By Denise Montgomery

We all know Covid-19 has had a major impact on tourism. Professor Andreas Neef says it’s a good time to have a rethink about the type of tourism the world needs.

Professor Andreas Neef admits that sometimes he may depress his students.

“But at the end of the course, I pick them up again and say, ‘Well, I told you all this bad stuff that’s happening around the world, but you can make a difference’.”

Andreas is Professor of Development Studies, a postgraduate programme in the Faculty of Arts. His research includes climate-change adaptation and community resilience, climate-induced migration, displacement caused by tourism, and land grabbing.

“The research can be quite depressing and also quite emotional,” the German-born professor says. Andreas has been in New Zealand for almost eight years, arriving from Kyoto University.

“While I was in Japan, I had an opportunity to visit Fiji several times to do fieldwork. I guess that was a bit of an entry card to New Zealand because I had already done research in the Pacific.”

He’s well aware, having travelled to many countries over the course of his career, that he is in a position of privilege.

“We have a passport that gives us access to nearly all the places we want to go. But if you have a passport from Afghanistan, you can travel to fewer than ten countries without a visa. It takes forever to get a visa to a Western country and costs an insane amount of money.

“Mobility injustice is ingrained in our global system. It’s just luck where you are born and therefore how mobile you can be.”

Andreas’s new book, Tourism, Land Grabs and Displacement: The Darker Side of the Feel-Good Industry, covers this concept as well as an evolving field known as “violent tourism geographies”. Andreas says tourism is framed as a feel-good industry and many people don’t consider the darker side, such as land grabbing, when they’re booking that getaway.

A recent case of land grabbing resulting from tourism development in the Pacific was highlighted by journalists Melanie Reid and Mark Jennings from Newsroom. The pair went to Fiji to question developers Freesoul Real Estate over the environmental destruction on Malolo Island, Fiji. The company was building a 350-bure resort without the requisite permits. Eventually, Freesoul had its project approval revoked by the High Court.

Andreas says along with the media, academic researchers have a key role to play in raising awareness of land grabbing.

“It should be a combined effort, a coalition of academics, NGO workers, international human rights advocates, and media. One of my students recently alerted me to a huge tourism development project in Indonesia on Lombok Island. Indigenous people are being driven off their land, violently, losing their livelihoods, all for this kind of ‘public good’.”

He says places that do tourism development well are where Indigenous land rights are respected and there is oversight as to where the money goes. He says Fiji usually has a good model for development because there’s a native land trust that oversees leases to resorts and the money goes to communities in some form.

Andreas first encountered land grabbing in Cambodia in 2008.

“A poor farming community was waiting for land to be allocated to them that they’d been promised by the government through a German development project.

“But the little land they already had before the project’s arrival was then taken away by the government and given to a Vietnamese investor. The people ended up being given infertile, dry, barren land, after being told to ‘settle there and the Germans will take care of you’.

“You could see the desperation in people’s eyes because of being robbed completely of their land.”

Andreas says the German development agency had tried to do the right thing but had acted naively, given the political corruption in Cambodia.

“They didn’t realise the Cambodian government was using them. The government sells these lands to local elites in the capital Phnom Penh or to international investors.”

Andreas also encountered another case in Cambodia, a large Chinese tourism project.

“A developer wanted to construct a huge resort. People were driven 20 kilometres inland from the coast where they’d lived, into a forested area in the middle of a national park where you shouldn’t grow crops. Previously, as fishers, rice farmers and cashew nut growers, they made a decent income. When they were moved inland, the government didn’t even bother allocating them land.”

Andreas first became interested in what was happening in Cambodia through one of his students at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.

“I was overseeing a large project working with ethnic minority groups in the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia. I was on the committee of a Cambodian student who did his masters on one of these cases. I went with the student to do follow-up research and we discovered two more cases.”

He says the student’s research was incredibly risky. “It was risky for both of us. At one point we were told, ‘Don’t go to that area, you might be shot’. But he took more risks than me. I could always leave the country. He was actually working as a government official, and his own government didn’t know that he was doing this critical work.”

There are even risks involved with putting your name on academic research if you are from a country like Cambodia. At a conference in Chiang Mai, a colleague of Andreas noticed someone in the audience they believed could be a government spy, so the researcher requested to have his name taken off the presentation.

Recently at the Asia Europe People’s Forum, where Andreas gave a keynote speech, there was a speaker who presented cases from Bangladesh on land-grabbing in the context of tourism.

“She said she would have liked to have the presentation done by an Indigenous person who was displaced by the project but it was just too dangerous for them to do it.

“I admire people who report on those cases either as journalists or human rights advocates.
“The Indonesian government, for example, is democratically elected, but they have this utilitarian idea that they can sacrifice a few Indigenous people for tourism development. If there is money to be made in a post-Covid tourism world, they want it.”

He says it’s disappointing that the Covid-19 lockdowns haven’t triggered a rethink on whether the world has gone too far with mass tourism. “If we could do slow tourism, and equitable tourism, then we’d be turning this crisis into an opportunity.”

