This article is not intended to criticize lifestyles, consumption, or organizations of the countries mentioned. It is only an observation analyzed through the prism of our eyes, documented or not.
It is not a scoop but we wanted to start anyway with this topic: we observed astronomical quantities of plastic waste thrown in the wilderness throughout the trip. They are concentrated on the outskirts of cities, whatever their size, but also on busy roads where motorists are clearly responsible.
The aquatic environments are also affected, first the rivers (Chao Praya river in Bangkok for example), but also the sea coasts (Java Sea, Gulf of Thailand, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Nicoya …). Insomuch that it is not uncommon to see suffocating fish or poisoned birds on the beaches. The country that seemed to us to be the least affected by wild discards is Japan. Yet the supermarket and market stalls in Honshu are full of plastic, each fruit or treat is wrapped separately. Raising awareness of waste therefore seems to be effective (in Kyoto, for example, the yellow bag of cardboard waste should be purchased and is only supplied in limited quantities), but we cannot be satisfied about the excessive use of packaging. As an example, there are still distributors of aluminium and plastic canned drinks all over the country.
The problem is complex and unfortunately seems far from disappearing because no collection is set up, or very little. The plastic arrived too quickly in the daily life of the locals and nobody is able to contain it, even around their own house. Only the national parks are relatively spared but it is the tree which hides the forest: the tourist attendance should not be the only argument to set up collections and the visitor is often also an important emitter, particularly on the islands which concentrate mass tourism (Bali, Perhentian, Koh Phangan, etc.).
At the end of the chain, the most impacted are the residents themselves who, by way of default, burn plastics directly in the open air and breathe the associated vapors. Wild or legal landfills grow like mushrooms and concentrate odors, vultures, stray dogs, etc
- Infrastructure and transport
Let’s continue with what we have been most confronted with in our daily cyclo-travelers: roads.
We observed numerous areas of road renovation works but also on several rivers, dams in construction and in the mountains gigantic installations to create trains railways or highways (in Laos, Vietnam, Mexico and Panama).
At first glance, these huge projects are impressive, with their proportions, their speed of execution and their ambition. On the flip side, they imply incessant passage of trucks, perpetual dangers for the cyclist, relocations of local populations and areas where the air quality is largely degraded (dust or asphalt vapors …). In terms of funding, the roads generally seem to be renovated by the States themselves but also subsidized by “allied” countries which bring in their own labor and set up workers camps along the construction sites. The foreign “owner” then seems to take over the operation, which poses questions of interference and energy autonomy …
In any case, it is a mechanism widely used by China in the countries of South East Asia and Panama. Japan, the United States or the EU also finance smaller works (bridges or buildings), in Cambodia for example where each temple of Angkor has its own international sponsor.
In term of traffic, as we have already specified in various articles, motorized two-wheeled vehicles are kings in Asia which certainly represents a precious freedom of movement and a decongestion compared to cars but a real nuisance and a kind of anarchy (which nevertheless works) in comparison with the relative calm of European bikes and cycle paths. We regret of course that bicycles are so neglected in the major cities visited, we even wonder if its will not have completely disappeared in 20 years 🙁
In North America, Central America and the most “advanced” emerging Asian countries (Thailand and Vietnam), we can regret a significant presence of SUVs and Pick-ups. Excessive speed, high fuel consumption and air pollution are all direct impacts of the latter, which are ultimately rarely used for their designed function (difficult terrain or specific loading). Same thing in the USA and Mexico. Once again, Japan is an exception with narrower vehicles, adapted to their uses (city cars, small vans, etc.) and a real courtesy behind the wheel.
- Natural ressources
Large-scale agro-food production, mainly for export, is growing in the countries we have traveled and is creating pollution.
