Environmental Movement Enters New Stage

Green civic organizations are making next January’s legislative elections their next battlefield.

Taiwan’s environmental movement is entering a new phase of more direct political activism. On September 21, the Green Party-Social Democratic Party (SDP) Alliance announced that it would field six candidates in next January’s legislative elections, including Green Party Taiwan co-convener Lee Ken-cheng. The move reflects the antipathy that local environmental activists tend to hold toward the two main political parties, which they largely view as pro-business at the expense of the environment.

To obtain a share of the 34 legislator-at-large seats at stake, a political party or alliance must win at least 5% of the popular vote. In the past, that threshold was unobtainable. Since its formation in 1996, the Green Party Taiwan has contested numerous elections, but never took more than 1.2% of the vote.

But with increasing concern in Taiwan society for environmental issues, and with the support of a wide variety of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the idea of gaining a foothold in the legislative branch of the political arena no longer seems so unrealistic.

The political space for environmentalism has certainly changed from decades past, when the all-out focus on industrial development overshadowed any ecological concerns. Gross domestic product more than tripled between 1965 and 1986. But Taiwan’s rise from what was still primarily an agricultural society in the early 1960s to a manufacturing and exporting powerhouse that became one of the “Four Asian Tigers” in the 1980s took a heavy toll on the quality of the island’s air, water, and soil. While the impact was felt from north to south, it was undoubtedly most pronounced in Kaohsiung, the center of Taiwan’s heavy and chemical industrial production.

The period was an era of authoritarian one-party rule in which a civil society of vibrant NGOs had yet to emerge. In a 1994 research paper entitled The Environmental Nightmare of the Economic Miracle: Land Abuse and Land Struggles in Taiwan, Taiwan Environmental Protection Union member and former international affairs officer of the Green Party Taiwan, Linda Arrigo, maintains that following the transfer of the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War, another reason why the environmental consequences of unrestrained economic growth were set aside was that “the ruling clique did not identify with Taiwan.” With martial law preventing large-scale protests – and also because Taiwan’s population at the time was enjoying the harvest of the “economic miracle” – the environment continued to receive short shrift even as it was noticeably deteriorating.

What protests did occur were generally sporadic “self-salvation” events, usually taking place in fishing and farming communities where people felt their livelihoods were being threatened by development projects. For instance, residents of the Linyuan district of Kaohsiung in 1983 torched an amino acid factory that was polluting the air and water of their village. Two years later, executives at pesticide plants in Hsinchu and Taichung counties were threatened with violence unless they cleaned up their operations’ waste.

The pendulum would only start swinging toward a more organized environmental movement in 1986, when opposition was mobilized to a proposed DuPont project for a titanium dioxide plant in a coastal area near the historical town of Lukang in Changhua County. After local officials led repeated demonstrations against the plant, DuPont agreed to drop the project.

Buoyed by that success, as well as the lifting of martial law, the number of environmental protests mushroomed from an average of around 14 a year between 1980 and 1987 to more than 31 a year over the next two years. In 1991 there were 258 protest demonstrations, after which the number started to decline, according to the Taiwan Research Foundation.

As a vehicle for political dissent during the martial law period (1949-1987), the group known as the dangwai (literally “outside the party”) often wore the cloak of environmental activism. Members of the dangwai became the core of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) when it was founded in 1986, which is why the party was seen as aligned with environmental causes and adopted a green logo.

Leaders of the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party announce an alliance to field a joint slate of candidates in next January’s legislative elections.

Founding of the EPA

Also around this time, in 1987, the cabinet-level Environmental Protection Administration was established in response to what retired EPA advisor Y.F. Liang says was “growing public awareness” of environmental issues. The first appointee as EPA minister was Eugene Chien, still active in the field as founder and head of the Taiwan Institute for Sustainable Energy. He was presented with the “Global Views Environmental Heroes Award” in 2010 by Yahoo and Global Views Monthly.

After winning the presidential election in 2000, the DPP brought some of the proponents of stricter environmental policies into the government, although some of the more zealous activists came to see that move as an attempt to co-opt and neutralize the movement by making environmental campaigners part of what the critics viewed as the pro-business establishment.

As they began to receive more financial support, NGOs dedicated to environmental causes blossomed, though not without suspicion from the more hardline activists. Arrigo describes some of the government’s financial support during this period as “soft corruption because a lot of money was spent without doing a lot of environmental work.” Still, progress undeniably occurred in areas such as trash disposal and recycling, as well as cleaning up the nation’s polluted rivers and improving air quality.

The primary issue of concern to the green community at the time, however, was the question of whether to continue building the country’s Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, known as the Lungmen plant, in Gongliao in eastern New Taipei City. Unlike the United States, where environmental and anti-nuclear power groups have tended to be separate and distinct – some prominent American environmental figures have even backed nuclear power as a comparatively clean fuel – in Taiwan the two movements have generally been intertwined.