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Andreas did research in Thailand on the sea-faring people badly affected by the destructive waves.

“These people lost their homes and some lost their lives as well. When they were being moved to temporary shelters, the local government had already started selling off their land to tourism investors. They were like vultures.”

He says travellers should research holiday destinations to ensure locals are not being unfairly treated. “Tourism can be violent, it’s extractive and it’s exploitative in many ways. I’m challenging this idea of tourism as the feel-good industry.”

Mining is another industry ousting people from their homes and land.

“We’re looking into a case in the north-western corner of Viti Levu in Fiji, where there is a large Australian-Chinese company doing iron-sand mining in the Ba River Delta.

“The company did a quite murky environmental impact assessment study, then a provincial officer went to the community at night and asked three chiefs to sign a document by thumbprint. They woke to find their fishing rights in the area gone.

“The company promised them a one-off compensation for the 20 years it would take to extract iron sand. They claimed it would be non-intrusive, that they would just use magnets to get the iron out and the Delta sand would be pumped back in. But these turbulences affect fish, shellfish and crabs.
Women in the area make good money catching crabs and collecting shellfish. Now those livelihoods are at risk.”

The company also promised jobs, but recently laid off more than 100 workers.

“Fijian academics are looking into this situation and will hopefully publish papers to make it more widely known. RNZ has also just reported on the Ba River case.”

Andreas did his PhD in West Africa on customary land rights. “I was interested in how people have an attachment to land, how land rights are allocated in a customary way and what happens when external forces come in to change those rights.”

In Niger, a Taiwanese development project came into an area where women had previously grown rice. The rice created a good income because it was sold for ceremonial purposes but was back-breaking work. The Taiwanese project created rectangular plots with irrigation channels to make the work easier, then distributed land titles.

“Problem was, it was the men not the women who got the land titles. In this part of Africa, men and women are quite distinct in their management of money. Women have their own separate budget so it’s like a separated household economy. But women were removed from that income stream.”
He says cases like this interest him because of the discourse about “improved” forms of agriculture being the only way.

“The discourse is that it’s all for public benefit, it’s for feeding the world. That farmers can’t grow crops efficiently in small farms and you need huge plantations. But this is totally wrong. Those small farmers are efficient and productive. They’re not just feeding their families, they feed their communities and contribute to exports as well.

“It’s a narrative trying to win over public opinion and pretend that small-scale farming is not viable. It’s like the idea that community-based tourism has no future; that we need mass tourism, in big numbers, for economic growth. That’s wrong too.”

Andreas says because capitalism is so pervasive in all spheres of life, it’s hard to challenge the system. He says the Development Studies programme encourages students to look critically at development that affects the four or five billion people who are still in poverty.

“Most people live in the so-called developing countries or what we now call the Global South.”

The term ‘Global South’ arose in opposition to ‘Third World’.

“Third World is a bit condescending. There’s only one world. Also ‘developing’ versus ‘developed’ implies the developed countries are already there. ‘Developing countries’ have to catch up … which is condescending and patronising.”

He says the ‘developed’ world, with its reliance on fossil fuels and carbon-intensive lifestyle, could learn a thing or two from Indigenous people who don’t use up resources in the same way.

‘Developed’ economies also benefit from exploitation. “When we buy a bag of mixed nuts, we don’t know whether child or slave labour was involved. In New Zealand we have a label, ‘made from local and imported ingredients’, which means we don’t care where it comes from.”

Andreas says everyone can make a difference by questioning their consumption patterns.

“Everything has an impact somewhere. Just as where we travel has an impact, so does what we eat and what we throw away.

“Also, we still use fossil fuels and cause high emissions per capita. The people who suffer most are the people in the poorest countries, some of which might not exist in 20 years, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu. When these people want to come to New Zealand, we make them go through our court system and then reject them as climate refugees!”

He says some of his most-cited articles in journals are on the subject of land grabbing and development-induced displacement. The research falls under several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), most obviously about reducing inequalities. He applauds the University’s improved focus on sustainability, but does have an issue with the term ‘sustainable development’.

“It has become a buzzword that has lost its meaning. The concept has been appropriated by many different actors, such as multi-national corporations signing up to the SDGs.

“I would try to find an alternative term … something like ‘inclusive development’. By inclusive, I mean genuinely inclusive. Inclusive of Indigenous worldviews, inclusive of different cultural perspectives on development, and inclusive of environmental issues.”

It’s an issue that’s as important in New Zealand as it is all over the world.

This article was originally published in the July 2021 edition of UniNews and was republished with permission.

Andreas Neef is a Professor in Development Studies at the University of Auckland. His new book is called Tourism, Land Grabs and Displacement: The Darker Side of the Feel-Good Industry.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

You might also like:

Is the sun setting on unsustainable long-haul, short-stay tourism?

How big is tourisms carbon footprint?