The most striking example is banana crop. The plantations are very numerous in southern Costa Rica and northern Panama, they consist of banana trees arranged in rows, crossed by a harvest train leading to the packaging plant. We had the opportunity to pass through cities of workers grouping together, around fifty identical cubic houses positioned not far from the factory. Then huge trucks take care of transporting everything to ports (without failing to brush us), to destination of Europe or USA.
In addition to the obvious monoculture that such banana areas represent, the plantations are flown over once a week on average by chemical sprayers. Roads crossing the plantations are therefore not recommended for residents. However, this path is sometimes the only link to the main road, it remains taken whatever happens in the blue sky above the banana trees. Not to mention the irrigation canals, which are then directly polluted and flow into a waterway very popular with families and children to cool off
Furthermore, the intensive plantations that we have observed most in Asia are those of oil palm trees, rubber (Indonesia, Malaysia and Costa Rica) and sugar cane. Burning is widely used although often prohibited in several regions. Rice of course, also occupies large areas but seems (apparently), better managed and less damaging to ecosystems. Finally, we met many trawlers off Central America, we can doubt that the fishery resource is managed properly
- Social conditions
In several regions visited, we learned of very difficult and low-paid working conditions: for example the collection and transport of sulfur in the Ijen volcano in Indonesia, the rice harvests in Laos and Cambodia, the work in silver mines in Mexico for around 200$ per month, etc.
Positive point, the child labor seems mainly prohibited and controlled, we have in any case noted several public inscriptions going in this direction in agricultural zones, with the exception of the short periods of harvest and sowing of rice which occupy the entirety of family. The industrial sectors are probably more affected by the ethical and health problem raised by the work of minors
As we mentioned in the article “Borders lines”, corruption still exists at some border posts. That being said, its (visible) proportion is quite low and we have not identified other abnormal situations in our daily lives of travelers, although we were aware of the problem (in Mexico for example, unjustified and monetary offenses are practiced by local police).
In terms of social climate, in Oaxaca de Juarez, Mexico, we attended demonstrations for more social justice and the replacement of families. The situation nevertheless seems calmer than 15 years ago, with the “Oaxaca Revolt”
Regarding living standards, we are surprised by the rather limited amount of begging in countries reputed to be “poor” (Cambodia, Laos for example). Nowhere have we seen a level of poverty similar to what can be noted, for example, in New Delhi, India. One explanation could be that there are enough natural resources to avoid dramatic situations of food insecurity and “limited” population growth compared to the Indian or Chinese giants. Solidarity also seems to work, as we have seen in Mexico as Christmas approaches.
Inequalities are nonetheless real, visible and wealth is clustered in cities with rampant urbanization: Singapore, Bangkok, Panama City … while rural areas remain very atypical and unspoiled (northeast of Laos, mountainous region of Panama). In cities, street vendors, precarious, are numerous and their activity is probably endangered by the capitalist brands and their acculturation (mini-supermarket 7 eleven, KFC, Mc Donalds, …). As a cause for hope, the markets are still very crowded.
Paradoxically, it was in California that we noticed the greatest quantity of homeless people (hobos).
- Mass tourism and impacts
In our opinion, most of the ecological, social and economic dysfunctions mentioned earlier in this article are exacerbated by mass tourism or even, directly generated by it.
It is in any case certain that the strong dependence of certain countries of South East Asia (in Thailand, in Siem Reap in Cambodia, in Cat Ba in Vietnam …) and of Costa Rica to tourism is dangerous: in the short term , the economic gains are indubitable and a significant part of the population has gained in standard of living by domino effect but in the medium term, the impacts on the ecosystems are likely to worsen (for example, we can cite the golf clubs in Baja California which are a total ecological aberration by the misuse of the water resource)
If, moreover, for various reasons attendance decreases, following the COVID-19 crisis for example, one can fear heavy economic losses and therefore human disasters where tour operators will desert. When we know that these countries have partly abandoned some agriculture knowledge in favor of more profitable tourism (coffee and cocoa for example), they may have to diversify their activities again to survive.