has been a sharp rise in natural resource degradation. It is now a growing
concern among policy-makers, bureaucrats, academics and, not least, lay
people. One of the important phenomena underscoring the rising environmental
concerns and the changes in the socio-political landscapes of Mainland
Southeast Asia is the emergence of locally-based non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), many of which are increasingly devoted to conservation
and natural resource management.
This paper describes the emergence and development of locally-based
environmental NGOs in Mainland Southeast Asian Countries (MSEACs). This
region is defined here as Cambodia, Lao People's Democratic Republic,
Thailand and Vietnam. The paper also attempts to describe the future of
these NGOs and their likely role in the continuing economic transformation
and its impact on the physical, social and political environments of these
While a locally-based NGO movement has existed in Thailand for a considerable
time, in other MSEACs it is either non-existent or in its infancy. Under the
centrally-planned political-economic structures of the latter countries, the
need for participatory-type community development work was generally
fulfilled by people's organizations, formed and run under political party
leadership. Community development work was also carried out by a number of
overseas-based NGOs, welcomed not only as sources of external funding, but
also because they agreed to work in consultation with the government and
their activities could, therefore, be monitored. Until recently, local NGOs
working independently of the government did not exist. The economic
liberalization programs launched by these centrally-planned countries in the
late-1980s, however, have brought specific changes conducive to the formation
of more independent development-oriented groups. As Sidel (1994) points out
in the case of Vietnam, the role of the State in providing social services,
and some aspects of control over daily life, has diminished with increasing
privatization, thereby providing greater political and economic space to
more independent groups.
The role played by various international donor agencies is now quite
significant in supporting structural adjustment programs in these countries.
Besides providing financial support, these agencies assist the MSEACs in
the development of legislative and institutional infrastructure for natural
resource management. New laws and institutions have helped reduce ambiguity
in the legal and institutional aspects of natural resource management,
thereby facilitating the work of NGOs and their precursor groups. Yet the
macro-scale resource planning policies generally recommended by these
international donor agencies have drawn considerable criticism from the NGO
community, academics and environmentalists, as insensitive to grassroots
concerns and local cultures. This, in turn, has brought local development-
oriented organizations together on a common platform against the
globalization effort they think is implicit in the new resource planning
policies and programs.
Today, apart from Thailand, locally-based NGOs engaged in natural resources
and environmental management exist in Cambodia and Vietnam. Though non-
existent in Laos at the moment, their emergence in the not-so-distant
future cannot be discounted.
The development of NGOs in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have followed
different strands, however, depending on the socio-political situation in
these countries. In all the three countries NGOs have emerged when the
political environment has been relatively open -- free from rigid State
control. Indeed the degree of political freedom reflects the number and
diversity of NGOs and their relationship with the government. In Thailand,
which has enjoyed longer periods of political stability and political freedom,
local NGOs are the most diversified in Mainland Southeast Asia and are now a
strong force that has often stalled government or private-sector attempts to
launch large projects with doubtful environmental impact. In Vietnam, on the
other hand, under relatively rigid State control, the few NGOs that exist
are little more than training and advisory groups focusing on environmental
impact assessment (EIA). It is difficult to draw the line between those not
linked to the government and those that are. NGOs in Cambodia, on the
contrary, are independent of the government, partly because most were formed
during the period (1991-93) when the national administration was in the hands
of the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC), and after
Cambodia's return to democracy following the May 1993 general elections. Also,
the other aid agencies working in the country provide the necessary support
for local Cambodian NGOs.
NGOs in Mainland Southeast Asia
The formation of local NGOs in Cambodia was largely inspired by the presence
of a large number of overseas NGOs during the early 1990s, when the political
climate began to normalize during the UNTAC presence (1991-1993). Virtually
all of the 35 active groups, including NGOs and associations, that exist
today were formed during the above period. Many more groups exist on an
informal basis. Some of them are seeking government permission to establish
The work of most Cambodian NGOs is cross-sectoral in nature, though there
are at least five working in environmental fields. The major activities of
these environmental NGOs include education and training, resource
conservation and tree planting. As many of these projects directly serve the
needs of local communities, public participation in the projects is high.
