Taiping Island is the largest forested island of the Spratly Islands chain. It is completely encircled by sandy beaches, making it an ideal place for sea turtles to lay eggs. I've done many years of environmental research there and figures show the island to be one of the most important breeding grounds for green turtles in the South China Sea.
However, for some unknown reason, the Ministry of National Defense is building an airport there. It extends from the island's west end to its east end, and has resulted in the felling of the majority of the trees in the most intact forest on the western side.
Because Taiping is very small, the construction of the airport has led to the disappearance of more than half of its original forests. Even more importantly, the end of the runway is right in the area where turtles gather to lay their eggs. The beach is its longest and widest at that point, so from 40 percent to 60 percent of the sea turtles spawn there.
The airport will certainly affect more than half of the turtles that come onto the beach. What's more, the placement of the runway will ensure that much of the beach is lost to the wind and tides, while the runway itself will also be threatened by erosion from the sea. In time, large concrete blocks will need to be put down to safeguard the runway, which will take away even more of the beach.
Once the turtles leave because they have no place to lay their eggs, this important habitat will vanish from the face of the earth.
However, the ministry seems to think that there is nothing wrong with destroying this precious natural resource. Since the military first put a garrison on the island more than 50 years ago, it is hard to imagine that the ministry would not know that a protected species on the brink of extinction lays its eggs there.
And yet, before beginning construction of the airport, it didn't make any appraisal of the environmental impact. Only after a recently held meeting did it finally dispatch representatives to communicate with the public. But they weren't able to give any reasonable explanations and they didn't seem to care at all about what they had done.
Recent media reports have said that in order to protect the natural environment on Iwo Jima, the Japanese are going to place many restrictions on development there, even covering the remains of soldiers killed in World War II that are still buried there. Meanwhile, one important reason that our government sees such a pressing need to build an airport on Taiping is simply because all our neighboring countries are doing it, so we have to do it, too.
We know well that our natural environment is in grave danger of being destroyed and we even donate money every year to international environmental preservation organizations. Yet our own knowledge of the environment is certainly in a sad state.
To save Taiping's rain forests, green turtle breeding grounds and the nearby coral reefs, I believe we should halt construction of the airport. We should use an offshore airport instead and the destroyed forests should be replanted. The necessary projects on the island, such as construction of a wharf at Nanhsing (南星), need to undergo an appropriate environmental impact assessment.
Even more importantly, we should announce the establishment of a protected hatching area for green turtles on the island, much like Wangan Island Green Turtle Refuge on the Penghu Islands. Because green turtles lay their eggs on the shore at night, this will not affect coast guard activities during the day. In addition, with appropriate training, coast guard personnel could become excellent turtle conservationists.
Many projects that destroy important habitats for wild animals and vegetation manage to avoid environmental criticism because they aren't large in scale, such as the projects on Taiping. Therefore I suggest that we amend current laws so that any projects planned for important natural habitats must all undergo an environmental impact assessment before construction begins so as to prevent irreversible consequences.
In addition, government agencies, particularly those concerned with construction, should recognize the importance of a training curriculum in environmental protection if we do not wish to run counter to today's trend toward preserving the world's natural assets.
Cheng I-jiunn is a professor at National Taiwan Ocean University's Institute of Marine Biology.
Translated by Marc Langer
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