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Golf drives into environmental rough

Where once there was a dense tropical forest, today there is the 17th hole. A triangular flag marked with the number is planted in the middle of this construction site, 250 acres of red earth carved out of the rain forest in the cool highlands above the Malaysian capital.

Soon this will be the golf course of the High Hill Resort, the largest mountain resort in Malaysia. Advance memberships begin at $12,000.

"A year ago this place was covered by thousands of trees," said a laborer who pours concrete over what used to be a lush hillside of climbing palms and kapok. "It took us a year, but we pulled down all the trees to make way for the golfers."

Asia is being carpeted with golf courses. Planeloads of foreign golfers descending into Kuala Lumpur see an airport surrounded by three golf courses, and there are 40 other courses within an hour's drive, most of them built in the last five years.

The booming economies of Asia have created the fastest-growing market on earth for the golf industry. But while the rush to build new courses has delighted land developers and the manufacturers of golf gear, it is alarming Asian environmentalists.

They warn that unrestrained development of golf courses is tearing up some of the last pristine stretches of the Asian wilderness, throwing thousands of farmers off ancestral lands, stealing precious water supplies and contaminating the soil and air with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Many also see golf as a symbol of the growing disparity between rich and poor in Asia.

"Golf has become a serious environmental threat all across Asia," said Sreela Kolandai of Friends of the Earth Malaysia and a founder of the Global Anti-Golf Movement, an umbrella organization for groups opposed to golf-course developments. "I call them green graveyards because apart from the grass, these golf courses support no other form of life. No trees, no birds, no insects, no nothing."

The golf boom has been most explosive in the nations of Southeast Asia, which offer tropical weather and plentiful, relatively inexpensive land. In Malaysia, there are now 153 golf courses, triple the number in 1985, with more than 100 others on the drawing board. This growth has been nearly as extensive in Thailand and Indonesia. The frenzy has begun to spread to China, Vietnam and the Indian subcontinent.

The Global Anti-Golf Movement is campaigning to pressure Asian governments for a moratorium on the construction of new golf courses.

But it is proving a difficult battle. Golf means billions of dollars for the Asian tourism industry, and newly affluent Asians clearly love the sport, which has become a status symbol here. Most Asian government leaders are themselves ardent golfers, and when President Clinton travels to Indonesia in November for a summit meeting with his Asian counterparts, he is tentatively scheduled to join them on the links.

The anti-golf movement began among environmentalists in land-starved Japan, where there are 17-million golfers but only 2,000 courses. (The United States, with 25-million golfers, has 13,600 golf courses.) In Japan, a single round of golf can cost hundreds of dollars, and membership at a leading golf course can top $750,000.

It is the Japanese enthusiasm for the sport that caused golf courses to spread across the rest of Asia as Japanese golfers in the 1980s searched for an alternative to the expensive fees at home.

"Basically it's much cheaper for a Japanese golfer to fly here to Malaysia for a week of golf than to stay home," said Douglas Lee, a golf-course developer in Kuala Lumpur. "We're a heaven for them."

Golf course owners say the sport is helping economies in Asia by encouraging tourism. And while golf courses often do replace agricultural lands, developers say, they can often put displaced farmers to work in better-paying jobs as security guards, greenskeepers or caddies.

"Because golf is seen as a rich white man's sport, it's an easy target for environmentalists," said Hal Phillips, editor of Golf Course News Asia-Pacific, an industry journal. "At least with golf it's open space that's being developed. Would you rather have a golf course or a strip mall? A golf club or a 400-room hotel? If you want to compare the environmental impact, it's really no contest."

Asian environmentalists, however, point to development after development where farmers have been forced off their land, sometimes at the point of a gun.