Taiwan’s environment and land restoration under serious threat
When the public are focusing on Chen Shui-bian’s trial and the new Premier, something detrimental to Taiwan’s environment is going on. It may just prove that Ma Ying-jeou’s promise to place land restoration and flood prevention first and start necessary policy revisions was empty.
I blogged about how the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) boycotted the former DPP administration’s land restoration bill in 2005 but later on tried to take credit for the DPP ideas when they were heavily criticised after Typhoon Morakot in August 2009. I have been waiting to see if the government can come up with their proposals but nothing has been presented. Nevertheless, what has been announced so far is already quite scary.
The lift of a ban on mining in limestone reserves
It just came to light that the Ministry of Economic Affairs is lifting the ban on the development of the limestone reserves. This plan was announced in July and would start in October. The public became aware after Kaohsiung City Government and environmental groups reiterated their oppositions to have the limestone deposit areas in Kaohsiung reopen. They voiced concerns over water conservation and environmental protection if this ban was lifted.
Frank Hsieh, the former Kaohsiung Mayor, also shared his views both on his radio show and on Plurk. Under the government plan, the ban is going to be lifted on 12 reserves, three of which are in the Kaohsiung area. Those areas are still recovering from decades of damage. The Hsieh administration in Kaohsiung City made a lot of effort in restoring Takao Hill and Half Screen (Ban Ping) Mountain. They did not only encounter resistance from local residents and illegal occupants but also blackmails and serious threats. The then Deputy Mayor, Lin Yung-chien, and his team were even physically assaulted on one of their visits to the area.
Several years ago, torrential rain caused floods and mudslides at Mt. Half Screen. If Hsieh’s administration had not built three detention basins around Mt. Half Screen, the villages underneath were very likely to have been seriously flooded or washed away. After a lot of negotiations and hard work, things started moving towards a more positive direction and those areas look very different and much more pleasant now. Why take it away?
Critics questioned why the new Premier Wu would allow this to happen given that he was the Kaohsiung Mayor stopping the mining in 1997. In response to all the criticisms, Wu immediately stated that the lift of the ban would not go ahead. Many thought that this was the end of the matter. However, it was found that Wu’s press release only applied to those in Kaohsiung City. All the other areas such as those in Hsinchu, Jiayi, Kaohsiung County and Tainan would still be reopened. This will knock the environmental restoration and protection work back for years. Interestingly, all the DPP Mayors and Commissioners immediately expressed their strong oppositions whereas the Hsinchu County Commissioner (KMT) said he welcomed further ‘development’.
Critics also warned of a grim possibility. Under the government administrative structure, it is not possible for a premier to stop a policy already officially approved and announced within 24 hours. He would have to go through a set of procedures to formally abandon the plan. This raises the question of whether Wu was only saying it to avoid public criticisms when in fact the policy is still valid. If the Ma administration was sincere in land restoration and flood prevention, they could have started taking necessary steps to stop and review the lift of this ban weeks ago. Instead, they let it go on.
The more important question should be why the KMT administration is lifting the ban in the first place. Well, one of the sectors that strongly opposed the DPP administration’s land restoration proposal was the cement industry, which uses limestone as one of the raw materials and are looking to benefit if the government lifts the ban. Commentators on Talking Show also questioned whether the cement industry supported and donated to Ma’s campaign during the 2008 presidential election so that the Ma administration was now returning the favour even if that meant destroying the environment and making Taiwan more vulnerable to floods and mudslides.
National land planning and restoration
After Ma Ying-jeou promised to put land restoration in priority in August 2009, the Executive Yuan then started reviewing a land ‘planning’ proposal under which areas that need to be restored would be identified. The DPP felt that the KMT was only looking into ‘planning’ but had not had concrete plans for land restoration and a relocation package associated with it. Therefore, the DPP was re-introducing their draft national land restoration bill when the DPP was in office (the bill was actually blocked by the KMT 73 times rather than 43 as quoted in my previous post).
