Culturally Diverse Rural Communities Dependent on Environment for Livelihood Opportunities
Rural communities in ASEAN are far from being a monolithic lot; they boast an astonishingly wide array of cultural traditions that take root in some of the world’s most biologically and geographically diverse ecosystems, as reaffirmed by the ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Culture & Arts (AMCA). For example, as one of the world’s mega diverse countries, Indonesia, is home to at least a few hundred ethnic groups and most of their livelihoods are intricately tied to the country’s environmental wellbeing. In other words, the majority of rural communities draw on the natural resources bestowed upon them for sustenance. This level of direct reliance on nature for day-to-day subsistence is unparalleled in urban centres.
Ironically, despite living on some of the world’s richest lands, rural communities in ASEAN often do not enjoy the level of wealth that their bountiful environment may suggest. Rural poverty hits the hardest in least developed countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar. In Cambodia, for example, 4.8 million people are estimated to be living under the poverty line, of which 90% are working in rural areas. Rural areas are normally rather underdeveloped as opposed to urbanised environments; basic infrastructure such as road networks and clean water supply is less readily available in rural areas. Such circumstances reflect the issue of low productivity that rural communities experience under our mainstream economic paradigm. In today’s modern economy, most rural livelihoods are rooted in the primary sector and the majority of them are involved in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Against such a backdrop, the overall underdevelopment of rural areas compounds this problem by facilitating the entry of middlemen who, in relatively smaller numbers, exert control over most supply chains that lead to urban markets. This constrains rural communities’ bargaining power, which in turn limits their income sources and threatens their quality of work. Acumen, one of the world’s leading social enterprises that specialises in lending to the poor, calls for a shift in the market system towards its ideal, “where the distribution of economic benefits is more equitable.”
This inability to directly access capital-rich markets is then translated into lower standards of living as basic services and income-earning opportunities are limited. One of the major consequences of such power imbalances is a continuous outflow of human capital to urban centres. This phenomenon, aptly named “rural flight”, is depriving rural areas of young men and women. Consequently, these rapid demographical changes experienced by rural communities often place an insurmountable pressure on social networks that would have provided a much needed safety net for dependent members of society such as the elderly and the disabled in rural areas. On the other hand, environmentally unsustainable models of development have been proposed to rural communities across the region, partly due to a sense of insecurity among local residents. For example, chemical pesticides and herbicides are increasingly being used in response to labour shortages which is a result of rural exodus. Not only does the deterioration of ecological health further disempower rural communities from extracting value from their surrounding environment, it also increases their vulnerability towards disasters such as floods and droughts.
Work-Life Balance for Rural Communities
“Given the challenges faced by rural communities that undermine their quality of work and life, it is clear that work-life balance for rural communities is reflected by their ability to derive income through the creation, maintenance and enhancement of economic opportunities that build upon social, environmental and cultural sustainability. In the transition towards sustainable development, rural communities require short-term economic activities that support their long-term vision of work-life balance as indicated above.”
By: Lim Liang Chun