Though the DPP had campaigned on a clear anti-nuclear platform, and once in office President Chen Shui-bian sought to shut down construction of the Lungmen plant, the DPP eventually restored the project, giving in to pressure from the Kuomintang-controlled legislature and a ruling by the Grand Justices that the project’s suspension had not followed constitutional procedures.

The jolt of the about-face motivated a new generation of environmental activists to come to the fore, including the No Nuke Taiwan Union, an umbrella group for more than 88 factions. Y.F. Liang cites this response as “a good example of what happens if the government does not follow popular opinion – it will pay the price,” adding that “it’s not a blue (KMT) or green (DPP) issue.” In fact, the KMT government of Ma Ying-jeou moved in 2014 to indefinitely suspend construction of the controversial Lungmen facility pending a possible final resolution through a national referendum.

Another milestone in the evolution of the environmental movement came in 2005 when that year’s Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) was unveiled at the Davos World Economic Forum, showing Taiwan second from the bottom of the 146 surveyed nations, just ahead of North Korea. Although it later turned out that the report’s methodology was inaccurate, since Taiwan’s lack of membership in a number of international organizations meant that relevant data was either missing or not presented in the appropriate form, the initial announcement came as a shock. (In 2014, the ESI was transformed into the Environmental Performance Index or EPI and Taiwan was ranked 46th among 178 countries – not as embarrassing but still far from a laudable level of achievement).

In the aftermath of release of the 2005 survey results, increased attention began to be paid to the management of land and water resources, air pollution, and preparedness for natural disasters. The havoc wreaked by Typhoon Morakot in 2009 also played a part in mobilizing support for environmental causes. Groups like the Green Citizens’Action Alliance (GCAA), formed in 1999 as an offshoot of the Taiwan Environment Protection Union Taipei Chapter), lobbied after the disaster for improved construction management and environment ecology, Arrigo says. GCAA aims to raise grassroots awareness of green issues, opposes nuclear energy, and works on improving waste management, coastal development, and ocean conservation. Meanwhile, the 2012 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan brought together a wide coalition of environmental groups to push for cancellation of the Lungmen plant and establishment of a “nuclear-free homeland.”

The Trees Party legislative candidate in Penghu, Hsien Yi-che (right) launches his campaign with pledges to fight for sustainable development and oppose the building of cement embankments at Penghu Bay.
The Trees Party legislative candidate in Penghu, Hsien Yi-che (right) launches his campaign
with pledges to fight for sustainable development and oppose the building of cement
embankments at Penghu Bay.

Creating a “third force?”

For Bruno Andreas Walther, an assistant professor in the health and development program at Taipei Medical University, the current pattern in Taiwan of environmental activism leading to political engagement broadly follows the development model of green organizations in his home country of Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The massive nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 fired up environmentalists and eventually led to the development of Alliance ’90/The Greens as a “third force” in politics. Something similar is happening now in Taiwan, he says.

A further example is the Sunflower Movement protesters – backed by civic groups including Green Party Taiwan – who occupied a chamber of the Legislative Yuan in March 2014 over the government’s handling of a prospective trade-in-services agreement with China. The new-found engagement of young people in public affairs may spur a new generation of environmental advocates, Arrigo says.

In addition to joining established political parties and NGOs, some of the Sunflower leaders have also seemed intent on shaking up the old order of politics by participating in a number of newly founded political organizations such as Flanc Radical, Formoshock, and the Trees Party. The latter nominated 21 candidates for the local elections in November last year, representing the “interests of trees and wildlife that do not have the ability or right to vote,” according to a Taipei Times report.

Not all of Taiwan’s environmental advocacy has been by young activists. For example, middle-class and middle-aged writers and professors spearheaded the “Southern Green Revolution,” working with the authorities to improve the environment in Kao-hsiung since the early 1990s. In 2009, their efforts helped bring about a carbon tax on heavy industry to reduce CO2 emissions.

Kaohsiung is now promoting itself as an eco-city. Wastewater to the once heavily polluted Love River was diverted to a treatment plant, parks have sprouted everywhere, and air quality has slowly improved. In 2010, the city set up what was the biggest high-concentration photovoltaic solar power plant in Asia. And the municipal government has tried to wean its residents off their motorbikes (77% of people owned one) by introducing an MRT system and fleet of a biofuel-gasoline buses. Its garbage trucks run on biodiesel.

Looking ahead, former Environmental Protection Minister and DPP politician Winston Dang says the areas most needing attention in order to improve Taiwan’s environmental protection are public education and reform of the legal system to ensure that polluters are properly punished. In this respect, he commends the efforts of NGO Wild at Heart, which is led by attorney and environmental activist Robin Winkler, founder of the Taipei law firm of Winkler Partners, who demonstrated his devotion to Taiwan by giving up his U.S. citizenship to become a local national in 2003. Winkler has also declared his candidacy for a seat from the Northern Shilin-Beitou constituency in next year’s legislative election.

