Saturday, 26th September 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

How Green are Your Greens

Posted on 25. Jun, 2010 by in Articles, Golf

Asia’s golf courses face an environmental challenge

BANGKOK, Thailand

I play golf.  And I am committed to nature conservation.

Is this an insolvable conundrum, or can the two passions be reconciled?

“Golf development is becoming one of the most unsustainable and damaging activities to people and the environment,” notes Chee Yoke Ling, environment coordinator of the Third World Network.  Beijing-based Ms. Chee, writing in Third World Resurgence magazine, argues that golf fuels “environmental damage, resource conflicts and even the violation of human rights.”  The Malaysian campaigner adds that some golf courses divert agricultural water to maintain turf, golf course chemicals contaminate underground water systems and pose health threats, and some courses are built in ecologically sensitive locations.

Taking a more optimistic view, Greg Norman, a highly successful Australian professional golfer who now has his own golf course design business, acknowledges that “environmentalists frequently portrayed golf courses as ‘chemical wastelands.’” However Mr. Norman adds “Golf courses can be community assets. Not only can they elevate property values, create jobs and provide tax revenues, they can also provide green spaces, filter air, purify water and create wildlife habitat.”

The undeniable fact is that golf is booming in Asia — there are an estimated 18 million golfers in Asia playing on 3,700 18-hole courses (more than a quarter of them built since 1990) according to the R&A, a St. Andrews, Scotland-based organization that serves as the game’s rules and development body.  With many more courses under development throughout Asia (Vietnam, for instance, has 17 courses, with some 30 new courses under construction and another 50 planned) the question of whether golf can be good for the environment takes on greater importance.

Jeffrey A. McNeely, chief scientist of the Swiss-based World Conservation Union, and a keen golfer, recognizes the need for responsible golf development.  “All land use has an impact on the environment – the trick is to minimize damage and, where possible, enhance natural values,” he says. “While there is no standard global certification process, an increasing number of people in the conservation movement recognize that golf is here to stay and urge that golf courses take steps to improve the site on which they are built.  They can do it, but it takes some effort, planning and commitment.”

John MacKinnon, a prominent scientist and field biologist currently working for a large EU-funded biodiversity conservation project in China, acknowledges that “golf is sometimes accused of being environmentally unfriendly.”  However in his co-authored book, Guidelines for Maximizing Biodiversity on Golf Courses, published by the ASEAN Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation,  Mr. MacKinnon argues that “Golf and environment can easily develop side by side and golf courses can serve as miniature nature reserves…Golf courses provide green breathing spaces in a concrete landscape and the well-managed turf has many valuable service values — soil protection, water filtering, pollution fixation, and biodiversity  conservation.  A well-managed golf course can provide more environmental benefits than a poorly managed nature reserve.”

To complicate matters I have a feeling that the eco-golf debate is fueled partly by the (sometimes accurate) perception that golf in Asia is elitist, making it easy to link the sport with many of our modern problems, similar in some ways to the spirited movement which has arisen to protest global trade. Perception is an important factor in the golf/nature debate.

So is golf good or bad?  Who’s right?

On one side, the Global Antigolf Movement, a non-governmental group founded in Japan which sponsors an annual World No-Golf Day, produced a manifesto which listed golf’s environmental impacts. Golf courses are responsible for  “water depletion and toxic contamination of the soil, underground water, surface water and the air,” the group notes. “The construction of golf course in scenic natural sites, such as forest areas and coral islands, also results in the destruction of biodiversity.”

On the other hand, Ronald Fream, whose design firm GolfPlan – Fream, Dale & Ramsey has worked in Asia for more than 30 years,  points out that a golf course can regenerate a garbage dump site or mining pit, can be an erosion control medium and can act as a natural treatment facility for effluent water.  Mr. Fream even points out the relevance to climate change, noting that a “typical” 18-hole golf course turf area generates enough oxygen to support around 8,000 people, and ten trees planted on a golf course removes the carbon dioxide generated by approximately ten cars.  This can result in a substantial carbon offset, since he adds that “on occasion we plant 2,000 or 3,000 trees around 18-holes.”

Over the past few years I set out to learn whether golf can, in fact, be a positive force for nature and people.

One of the problems, I soon learned, was that there are few criteria for determining “good” and “bad” golf courses.

While the United States and Europe have active environmental groups that provide advice and recognition for courses which want to be environmentally-responsible, courses in Asia have few options.

Audubon International, which is not related to the better-known National Audubon Society of the United States, has a certification scheme that “helps golf courses protect our environment and preserve the natural heritage of the game of golf.”   While they have amassed a long list of certified courses in North America, just five Asian courses, in China, the Philippines and Singapore, have been certified.  Cheryll Manzano, the environmental officer for Manila Southwoods Golf and Country Club in the Philippines, one of the certified courses, notes numerous positive environmental actions taken by her club: reduced water consumption, implementation of a waste management program, and the fact that the course serves as a bird sanctuary for the industrialized municipality of Carmona.  Ms Manzano, who co-authored the guidelines book with John MacKinnon, also notes that the course is applying for ISO 14001 certification..

In late 2007 I created, with several colleagues, IGOLF-International Golf and Life Foundation, a not-for-profit organization based in Switzerland which promotes environmental and social responsibility in golf.  Although we work globally, one of our focuses is on Southeast Asia, and we plan to run technical training seminars for course operators and to recognize courses which adhere to our eight guidelines for responsible behavior.

In my travels I see some abuses.  But I have also visited courses which show good eco-social management and a willingness to “do the right thing”. (see Sidebar for several courses worth applauding).

Golfers make themselves a bit neurotic with “swing thoughts” concerning stance, grip, and a thousand other things that can go wrong.  As I tee-off on my favorite course, I add one more nagging question to my “monkey brain”.  Am I doing the “right thing” from an environmental perspective?

The answer is a resounding “perhaps”.  Depends on the course. Depends on the owner. Depends on my own actions. Depends on lots of things.  But the trend seems cautiously encouraging.

Certainly some Asian golf courses owners will continue to impinge on protected areas, use too many chemicals and disregard environmental regulations.  Water use will continue to be a problem – a poorly-designed golf course can use as much water as a small town.  But increasingly, Asian courses are following the stricter standards of golf developers in the United States, Europe and Australia.  Why this new righteousness?  Partly because it’s the law, and, as the Singapore examples blow show, laws can be enforced where there is government will.  Partly it makes good marketing sense for resort owners to position their courses as “green”.  And pragmatically, an environmentally-friendly golf course can save money by reducing costs for energy, water and chemicals.

Keeping that image in mind I twist my hands slightly, sight my target, remember to keep my left arm straight and get ready to hit my drive.