A Pox on the Planet

Golf course development is becoming one of the major threats to the environment and human rights

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian

South Buckinghamshire needs another golf course like eighteen holes in the head. Fairways are creeping across the county like a noxious green mold; already, within a ten-mile radius of the village of Penn Street, near High Wycombe, 100 courses have been built. Now a property developer wants to convert one of the region’s last semi-natural habitats, the venerable Penn Wood, into the 101st, and the locals have had enough. A massive campaign has persuaded the government to review the planning inspector’s recommendation in favour of the course. The developer’s attempts to clear some of the trees for fairways ahead of the government’s decision have so incensed local people, that, in this most genteel corner of the British countryside, there are rumblings of bloody revolution.

Golf is not only one of the daftest games humanity has ever had the witlessness to devise, it is also turning into a social and environmental problem of gigantic proportions. The world already possesses an astonishing 25,000 golf courses, covering an area the size of Belgium. Yet golf course construction is now one of the principal causes of land use change worldwide. It’s not hard to see why: thanks to broadcasters’ incomprehensible enthusiasm for televising tournaments, the number of golfers on earth has been rising by around 20 per cent a year.

Golf tourism is booming, especially in the Third World, where green fees are often far lower than in Europe and the United States, and no one dares to laugh at red trousers and tartan caps. The proliferation of courses in the South is great news for golfers, and disastrous news for everyone else. Peasant farmers are deprived of vast tracts of productive land, rivers and aquifers are shrivelling up, pesticides threaten both medical and ecological calamity.

While local people mutter about a golf war in Buckinghamshire, in other parts of the world it has started already. Last year, in the Vietnamese village of Kim No, peasant farmers set light to a truck and two bulldozers belonging to the company trying to turn their land and livelihoods into an 18-hole course. In Mexico, at least two people have been shot dead and dozens wounded, as police have fired at peaceful demonstrations against plans to turn part of the El Tepozteco National Park into a golf course.

Like many of the world’s most destructive and unpopular courses, the El Tepozteco development was designed by a company run by Jack Niklaus, once the world’s most celebrated champion golfer. Niklaus’s disregard for human rights and the environment is notorious. His company has even collaborated with the military government of Burma to build a course for army officers and government officials.

All over the developing world, the construction of golf courses is accompanied by forcible dispossession. The Thai campaigner Anita Pleumarom has compiled scores of cases of golf course developers using coercive purchase to deprive farmers of their lands. Typically, the developers buy up a ring of land around the site, depriving the people inside it of the right to leave or enter their homes. One old lady was told, “If you don’t sell voluntarily, you’ll have to buy a helicopter, because whenever you go out, we’ll sue you.”

It’s hard to imagine a scene more alien to the geography of South-East Asia, Central America, Hawaii or India, all of which are being blighted for the benefit of this preposterous pastime, than the stark uniformity of a landscape modelled on the dunes of Scotland. Not only does the land need be torn apart and reassembled to mimic the pastoral simplicity of the British coastline, but this artificial wilderness needs an astonishing amount of control to ensure that it doesn’t revert to the ecosystem from which it was ripped. An eighteen-hole golf course requires up to 800,000 gallons of water a day to keep it green – enough to supply a town of 15,000 people. In Rizal province in the Phillippines, a golf course is being built right over a drainage basin supplying tens of thousands of people. Construction is going ahead despite two cease-and-desist orders from the department of environment.

Golf courses use seven times as many chemicals per acre as intensive farmland. A study by the Golf Superintendents Association of America discovered a horrifying rate of cancer deaths among its former members. For greenkeepers, caddies and even the players in countries where environmental regulations are virtually non-existent, the risks are even higher.

Golf is a pox upon the planet, a plague of naffness devised by the British to torment the rest of the world. Those of us who are yet to be infected must do everything we can to stamp it out. We don’t have to go far to make a start. Next time you see a golf course, take a walk across it. It might just spoil a good game.