Coastal communities and changing environments: case studies from Asia-Pacific

On the coast, local environmental problems meet with national-level political goals and international ideas of economy, trade and development in very apparent ways. The coasts and seas have significant potential to solve some of the big problems we face globally, by acting as sites for renewable energy, new international industries or even sustaining our own mental health and wellbeing. It is no accident that we have an entire Sustainable Development Goal – SDG14 – devoted to the sea. But whilst the seas are capable of carrying ideas, people, species and human-made items across great distances, in recent years I’ve become very interested in what the implications of large-scale developments driven forwards by national or international rhetoric are for the communities who live right next to them. I’ve taken a particular interest in the question of whose experiences and ways of knowing count, and whose are prioritised, when it comes to managing big pieces of infrastructure on the coast.

Over the last few months, I’ve been involved in a suite of papers which have looked at this issue across three Asian coastal countries – Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Each of these papers is based on a different project and addresses a different topic, but there are several cross-cutting themes I’d like to draw out in this post. First, though, a bit about the papers themselves. The first paper, working with Mei-Fang Fan and Chih-Ming Chiu, assesses the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel incident on the central Vietnamese coast through the lens of transnational environmental justice. Published in Environment and Planning E, we look at how claims to harm and illness were made in relation to a pollution incident from the Taiwanese Formosa Plastics-owned Ha Tinh Steel plant, focusing in particular on transnational alliances with groups in Taiwan as a way for Vietnamese communities to seek justice. The second paper, led by my PhD student Yi-Chen Huang and published in Marine Policy, evaluates the controversy over the construction of the Miramar Resort in Shanyuan Bay, Taitung County, eastern Taiwan, which commenced prior to the completion of an environmental impact assessment. The third paper, written in collaboration with colleagues in the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences and Robert Gordon University and published in Sustainability Science, discusses issues around transitions to sustainable livelihoods for coastal communities in Quang Nam Province on Vietnam’s South Central Coast, placing particular emphasis on the need for ‘people-centered’ approaches to livelihood transformations that keep a focus on the most vulnerable. Finally, in a paper published in International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, myself and colleagues from Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, Fukushima Prefecture Fisheries Section and Robert Gordon University engage with fishers and coastal communities in Soma, on the northern coast of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. In particular, we look at how fishers think about the planned releases of treated water into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant, a controversial issue which fisheries cooperatives believe will undo their hard work in building consumer trust since the 2011 nuclear accident.

One common theme across all the cases is the question of whose evidence and forms of knowledge are recognised when making claims about the marine and coastal environment being harmed. This is most apparent of all in the case of the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant, where residents’ and fishers’ claims that discharges from the plant had made them ill were not only ignored but actively suppressed within ‘official’ accounts of the causes and effects of the pollution incident. For the Miramar Resort too, holding consultation and assessment meetings in Mandarin Chinese – and requiring participants to register in advance – arguably restricted the ability of indigenous and elderly people adjacent to the resort to participate in the consultation processes. Meanwhile, in both Quang Nam Province and Fukushima Prefecture, farmers and fishers rely on their own senses and embodied experiences of how crop yields and fish stocks are affected by changing weather patterns or stoppages in fisheries. These are trends that seemed hard to verify with ‘official’ data, but nonetheless had a significant bearing on respondents’ views about their future prospects of maintaining a livelihood in the coastal zone.

A second theme common across all cases, but most prominent in Fukushima and Quang Nam, is that changes to the marine and coastal environment caused by human activity at specific infrastructure sites happen against a much bigger and increasingly apparent backdrop of climate change and socio-demographic transition. Fishers in Soma talked not only about how stoppages in fisheries following the nuclear accident had led to the rebound of fish stocks or forced them to catch different kinds of fish, but also about the changes in ocean currents and rising sea temperatures that affected what they were finding in their nets. In Quang Nam, the removal of coastal forest in some communes to make way for resorts and new industrial zones came at the same time that fragile ecosystems were coming under increasing pressure from rising sea levels and greater frequency of extreme weather events. Both the Ha Tinh Steel and Miramar Resort developments, however, have arisen at least in part due to a national government desire to ‘level up’ more peripheral regions which have thus far not seen the economic benefits of rapid growth in the more urbanised parts of their respective countries.

Kashima Fishing Port, Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan

Third and related, perhaps the strongest theme linking the cases is that of local governments being caught in the middle, trying to balance development or revitalisation imperatives brought to their localities from on high with the pressure to maintain the livelihoods of those living adjacent to new or changing infrastructure. In Ha Tinh Province, the local authorities seem somewhat powerless to act against the construction of a large steel factory, which was brought to the locality via national-level policy to attract overseas investment – in this case from Taiwan. For the Miramar Resort, Taitung County Government actively sought to support the development, only to have the environmental impact assessments they approved overturned by courts operating at higher levels of government. Yet, in Quang Nam Province, it is the People’s Committee leaders in communes who have to help coastal citizens make sense of complex and sometimes contradictory bureaucracy aimed at livelihood support and transformation, and who have to try to work within rigid and inflexible structures imposed from above. In Soma too, extension officers from the regional fisheries office have little power to influence whether or not treated water from the Dai’ichi nuclear plant is released into the sea, but are the key contact point for fishers to obtain information on the radiation situation.

One could of course argue that the issues I’ve raised here are not unique to coastal environments. Yet it is true that coastal communities are often on the ‘front line’ of pressures from climate changes, and may be expected to shoulder a disproportionate proportion of developments and infrastructure that happen in the regional or national interest. Under such situations, the tensions around balancing competing pressures may be particularly pointed. As the cases I’ve discussed above show, in coastal contexts it is thus all the more imperative to retain a critical angle as to whether rhetoric around the benefits brought by new initiatives (or the management of older infrastructure) does indeed benefit host communities.

Thang Binh District, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam

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