Golf War Syndrome

How playing 18 holes endangers the earth


| March-April 1996



Golf is wildly popular these days, and developers, anxious to cash in on the boom, are building new golf courses around the world faster than you can say “Jack Nicklaus.” There are now 25,000 golf courses on the planet, 14,000 of them in the United States, and hundreds more are on the drawing board.

Today’s perfectly manicured rolling green courses require massive amounts of land, water, and chemicals. Most U.S. courses use 1,500 pounds of pesticides a year; that’s seven times the amount used by farmers. Add to that a laundry list of fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and other chemicals. And when it rains, it pours: Runoff from golf courses has been found to have contaminated nearby groundwater, lagoons, lakes, and wetlands. The golf boom is causing pollution and social dislocation, but teed-off environmentalists and local-rights groups are starting to fight back.

Many of the resource-gobbling playlands are being built in Southeast Asia, where “the thirst of national governments for foreign exchange has made a deadly combination with the hunger of Japanese developers for [paradisiacal] sites,” writes Leopoldo Rodriguez in (sub)TEX (Oct-Nov 1995). For Japan’s 12 million golf fanatics, a shortage of land and soaring golf club membership costs—brokers dealing in club memberships have driven the price tag as high as $250,000 a year—mean that it’s often easier and cheaper to fly to Thailand or Malaysia than to play at home. In Toward Freedom (June-July 1995) Chee Yoke Ling and Muhd Farhan Ferrari report that Thailand alone has 160 courses, with many more in the offing. Developers have set their sights on Vietnam, Laos, and Burma as well.

Too often, these new golf-resort developments are forcing rural people off their land. When developers have trouble getting local people to sell, they sometimes buy up all the surrounding plots and deny them access to their land. Ninety acres is the minimum area needed to build the average course, and, as Ling and Ferrari point out, “since most new courses, especially in less developed countries, are developed as packages with luxury homes, chalets, condos, and other recreational amenities, a single project can cover up to 700 acres.”

It's not just land that is being gobbled up; these courses are diverting precious water resources to keep their fairways green. In Indonesia, a major drought in 1994 caused wells to run dry, and farmers were not able to plant a second crop. But, as Adreas Harsano and Hidayat Jati report in the Jakarta Post (May 9, 1994), Jakarta’s golf courses continued to receive 1,000 cubic meters of water per course per day—enough to meet the daily water needs of 1,000 families, according to Saleh Abdullah of the Network for Forest Conservation in Indonesia.

This massive diversion of resources for a game that provides recreation mainly for the wealthy has fueled a backlash that has led to local protests. In Hawaii, another paradisiacal playground preferred by Japanese golfers, a group of farmers protested their eviction from land they had tilled for 50 years in the Maunawili Valley. And villagers in Tepoztlan, Mexico, took over the town hall to win a temporary halt of plans to build a half-billion-dollar golf course and condo development on their forested hills. In Japan, where the Global Anti-Golf Movement (GAG’M) acts as a clearinghouse for various opposition groups, protests have caused several hundred courses to suspend operations. This resistance in the land of golf fever may be the clearest indication that the little white ball is not destined to rule the world.