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Beyond “Sustainable Development”: The Future of Forest Conservation

Updated: Aug 15, 2021

In the past few weeks, the attention surrounding Dover Forest has once again ignited the long standing discussion surrounding conservation and development. Most commentaries and opinions so far, however supportive of nature conservation they are, toe the line at accepting the need for more extensive development in Singapore without questioning its underlying assumptions. They also often end up reproducing the technocratic discourse of ‘valuing’ forests in terms of their benefits to humans’ well-being as justification for their conservation, which further minimizes the locational specificities of nature spaces.

A decommodified view of nature and degrowth

Time and again, the importance of nature is acknowledged but ultimately deferred when brushing up against economic value. This is captured by how the original alignment for the Cross-Island Line to go under the central catchment nature reserve is justified in two numbers - $2 billion and 6 minutes in commuting time.

There are also those who try to speak up for nature by converting benefits derived from nature to monetary value, in the field of natural capital and ecosystem services. While there is no doubt value in trying to prove that nature is useful, it reproduces ideas under capitalism that things are only valuable and relevant to the decision making process when they are commodified.

This also contradicts the kind of slogans used in city-branding and visions for master plans, which suggest that land use planning is inherent to our identities. We are supposed to love Singapore, but when we express our love for our forests which are to be cut down, we are told that we are ‘emotional’.

Nature Spaces are relational

This brings us to the point on how nature spaces are non-substitutable. Not only are their ecological value non-substitutable (for example road-side trees versus patches of forest), relationships are also formed between people, non-human species and nature spaces. This again makes it impossible to quantify the benefits one derives from nature because their worth is not easily captured by empirical units of measurements. Just as we have different people in our lives who we love for different reasons, no two patches of nature are the same.

Whose housing needs?

When it comes to many of the cases, housing needs are often cited, which rests on the assumption that most Singaporeans will benefit from BTOs. However, the cost of public housing has been steadily creeping beyond the means of most working families over the past two decades. Furthermore, even those with the means to afford a BTO flat must contend with the state's rigid heteronormative definition of the ideal nuclear family, which de facto removes public housing as an option for a wide range of people, from the LGBTQ community to single mothers. Thus, clearing more forests for more BTOs does benefit a significant population in Singapore with already existing privileges, while side-stepping inequalities built into our housing system, which similarly commodifies what ought to be a basic need.

While Singapore’s public housing system is one of the most affordable in the world, the ownership model commodifies housing to a certain extent with homeowners considering it an asset, creating a big divide between owners and renters, as pointed out by Dr Ng Kok Hoe. That forests are often the targets for housing points to a certain scarcity created by market forces, given how many other more financially profitable developments like shopping malls and offices seem to have no issue finding land in Singapore.

That the idea of developing golf courses instead of forests for public housing has also caught people’s imagination is also not a coincidence. Not all land uses benefit everyone equally in our societies dominated by neoliberalism, and forests are perhaps one of the last commons, where most if not all can enjoy the space collectively without exploiting it.


Ultimately, the trade-offs between development and conservation cannot be easily reconciled as ‘sustainable development’ if one agrees that development is driven by capitalism and its tendency for creative destruction. This also means questioning whether existing development patterns are desirable in the first place, given the inequalities in the housing system.


Some Fascinating Statistics:


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