Cambodian NGOs receive support from international NGOs, donor agencies,
including various United Nations bodies, and governments of other countries.
The Cambodian government itself provides little, if indeed any, support.
According to some NGO workers, the government's attitude toward local NGOs
is more of suspicion than cooperation. The Cambodian situation today is
thus similar to Thailand's in the 1970s and early 1980s when emerging
grassroots-level NGOs were under government suspicion as political agencies
The Cambodian NGOs have formed an informal alliance for cooperation which
meets once every month. Through this alliance, the Cambodian NGOs cooperate
with other international NGOs, and also try to link up with NGOs outside
Cambodia. These include TERRA (Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional
Alliances) and TDRI in Thailand.
While most Cambodian NGOs are at the grassroots-level, a few are active in
training and policy research. One of these, the Cambodia Development
Resource Institute (CDRI), was established to enhance human resource
development and to conduct research and analysis to contribute to sustainable
development policies and strategies. Many CDRI programs aim to offer
Cambodians information and skills to empower them to participate more fully
in the reconstruction of their country. Though a locally-based NGO, CDRI was
established and is run by expatriates.
Another high profile NGO is the Ramsey Sophanna Foundation, established
recently by H.R.H. Princess Christine Alfsen Norodom Serivuth, who views
training in integrated resource management as the top priority for regional
cooperation. She also favors strengthening policy-making and planning.
NGOs in Cambodia
Thailand's rapid economic growth during the past decade has had at least two
negative consequences. First, despite a remarkable rise in national income,
development policies have failed to improve its distribution. Income
disparities between the urban rich and the rural poor have, in fact, widened
(TDRI, 1993). Second, the growth, first based on agricultural expansion and
later on industrialization, has been accompanied by a number of environmental
problems that affect society at large, particularly the less privileged rural
areas. These have less bargaining power and fewer resources to mitigate their
The development of Thai NGOs has run parallel with these socio-economic
changes. The initial wave of Thai NGOs concentrated on health, literacy and
economic activities as a means of promoting overall human development. Their
activities targeted mainly rural areas, although some became active in urban
Rural community development still remains the core of most NGO activities in
Thailand. Since the late 1980s, however, many NGOs have launched an
"environmental approach" as a response to increasing environmental
degradation (Pfirrmann and Kron, 1992, p. I/70).
Popular environmental awareness in Thailand gained momentum in the late 1980s
when a number of environmental problems became obvious -- the flash floods in
1988, blamed on deforestation, and the sporadic cases of illness and deaths,
allegedly due to industrial pollution, for example. A number of advocacy
groups acted as catalysts in raising mass consciousness through awareness
campaigns and protests against projects and policies viewed as
environmentally-damaging. Notable among these were the protests against the
government plan to use Khao Yai National Park for conventional tourism,
against the construction of the Nam Choen dam, to pressure the government to
revoke commercial logging concessions, and the famous privately-initiated
"Magic Eye" anti-pollution awareness campaign in Bangkok to save the
polluted Chao Phraya river and to fight littering in the city.
While the success of these protests and campaigns in achieving their
objectives has been mixed, they succeeded in producing some beneficial
-they succeeded in drawing the attention of the public, press,
politicians and academia towards environmental issues
-the success of the protests boosted the NGOs' confidence in their
own ability to influence government decisions that ran counter to
-they helped bring different NGOs together to work on a common
platform (these informal groups were progenitors of a number of
new environmental NGOs, such as the Project for Ecological Recovery,
and networking organizations)
-their success inspired other development NGOs to turn to
environmental issues and to adopt an "environmental approach" in
The close association of livelihood issues with environmental degradation was
a key factor in drawing community development NGOs into the environmental
arena (Hirsch, 1994, p. 10). The dividing line between these "purely
environmental" NGOs and those whose environmental approach is only secondary
is thin. The category an organization belongs to depends mainly on how the
organization views itself.
