Activism Gets Rolling in Taiwan
By RALPH JENNINGS
Published: June 5, 2011
TAIPEI — Robin Winkler, an American-born lawyer, changed his citizenship in 2003 to avoid deportation from Taiwan. He feared that his constant, outspoken pressure on officials to consider wildlife, water quality and more decision-making transparency might rile them to where he would be kicked out of Taiwan, where he is now a citizen.
When Mr. Winkler moved to Taiwan in 1977, a government used to unbridled economic development, gutting riverbeds for gravel and allowing the proliferation of coastal factories gave little attention to environmental issues then, he said.
“You’ve got these Soviet-style bureaucrats trained in the 1950s and 1960s,” said the characteristically blunt Mr. Winkler, 56, whose foundation Wild at Heart has handled dozens of pro bono environmental cases since its founding in 2003, stalling some projects but not necessarily stopping them. “In the environment they grew up in, you just develop.”
The pressure from Mr. Winkler and a growing number of other activists reached a crescendo in April, as President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan was considering a proposal for a $24.1 billion Kuokuang Petrochemical factory on Taiwan’s west coast, led by the government’s own oil company, CPC.
Activists representing seven environmental groups had gathered about 70,000 signatures and sought to publicize how the factory, which was to refine 300,000 barrels a day, would harm the endangered population of pink-hued Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. About 400 people showed up for a public hearing on the project in late April.
Mr. Ma ended up rejecting the project for economic and environmental reasons.
Mr. Winkler’s story reflects that of a movement that has gained popular support over the years but generally failed to get the attention of officials as they relied on industrial development to lift Taiwan in the 1980s from poverty to one of Asia’s four economic tigers, along with Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea.
Taiwan’s exports, now led by high-technology and machinery manufacturing, raised the island’s gross domestic product to about $425 billion in 2010, putting it among the world’s top 20 economies on a purchasing power parity scale.
As a result, the people of Taiwan can now afford to oppose new factories, and government officials are balancing the views of companies with the concerns of an environmental movement that has grown from bands of activists to groups that lean on the news media and friends in Parliament.
“Votes are absolutely a consideration,” said Kan Chen-yi, secretary of the Taiwan Matsu Fish Conservation Union, an opponent of the Kuokuang project. “They don’t want to offend anyone.”
Opposition often starts with neighbors worried that air pollution from a plant will hurt their health or that the disappearance of open space will affect their quality of life.
It’s the “not-in-my-backyard” mentality, said John Brebeck, head of research with Yuanta Investment Consulting in Taipei. “That’s what’s talked about in terms of environmentalism.”
Larger activist groups backed by academics, including scientists, later add their voices, which grow louder as people stirred by films and television images of global climate change join the protest.
Activists had a more sympathetic ear in the government in 2000, when the Democratic Progressive Party took over. The administration of President Chen Shui-bian froze plans for Taiwan’s fourth nuclear power plant and turned down a massive pharmaceutical factory.
Since the Nationalists, the party that oversaw the earlier rapid growth, returned to power in 2008, activists have returned to the offensive.
Last year, they won tougher air-quality inspections at a Formosa Petrochemical plant that had caught fire twice, spewing black smoke. In late April, several thousand people demonstrated in Taipei to urge a reconsideration of the fourth nuclear power plant, on which construction has resumed despite worries that an earthquake could cause radiation leaks similar to those at the quake-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.
Mr. Winkler hedges on calling the Kuokuang rejection a victory, emphasizing that it shows there is much more to be done.
But the government may on its own retool its policies to promote “high-value development” instead of traditional heavy industry, Mr. Ma said April 22 after blocking the Kuokuang factory. His government has identified tourism, green energy and high-value farming, all of which enjoy government financial support, as added-value sectors.
The administration has also approved stricter standards in environmental reviews for building proposals and has set emissions targets for greenhouse gases, including a reduction by 2020 to 257 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the level it was in 2005.
Offshore investors, a cornerstone of the government’s long-term economic development strategy, may favor a more environmentally friendly Taiwan rather than flee it.
“Degradation will add significant real costs to society and reduce productivity” if not checked, said Freddie Hoeglund, chief executive of the European Chamber of Commerce Taipei. “In addition, responsible companies and nations prefer to deal with partners that adopt the best international practices.”
And some companies in Taiwan say they have spent money already to cut emissions or recycle water so they stay ahead of the fast-changing laws and endear themselves to consumers in eco-conscious Western countries. Foremost among those are large high-technology firms, like the semiconductor company TSMC and the island’s two top flat-panel makers, AU Optronics and Chi Mei Innolux. All three recycle at least 85 percent of their industrial water.
With the Kuokuang factory defeated, activists have turned again to the Formosa refinery complex after two new fires there in May, and they have held rallies of as many as 10,000 people to condemn the fourth nuclear power plant.
Local officials have ordered a temporary shutdown at part of the Formosa refinery, and the central government has said the nuclear plant’s early 2012 start date may be delayed for tighter inspections.
More anti-nuclear action is sure to follow, protest organizers say.
“There isn’t a single environmental group that isn’t resisting nuclear energy,” said Calvin Wen, former secretary general of the Green Party in Taiwan. “We can demand that the government step up safety checks.”
Their timing coincides with the start of a tense campaign for Taiwan’s presidential election on Jan. 14, Mr. Wen noted. Both the incumbent, Mr. Ma, and his rival, Tsai Ing-wen, bill themselves as environmentalists.
“Raising our voices now can, to some extent, put pressure on the president ahead of the next election,” Mr. Wen said.