Ignoring the fact that they had nothing on the table with regard to land restoration (because traditionally, the KMT never concerns themselves with sustainable development and environmental protection as they only see Taiwan as a stepping stone rather than their home) and were poaching the DPP idea without apologising for their boycott 4 years ago, the KMT immediately shot down the DPP draft with the same old party lines they came up with four years ago. KMT Legislator, Lu Hsueh-chang, said that the DPP was only ‘half right’ because the DPP bill neglected the financial and employment needs of residents in those areas. KMT Aboriginal Legislator, Kung Wen-chi, called the DPP bill an ‘ethnic cleansing’ bill which ignored the Aboriginal culture and history. They spoke as if they had a better proposal. The most ironic of all was that May Chin, the Aboriginal legislator who staged a protest against the Japanese government when villages in her constituency were flooded during Typhoon Morakot and then flew to see the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, only a few days after, was also one of the leading members blocking the DPP national land restoration plan back in 2005.
These allegations are either untrue or exaggerated. The DPP did take into account of residents’ financial, educational, medial and employment needs and they were willing to communicate and adapt to the various cultures and preferences. Those KMT party lines could be true but also sounded like excuses to cover what they were really trying to protect, for example, the interests of the cement industry or farmers, perhaps?
Even if the DPP proposal was not that great, the KMT is far from considerate to the flood victims and the Aborigines. Without properly consulting those Aboriginal flood victims, the Post-Typhoon Morakot Reconstruction Special Act was drawn up and quickly approved by the Parliament (as the KMT has an overwhelming majority). This special act gives the government the power to “forcibly relocate residents of disaster-prone areas after first seeking their consensus.” This is more arbitrary than whatever was proposed by the DPP. The victims didn’t feel listened to and staged a post against this special act. They asked the government to postpone it and listen to what they have to say. The Presidential Office sent someone quite junior in the Public Affairs Department to meet with the protesters and he/she only promised to pass on the message to the president. To avoid the press, the representatives were taken to the canteen in the Presidential Office rather than the reception room. What annoyed the protesters even further was that the Presidential Office worker told them that the Presidential Office usually gave visitors water but gave them packaged drinks, which was already ‘pretty good’. What that person didn’t say out loud was probably ‘so you should be grateful…’
Apart from the forceful relocation, the special act is in breach of the Aboriginal Basic Act and Additional Acts of the Constitution. It also excludes environmental assessment and Water Resource Development and Conservation Incentive Regulations. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), Kung, who appeared to be so concerned about the Aboriginal culture and accused the DPP of ethnic cleansing, defended this special act and stated that the KMT would listen to the victims and local residents.
The possible sale of Takao Hill conservation areas
Approximately two weeks after Typhoon Morakot, a week after Ma Ying-jeou publicly said that his administration would work on land restoration and flood prevention, the National Property Administration under the Ministry of Finance announced that the government was going to sell the reserved forest land in Takao Hill. The areas earmarked for sale have all been identified as geologically fragile and prone to landslides and are therefore state owned and protected for a reason. If sold to private owners, there is no guarantee how the land will be used and any overuse or human habitation may lead to another disaster. Civil groups and environmentalists are now raising public awareness of this problem and encouraging everyone who feels concerned about the potential damage to express their views and sign a petition.
Lin Sheng-feng, Associate Professor of Architecture and former Minister without Portfolio in the DPP administration was interviewed by Taipei Times just recently after Typhoon Morakot. He reiterated the importance of land restoration especially in the face of climate change, which is going to bring more severe/extreme weather worldwide. He confirmed that he met strong opposition when trying to put the idea into actions back when he was in the Cabinet. He described it as ‘coming up against the brick wall’ when trying to convince the residents in geologically unstable areas not to rebuild roads after landslides.
While it is natural that a lot of people would want things back to the way they used to be and resist the idea of change until they find something acceptable, the KMT’s behaviours towards dealing with such feelings and actual concerns are different before and when they are in charge. When the DPP was in charge, the KMT used (to some extent, I guess ‘stirred’) Aboriginal residents’ and farmers’ concerns and feelings against the DPP to score points. Now they are in charge. They seem to be able to easily brush those people’s concerns aside. The special act and the way the Ma administration responds to the victims show that their thinking centres around what’s easy for them to manage rather than user oriented strategies. This also makes one wonder how serious or sincere the KMT and Ma Ying-jeou himself about their promises on land restoration. What they say and what they actually do are likely to be completely different. The ‘brick wall’ may always be there for those who truly want to and endeavour to protect the environment with the concept of sustainable development in mind. The ‘wall’ would just manifest itself in different forms, depending on what suits the KMT and Ma Ying-jeou.