Identifying the exact number of Thai environmental NGOs has become a
difficult task, further compounded by Thai NGOs existing in a variety of
forms: associations, foundations, research institutes, forums, groups,
projects and committees. They vary in the geographical focus of their work
(local/regional/national and rural/urban), issues covered (water resources,
rural ecology, forests, coastal resources, air pollution, littering and so
on), and the specifics of their activities (research organization, advocacy
group, campaign organization, and so on).
Both the government and NGOs and academics have attempted to estimate the
number of environment-development NGOs. Their estimates vary. The Directory
of Environmental NGOs (DEQP, 1994) compiled by the Environmental Promotion
Division of the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion (under the
Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment), lists 132 organizations
under five major groups, including 44 registered under the DEQP, in
accordance with the environmental law passed in 1992 (see below). A more
recent preliminary estimate puts the number of local and foreign-based
environmental NGOs at over 200 (Thailand Environmental Institute, 1994). Of
these, 46 are registered with the DEQP, 16 are overseas agencies of which
five are registered with the DEQP, three are foreign volunteer assistance
services and three are non-governmental funding agencies.
The majority of environmental NGOs in Thailand are small organizations,
scattered throughout the country. About 60 are based in Bangkok and represent
a wide variety, ranging from advocacy groups such as the Project for
Ecological Recovery (PER), which focuses on such issues such as water and
energy (well-known for its anti-dam protests) and non-advocacy groups like
the World Environment Center Foundation (WECF), which focuses mainly on
urban, industrial and health issues, and works closely with business groups
and transnational corporations, to conservationist groups such as the
Wildlife Fund, Thailand (WFT) and those specializing in environmental
education, for example, the Green World Foundation (Mulnithi Lok Sii Khiew).
NGOs in Thailand
Since the atmosphere of suspicion in the 1970s when, during the height of
the Communist Party of Thailand's insurgent activities, grassroots-level
NGOs were accused of being communist front organizations, the NGO-
government relationship has come a long way to at least the beginnings of
sustained cooperation. Since the 1980s, despite the disagreements over
environmentally-sensitive projects, there have been encouraging developments
towards NGO-government cooperation (Suwana-adth, 1991, ibid., p. 43). Notable
among these are:
-The NESDB's invitation to Thai NGOs to participate in an Asian
Development Bank-supported pilot project to train village
volunteers in promoting environmental conservation.
-Inclusion of NGOs in the preparatory process for the 1992 UNCED
conference in Rio de Janeiro.
-NGO's participation in developing the National Forestry Sector
-Establishment within the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives
of an NGO Liaison Office for agriculture and environment.
-Participation of NGOs in drawing up the country's Eighth National
Economic and Social Development Plan.
These interactions have been sporadic, however, and their success mixed. Yet,
they reflect a mutual need to collaborate. What really draws the two together
is the ongoing environmental degradation that has accompanied Thailand's
rapid industrialization. The government has begun to accept that NGOs do not
work against the system and that they are often effective in overseeing some
projects at grassroots levels. Government agencies, such as the Tourism
Authority of Thailand and the Department of Technical Cooperation, have
themselves set up NGOs. Others, such as the Electricity Generating Authority
of Thailand (EGAT), now support NGOs to improve their own image. NGOs too
are beginning to accept that they alone provide no alternative to
development, They now understand that their jobs is to complement the work
of government and official donor organizations (Ruland and Ladavalya, 1991,
p. 58). It is in the interests of the NGO's broader goals to work with the
This new understanding explains why, for the first time, in the Seventh
National Economic and Social Development Plan (1992-96), the government
made provision for NGO involvement in the planning process. The
Enhancement and Conservation of National Environmental Quality Act, B.E.
2535 (ECNEQA-1992) -- the framework law on the environment -- was another
step in government-NGO-people cooperation in environmental management as
it provides a legal basis for this tripartite interaction. Although still
imperfect, the new law encourages cooperation among NGOs, bureaucrats,
technocrats, academia and the general public, on environment-related issues.
