New Internationalist

Choking On Growth

Issue 263

new internationalist
issue 263 - January 1995

Burning rubber away from rural society - but environmental detours lie ahead.
HEINE PEDERSEN / STILL PICTURES
Choking on growth
Taiwan’s eco-activists have had enough. Marc Cohen
reports on a fundamental challenge to the politics of
dictatorship on a densely populated island.

The surgical mask worn for protection against unhealthy air has replaced the conical farmer’s hat as the most representative Taiwanese garb. In less than 50 years Taiwan has leapfrogged from a peasant society to the cutting edge of high technology. In the process what was once called Ilha Formosa, the ‘beautiful island’, has become a cesspool sunk in the Pacific.

Now many Taiwanese are fed up. Increasingly, people in Taiwan are insisting that their quality of life – and that of future generations – should receive priority, even if this knocks a couple of points off the economic growth rate.

In May 1994 Taiwan’s leading environmental organization, the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU), turned out 20,000 demonstrators in Taipei to protest against government plans for a fourth nuclear-power plant. That same week the mayor of Kungliao – the proposed plant site – staged a referendum on the facility: 96 per cent of the voters said ‘no’.

Just 15 years earlier those instigating similar challenges to official policy had been arrested, tortured and imprisoned under martial law after a show trial. But grassroots environmental actions have played a big part in opening up Taiwan’s political life. Today, though the ruling Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party) retains a firm grip on power, it faces vocal opposition in parliament and a vibrant civil society full of dissenting views.

Despite environmental ruin and years of repressive dictatorship, Taiwan is the darling of the international development establishment. The island has indeed undergone a spectacular economic transformation. In 1945, when the KMT first took over, 75 per cent of economically active Taiwanese tilled the soil. Between 1952 and 1987 annual economic growth averaged a whopping nine per cent. Income per person climbed from $145 in 1951 to $9,805 in 1993 – more than in Greece or Portugal.

The fruits of this growth have been widely shared among the Taiwanese people. In 1992 unemployment stood at just 1.5 per cent. Life expectancy, at 74 years, is similar to that of Northern countries. Nutritional levels are among the best in Asia. Widespread educational opportunities have allowed barefoot sons and daughters of poor peasants to become engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers and business executives. In contrast to Japan and Korea, where hulking conglomerates predominate, enterprises with 30 workers or fewer account for 80 per cent of industrial jobs.

Yet there has been a dreadful environmental price to pay for all this. In 1987 the environmental activist and opposition politician Weng Ching-chu wrote a poem entitled ‘We Have Made You Dirty’. It vividly tallies the ecological costs of ‘success’: smog; ‘cars running wild’; dead rivers full of household garbage, industrial waste and farm pesticides; unsafe food; ‘heavy minerals accumulated in our bodies’; deteriorating public health. ‘We blindly introduced industry/Then buried ourselves in the graves of pretty clothes and nice foods,’ she lamented.

Among the negative entries in Taiwan’s environmental ledger are the following:

  • Only one per cent of human waste receives primary treatment.

  • Water in the streams near the petrochemical complex in Hou Chin in southern Taiwan is combustible.

  • Taiwan’s farmers are among the world’s heaviest users of agricultural chemicals – consumers look for fruit with telltale insect bites to indicate that it is pesticide-free.

  • Taiwan has 15 times as many motor vehicles per square kilometer as the US.

  • Cancer is the leading cause of death – the rate doubled between 1960 and 1990.

Lee Kieng-hong, an environmental engineer on the TEPU staff, complains that ‘Taiwanese kids have no consciousness about the environment. They don’t care because our society teaches us only to make money.’

During the repressive early 1980s fledgling environmental efforts favoured moderate tactics. There were a few isolated demonstrations against factory pollution, but it was mostly an élite affair, involving scholars, journalists and government officials. The moderate tone helped to gain wide media attention and achieved some successes. But within a few years voices began to rise from the grassroots. This time they came from farmers, workers, small business people and political activists who challenged the KMT police state and its allies.

