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About Southeast Asia

Last update: 19 November 2014

The countries of Asia are home to half of the world’s population. Over 75% of those people are rural. Given this demographic pressure in a zone with sustained economic growth, the issues related to food security and food quality, natural resource management (especially water and soils), or the impact of climate change on the environment are fundamental. CIRAD’s two Regional Offices in continental Southeast Asia and the Southeast Asian Islands cover 11 countries representing a vast area that is geographically, politically, economically and culturally heterogeneous.

Context and development challenges in Southeast Asia

Strong but essential growth …

The countries of Southeast Asia are evolving in the wake of two giants and neighbouring countries, India and above all China, whose political and economic power is asserting itself year after year. Growth there has reached high levels in the last ten years, driven forward by  record growth in China. This economic explosion raises real socio-economic and public policy issues for the future, linked to strong migration from the countryside, which is emptying, and to increasingly huge cities where it is essential to provide jobs for ever larger and younger populations, whose life expectancy is rising and who aspire to a better standard of living.

Different types of farming, crucial for the national economies

The countries of Southeast Asia are primarily agricultural, with the prime goal of feeding their populations while continuing to play a major role on the world stage in the field of perennial crops (rubber, coffee, cocoa, cassava, sugarcane, fruits, etc.). Following the colonial rule that held sway in several countries, socialist (Indonesia) or collectivist (Vietnam, Laos) type approaches were abandoned in the mid 1990’s ("Doi Moi") and replaced by an economically original socialist market economy. On the other hand, the liberal models of countries such as Thailand or Malaysia were more efficient in terms of production and poverty alleviation. They became the “regional economic model” to be followed even for some officially communist countries such as Vietnam or Laos, which also based their evolution on the Chinese model. All in all, on a regional level, the results were spectacular, with most countries achieving a good level of food self-sufficiency and even becoming exporting powers on the regional markets (Burma) or world market (Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam).

The model of the large estates left over from the colonial era still exists in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. However, estates only occupy a small share of the agricultural land area, with small family farmers remaining the almost general rule. Agriculture has settled and provides a livelihood for over 75% of the populations. Industrialization, starting very often with the agrifood sector, has become primordial for adding value to national commodities, but also for providing jobs. For emerging countries, the share of agriculture in GDP is quite normally regressing in reverse proportion to their industrial development, as was the case for the industrialized nations of the North.

But development that is far from sustainable… 

As agriculture cannot settle the entire population, the large countries of Southeast Asia are becoming increasingly urbanized with migratory flows from the countryside to the cities, resulting in new problems with a strong impact: pressure on rural land as cities expand, and industrial development to the detriment of rural areas, aggravation of countryside-urban disparities in terms of living standards. The appearance and growth of the middle classes with greater buying power are considerably modifying dietary habits and the uses made of natural resources by urban dwellers, who are increasingly concerned about the health quality of foods.

The development and strong economic growth of the Southeast Asian countries have also been fraught with environmental consequences. There are strong calls for logging and the granting of concessions for estate plantation purposes. The forest is shrinking, as is animal and plant diversity along with it. Soils are not being sustainably managed and are becoming degraded. The urban, and above all, the industrial zones are also subjected to multiple types of pollution, as little thought has been given to these issues, and the legislation in this field remains very weak.

Even though the last five years have seen a very clear reduction in overall poverty, the poor urban and rural workers remain particularly vulnerable.

Regional issues that also concern the entire planet

The degree and speed of development in Southeast Asia have had an impact that spreads beyond mere national borders and is becoming regional and may even affect the whole world. Recently, the increase in demand for commodities, mostly from China and India, has led to a rise in commodity prices, and primarily that of petroleum. This has led to renewed interest in oil palm and industrial crops (sugarcane, cassava, maize, jatropha, etc.) which are major sources of biofuels. The recent world food security crisis generated considerable speculation in Southeast Asia, such as with rice in Thailand and Vietnam, which are in the leading trio of world exporters!

Southeast Asia is also largely contributing to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions through its accelerated industrialization and the general rise in its energy requirements. Its large forest tracts that represent the world’s third largest area are increasingly under threat. The consequences of deforestation (including mangrove areas) are felt on a regional and world scale: drop in water resources, pollution, loss of biodiversity, climate change. Thus, forests  play less their role as carbon sinks and the phenomenon accelerates. Forest fires, mostly in Indonesia, or floods in Vietnam and Laos are becoming seasonal catastrophes, with a strong regional impact. The risk of the rise in sea levels is a very serious threat to the major rice growing zones of the Mekong or Red River deltas, which are the veritable granaries of Vietnam! Thus, many countries in this zone are among the most vulnerable to climate change.

The intensification of agricultural and animal production (poultry, pig farming and aquaculture in particular), which is often poorly controlled, also leads to pollution of water tables and rivers, which feeds down to the coastal zones. Given the close contact between human populations and domestic animals, the risk of the emergence of new animal and/or human diseases is particularly high in China first of all, but also in the Southeast Asian countries. The global economy and major cross-border trade are conducive to the spread of such diseases  between countries. The cases of SARS and avian flu, but also of foot and mouth, are a convincing illustration of this that goes well beyond a purely regional worry.

Lastly, it needs to be said that the region is subject to natural risks (typhoons, floods, tidal waves). Their prevention, the establishment of early warning systems and intervention are both national and regional priorities. 

National scientific research, still of uneven quality, but considered a priority by governments

The countries of Southeast Asia very soon understood that education and scientific research are a driving force essential to development. Singapore is inarguably the most advanced country in terms of scientific research, followed a certain way behind by Malaysia and Thailand. Thailand is an unchallenged leader in the region as regards the number and quality of its universities, but the other countries are following, making research their priority, even though they are not yet in a position to vigorously invest in this field. In this context, agricultural research for rural development is the priority of governments (Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam).

Yet the agricultural research effort largely lags behind that found on the other continents and is mainly entrusted to public organizations under the authority of the ministries of agriculture, forestry and sometimes fisheries (CNRA). The universities also take an interest in agricultural research, with some of them specializing in agriculture and/or having agricultural science faculties.

There is only one regionally-oriented university, AIT (Asian Institute of Technology), based in Bangkok, but many universities are developing international programmes, sometimes with joint awarding of diplomas, which enable them to host numerous overseas students, including an increasing number of African students.

However, most Southeast Asian countries still have insufficient human resources as regards academic levels, compared to their research needs, and to assist in their development.

Last update: 19 November 2014

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  • Continental Southeast Asia

    Paysage de montagne du Nord Vietnam © Cirad, J.C. Maillard
    CIRAD’s Regional Office in continental Southeast Asia covers the Greater Mekong subregion, which amounts to 1,936 million km2 and 219 million inhabitants with three poor countries (Cambodia, Laos, Burma), one emerging and economically booming country (Vietnam) and a moderately advanced country (Thailand).
  • Southeast Asian Islands

     © Cirad, A Rival
    CIRAD’s Regional Office for Southeast Asian Islands covers a zone of 2,554 million km2 of land and a population of 336 million inhabitants, but also an immense sea area with 17,000 islands. With around fifteen expatriate staff, CIRAD operates in 3 countries of the region: Malaysia, the Philippines and mostly Indonesia. It also undertakes missions in Brunei, Singapore and Timor Leste.

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