It recognizes the role of NGOs in the conservation of the environment,
and spells out their rights and duties in the enhancement of national
environmental quality (Sections 6 and 7 of the ECNEQA-1992).
Despite these encouraging initiatives, much remains to be done. First,
government policies remain opaque and access to information on projects and
policies is difficult. This, of course, rekindles NGOs' suspicion of the
government's commitment. Sometimes, though not always, this lack of
transparency stems from traditional Thai bureaucratic attitudes of secrecy
and jealousy in sharing information. Second, most grassroots-level NGOs
remain only at the periphery, often outside the slowly evolving NGO-
government relationship. They distance themselves not only from the
government but also from larger NGOs.
Third, while the government needs to become more open, NGOs must learn how
to participate in national development. NGOs lack organizational
sophistication in defining their positions or in countering those of the
government. They often criticize government policies without proposing
viable alternatives, or substantiating, with evidence and scientific
research, their own positions on controversial issues.
Environmental processes are complex. Designing environmentally-sound
policies requires constant, and often costly, research and information
efforts. The limited financial and human resources available to NGOs make
them vulnerable to these blindspots. Fortunately, many academics are willing
to provide research to NGOs. Some NGOs, such as the Sueb Nakasathien
Foundation -- founded by well-known academics -- have become a strong voice
for the environment. Only a small number of small- and medium-scale NGOs,
however, are able to share the services of academics and scholars conducting
research. Having in-house finance for research would indeed enhance the
credibility of NGOs and ultimately give their alternative positions more
Conducting training and research activities, of course, needs not only human
resources, but also financial ones. Securing these is going to become a more
and more challenging task for Thai NGOs, as external funding which, according
to one estimate accounts for 70-90 percent of the budget of most NGOs5, is
declining. With its rising economic prosperity, Thailand is receiving
significantly lower priorities from external funding agencies. Due to
recession in their own countries, they now increasingly focus on neighboring
countries with more urgent financial needs. At the same time, Thai NGOs made
no serious efforts to garner recognition, let alone support, from local
funding sources, as long as foreign funding was easily available. Only now
coordinating NGOs, such as the NGO-CORD, are planning to set up a trust fund
to finance small projects and provide working capital. They are also trying
to channel the bilateral or multilateral external assistance to make it more
equitably distributed.6 Individually, some NGOs are trying to shed their
traditionally publicity-shy image by directly informing the public of their
activities. Thus they seek financial support, while tightening their own
budgets. Other NGOs with expertise are marketing this training to others to
To overcome the twin obstacles of funding and a paucity of human resources,
Thai environmental NGOs must now work even harder to develop common work
strategies. There is also an urgent need to bridge the communication gap
between small NGOs usually concerned with livelihood issues, and larger
environmental NGOs which focus on conservation as the existing environmental
degradation has reached such critical levels that a conflict of interests
among community development groups and conservationists is imminent -- unless
a common, sustainable development approach is soon adopted.
Vietnamese NGOs are more directly communicative with their government than
are their Thai counterparts. This is partly due to the absence of a tradition
of independent private organizations. Another contributing factor is that
most locally-based NGOs are founded by university professors, who are
government employees themselves and also sit on various government panels
and committees as experts. With Vietnam's on-going liberalization program,
these NGOs are becoming more and more independent, particularly in securing
external funding. Although NGOs and the government seem to enjoy a healthy
relationship as both are equally concerned with solving the environmental
issues at hand, one would welcome the emergence of completely independent
research institutions holding independent views, critical if necessary, on
environment-related policies and programs. Given the current development
of Vietnamese NGOs and the openness of the government to NGO views, it
may not be long before such institutions indeed appear.
Problems and Probable Future of Thai Environmental NGOs
Growing environmental awareness and ongoing economic liberalization in
Mainland Southeast Asia are likely to encourage more public participation
in resource management activities and to strengthen the region's emerging
environmental NGO movement. In Thailand, where the movement is the most
developed, environmental NGOs have become a strong voice that the government
can no longer ignore. Following many fierce confrontations with the
government, for the NGOs this represents a hard won victory.