Many articles about Taiwan’s environment begin with the idyllic image of “Ilha Formosa,” the “beautiful island” espied by Portuguese seafarers – a land of lush, unspoiled beauty. Those days are long gone, and given Taiwan’s incredibly dense population, they will not return. But there is broad support among the populace for a more environmentally friendly Taiwan, and green civic organizations are playing a key part in the effort to make it a reality.

In the meanwhile, business, government and NGOs continue to strive for a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. AmCham Taipei, for example, maintains a Sustainability Development Committee that strives to maintain that balance to make Taiwan into a more environmentally friendly place to live and work. “Our members include a number of companies that have been global leaders in developing and promoting new technologies, products, and business processes designed to promote environmental sustainability,” says Chamber president Andrea Wu. “In our view there needn’t be any contradiction between being ‘pro-business’ and ‘pro-environment.’”

A Chat With Environment Minister Wei Kuo-yen

EPA Minister Wei Kuo-yen, who holds a doctorate in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island, was a senior researcher at Academia Sinica’s Institution of Earth Sciences, has taught at Yale University, and is a geosciences professor at National Taiwan University. He has headed the EPA since March 2014 and spoke to TOPICS in his office on a recent Saturday morning.

What are your current major concerns?

A good example is Puli in Nantou County, the geographic center of Taiwan. In my college days, it used to be one of the cleanest areas in the country, with water so good that it was used for making rice wine. But it’s in a valley and this traps the wind, which carries pollutants and affects the water quality.

What can we do? We’ve had inspection teams and monitoring stations around the industrial parks, but still the public suffers. Our standards are stringent but must be even more so. As a result we’ve been working with National Chi Nan University [in Nantou] and with the Puli community to create a portable device that can measure PM2.5 particles. We’ve provided technical advice and money, so that now the community can take the portable device and measure PM levels on the streets, on highways, near factories, and in the fields.

The program is still in the beta stage but we want to duplicate it in other townships. Backed up by the cloud, the data is geographically coordinated to create pollutant maps. Before, we had to build expensive high-quality air-monitoring stations. We have about seven of them. Now we have 700-plus mobile monitors. Maybe they’re not as accurate, but over time they show the trend.

We like to have concerned citizens helping us. It’s a bottom-up rather than top-down system, and that’s a good thing. It’s like a “citizens’ watch.” Previously it wasn’t always like this, but now we’re having a dialogue, listening to opinions, providing information, and working together in a more transparent way. In the “Age of the Internet” we should take advantage of this form of governance. In the old days it was about taking pictures (of pollution) and always about compliance, but now it’s more about prevention.

Peter Drucker [the “founder of modern management”] said that when you get things measured, then they get managed. I believe the same thing: Think of it, measure it, design it, build it, resolve it.

Does the EPA work with environmental civic groups?

Yes. There is a wide spectrum of environmental groups, ranging from the sentimental and angry to the idealists. It’s a broad axis of groups who form alliances and influence each other in different ways. The point is, though, we are all on the same side.

We have “ward cafés,” like town hall meetings, where complaints can be aired, and we can discuss the issues and come up with solutions. But leadership is also very important.

Given the right kind of leadership, with root and branch understanding, such groups have a key role to play.

The various groups don’t always agree with one another or know how to deal with us. However, being pro-environment is a trend, as is what we call “value-added development.” Taiwan will find its way because the old way – economic progress at the expense of the environment – cannot continue.

One of your tasks at EPA was to prepare the department for transformation into a revamped Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. How is that going?

As you know, the elections are on January 16 next year, so we’re running out of time. Maybe it’s not going to happen. This is the last legislative session and it will be about the budget, so they’re not working on this issue now. Basically there’s been conflict between the two major parties and this issue has been kidnapped because it’s been bundled with other issues.

The EPA has an International Environmental Partnership with the American Institute in Taiwan. Could you talk more about this program?

We are now in the second phase of the collaboration between Taiwan and the United States. The first phase, which was for 20 years and ended two years ago, was a bilateral collaboration. The main characteristic of the new follow-up stage is that it is multilateral. Before we “imported” by learning from the U.S., but now we have grown up and have something to offer to others.

The idea is to play a stronger role as a hub, especially in the Southeast Asian region but not limited to that area. For example, in South America we are working on an electronic waste initiative, and we are even thinking about doing something in Africa. We’re also extending this cooperation by involving European countries. For example, there was a conference about air quality in Vietnam recently and we proposed that the French attend.

This kind of program gives us international visibility. It’s a global village and working on improving the environment is a good thing for all. That’s really my belief: “Do something good, prevent something worse.”

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