Burning rubber away from rural society - but environmental detours lie ahead.
CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS

In March 1986 a community-based environmental group in the old west-central port town of Lukang launched a struggle which was to have far-reaching effects. The Government had approved plans by the US transnational Dupont to build a $160 million plant making dye from titanium dioxide. It was the single largest investment project in Taiwan’s history – with no community consultation or environmental impact study. The community worried about hazardous wastes undermining the seafood and tourism industries – the town has a number of popular historical sites – which employed more people and generated more revenue than Dupont ever would. And, as Lukang environmentalists told me at the time, they were quite conscious of recent environmental disasters in Bhopal and Chernobyl. Led by Li Tong-liang, a KMT member of the local county council, they were determined to block the opening of the plant. They staged protests, held public meetings and delivered petitions to Dupont’s Taipei office, all the while facing down secret police and military harassment.

Finally, the Government and Dupont agreed to move the venture elsewhere and to conduct environmental and community opinion assessments. The resolve of Lukang’s environmentalists – and their surprising victory over powerful foes – sparked action in other communities. In the late 1980s an average of one environmental protest occurred each day.

Lukang inspired other Taiwanese social and political movements as well. Defying KMT repression, democracy advocates, students, farmers, workers, feminists, indigenous people and impoverished veterans took to the streets. Oppositionists ignored martial-law restrictions and formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in September 1986 to challenge the KMT’s lock on power.

When TEPU was established in November 1987 grass-roots environmental action groups and the élite conservationists came together. Its founding declaration urged the KMT to reverse course: ‘When economic growth and environmental protection are in conflict, conservation of the environment should be the first priority.’ TEPU now has 10 semi-autonomous local branches around the island and a monthly magazine, Taiwan Environment.

Taiwan’s environmental movement has devoted much attention to the petrochemical industry, which accounts for about 25 per cent of the island nation’s GNP. Farmers and fisherfolk living near plants charge that hazardous wastes are destroying their livelihoods. Hou Chin residents began three years of sit-ins at the state-owned China Petroleum Company (CPC) complex in mid-1987 to protest plans for a new ‘naphtha cracker’ (plastics raw material plant). In 1990 the Government agreed to spend $55 million on additional pollution controls and community health benefits, and appointed a panel to monitor environmental practices.

Aware that environmental consciousness is crystallizing, the Government has offered both sticks and carrots. It has cracked down on militant protesters. In May 1992 police violently broke up a sit-in at a CPC refinery that is one of the island’s worst polluters. Protest leaders received jail terms of six months to four-and-a-half years for ‘interfering with police duties’. General Hau Pei-tsun, the prime minister in the early 1990s, threatened to arrest environmentalists as ‘hooligans’.

But the Government has also moved to beef up pollution control. In 1987 the Environmental Protection Agency became a cabinet ministry. The EPA has helped mediate disputes between factories and communities. But it is generally regarded as timid in forcing compliance with environmental laws.

Nuclear power is currently Taiwan’s main environmental issue. The Government chose nuclear energy as the solution to the 1973 oil crisis. Taiwan now relies on nuclear energy for 38 per cent of its electricity, the highest in the world after France.

However, highly publicized safety problems, including serious accidents at existing plants, have led to widespread public opposition to further expansion. The risks of nuclear power on a small, densely populated island are obvious. Two of the three on-line plants are located within 12 miles of metropolitan Taipei – home to six million people – in an area prone to earthquakes and typhoons, and on the edge of a semi-active volcano.

Taiwan’s authorities have looked for easy answers to the problem of radioactive waste. Currently they ship it to Orchid Island, off Taiwan’s south-east tip, which is home to 3,000 Yami aborigines. In 1991, 400 Yamis – many in traditional costumes – staged a colorful demonstration against what they called the Government’s ‘environmental racism’.

But in February 1991, Prime Minister Hau rescinded cancellation of the fourth nuclear plant at Kungliao, citing the Persian Gulf conflict and concerns for ‘the living standards of some 20 million people…’. The May 1994 protest that followed was the largest environmental demonstration in Taiwan’s history.

Ultimately, the enactment of sustainable industrial and energy policies in Taiwan will require a more open political system. Since the Lukang victory the island has moved in that direction. For one thing, martial law has been overturned. But since it remains impossible to vote the KMT out of power, public protest is still the only way for popular movements to influence policy.

Marc Cohen writes frequently about development issues in Asia and the Pacific, and is based in Washington DC.

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