In the remaining three countries, however, such confrontations with the
government are presently neither possible, nor advisable. As public-private
sector cooperation is new to both the governments and the newly-founded
NGOs in these countries, and as the restructuring of the economy is just
beginning, cooperation appears the wiser strategy.
As a number of environmental concerns are common to all Mainland Southeast
Asia, it would be beneficial for the NGOs to develop links with each other
for sharing information and expertise. Already, NGOs such as TERRA and
TDRI have forged linkages with their counterparts and government agencies
in the other MSEACs.
The Department of Environmental Quality Promotion (DEQP). 1994. "Directory of
Environmental NGOs." The Environment Promotion Division, DEQP; the
Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, Thailand (in Thai).
Hirsch, P. 1994. "Where Are the Roots of Thai Environmentalism?" TEI
Quarterly Environmental Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, April-June, pp.
5-15. Thailand Environmental Institute, Bangkok.
Pfirrmann, C. and Kron, D. 1992. Environment and NGOs in Thailand. Thai
NGO Support Project and Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung Foundation,
Rajesh, N. 1995. "Jaako Poyry: Master Plans to Finnish the Forests."
Watershed, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 30-37. Towards Ecological Recovery
and Regional Alliances (TERRA), Bangkok.
Ruland, J. and Ladavalya, B. 1991. "Voluntary Associations and Municipal
Government in Thailand." Report submitted to the Foundation
Volkswagenwerk, Hannover, the Federal Republic of Germany.
Sidel, M. 1994. "The Emergence of a Non-profit Sector and Philanthropy in the
Socialist Republic of Vietnam." Prepared for the Survey on Non-
governmental Underpinnings of the Emerging Asia-Pacific Regional
Suwana-adth, M. 1991. "Environment and Sustainable Development: The NGOs'
Perspective." Bangkok: September (draft).
TDRI. 1993. "Thai Economic Outlook: Highlighting the Differences." Mimeo.
TDRI's Macroeconomic Policy Program. Bangkok, December 22.
Watershed. 1995. Vol. 1, No. 1. TERRA, Bangkok.
1 Based on the study entitled "Building NGO Capacities in Natural Resources
Management in Mainland Southeast Asia," conducted by TDRI's Natural Resources
and Environment Program.
The study was supported by the Canadian International Development Agency
(CIDA). The authors were Mingsarn Santikarn Kaosa-ard, Sunil S. Pednekar,
Scott R. Christensen, Kundhinee Aksornwong and Arnel B. Rala.
The author would like to thank Ramon C. Sevilla and Eric Y. Azumi for
their comments on the earlier version of this article.
2 Local and foreign NGOs and conservationists in Lao PDR and Thailand, for
example, are deeply concerned about the possible effects of the World
Bank/GEF (Global Environment Facility) sponsored conservation programs in
these countries. In Thailand, environmental NGOs have been united in
criticizing the new Mekong River Commission for its continued interest in
dam-building and the Thai Forestry Sector Master Plan for its emphasis on
commercial forestry (for more information on the latter, see Rajesh, 1995).
3 The National Conference on Sustainable Rural Development, recently held in
Vientiane, recommended the creation of local NGOs to support grassroots
development (Watershed, 1995, p. 4).
4 The information on NGOs in Cambodia is based on personal communication
(May 1995) with Mr. Sil Vineth, President, Socio-Economic Development
Organization of Cambodia (SEDOC) and the TDRI research mission to Cambodia
(April 1994). The author gratefully acknowledge Mr. Vineth's contribution.
5 Cited in The Nation of April 1, 1994 in an article entitled "When the
Till is Empty".
6 From interviews.
7 Personal communication with Dr. Le Thac Can, Chairman of the Association
for Nature Conservation and Environmental Protection and member of Vietnam
Union of Science and Technology Associations (VUSTA).
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