Peasants in Asia were "the last, the least, the lowest and the lost," said Mahatma Gandhi. Today, says the Hudson Institute's Herman Kahn, "Asia is the second great transformation of mankind. The first was the Industrial Revolution."

Economic growth rates of 4 to 8 percent in most of Asia -- faster than developed nations -- push its masses and its mental attitudes into a world trade orbit.

But can Asia leap from peasant society to a modern global economic power?

Three-quarters of the world's poor live in the region, despite the natural gas wells and "rice bowl" of Thailand, the tin mines of Malaysia, the jute and cotton mills of India, the oil gushers of Indonesia, the industrialization of Japan, and the business "dragons" of East Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea.

Asia's future rests on the agricultural wealth of peasants such as Jose Devoma, a Filipino who wrings his family's food from a Lilliputian plot of rice and garlic.

Since 1978, Jose has accepted the new and fast-growing rice varieties, a road and irrigation project built with foreign loans, and a "compact" of fellow farmers to market the extra food. His rice yield has risen from 79 to 129 sacks a crop, with two crops a year now instead of one.

"We have extra income in our fields," the tenant farmer says as he stands in his rice paddy, radio on his hip, TV back in the hut, and hopes of paying for his own land.

In postcolonial Asia, such capitalist transformation rises or falls on peasant acceptance of change. Farming has become more important as other exports run into trade protectionism in the West, and as oil bills create huge debts.

"The OPEC oil price rises set back development five to seven years," an Asian Development Bank official estimates.

With 58 percent of the world's people, the region's fertility declines of the last decade threaten to level off, still leaving nations with dangerous population growth.

The Green Revolution, which kept rice yields higher than population rates, nonetheless focused attention on distributing the benefits of growth. Well-off farmers tended to get richer, leaving subsistence farmers even poorer. Calories and income are still important, but now so are justice and obligations of economic development.

Social progress, such as literacy and infant mortality, has not kept pace with the economic progress, indicators show.

As Asia steps into the industrial age, its work ethics are seen as perhaps the strongest in the world, and likely to remain high for the 1980s. The emergence of China may offset Asia's slowing trade with the West, and most countries are racing to reduce the region's $28 billion oil bill by developing alternatives -- although poorer nations, such as Bangladesh, are losing ground to the Taiwans and Koreas.

Belt tightening will be needed as growth rates drop to 4 or 5 percent, economists say. And farm expansion may slow as less land is available.

An estimated 30 percent of Asians lack enough protein. Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are expected to have the slowest improvement in "physical quality of life" by the year 2000, with India, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea doing just slightly better.

If Asia's economic peacock is to fan all its feathers by the 21st century, it will have to fill in the gaps by reaching the absolute poor. Otherwise, the region's "lowest and last," both economically and politically, could slow down the Orient express.

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