Mon, Jun 15, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Respecting Taiwan’s oldest trees

By Pan Han-shen 潘翰聲

Chiu Chui-yi (邱垂益), mayor of Taipei County’s Jhonghe (中和), recently spent millions of NT dollars in public funds to purchase a 500-year-old red cedar from Taitung County’s Chishang (池上) Township. The tree was then planted in Jhonghe’s Jinhe Sports Park. Soon after, Chiu fell and broke his ankle. Some media outlets reported that the spirit of the ancient tree was angry and made Chiu hurt his ankle, while others claimed the tree trunk was growing human-like features. This reduced a story about tree preservation to speculation on supposed supernatural phenomena — and illustrated just how stupid the media can be.

All cultures have traditions of respect and awe for magnificent, centuries-old trees. In Hakka villages, for example, old trees have great cultural and ecological significance.

A few years ago, Taiwan’s real estate market experienced strong growth and many ancient trees from rural parts of the east were moved to urban residential areas. Today even the oldest trees can be purchased from poorer rural areas and this unacceptable trend is led by the government.

The Taitung County Government, which allowed the red cedar to be removed, and the Forestry Bureau, which is charged with ecological conservation, are partly responsible.

In today’s age of climate change and increasing attention to environmental protection, developers are careful about felling trees, preferring instead to “transplant” them.

But shortsighted builders are only concerned with having a large, beautiful tree to help them sell property. Ignorant buyers have no idea that trees require care to grow well. The value of centuries-old trees lies in their age, which cannot be rushed.

Even if such an old tree survives being uprooted and moved, it is difficult for them to thrive in their new environment.

Town administration offices proudly point at green shoots that appear after a tree is moved, saying they are signs of new growth. But conservation experts worry that these shoots represent a final attempt at survival.

Years ago, an ancient banyan tree died after being moved to a construction site at National Tainan Second Senior High School. I am sure Jhonghe officials sincerely hope the red cedar tree moved from Taitung will survive, but they should not praise themselves if it does. Instead, they should reconsider tree preservation efforts.

Since Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) became mayor of Taipei, an estimated 3,000 trees have been moved for projects such as the reconstruction of Songshan Tobacco Factory, the construction of the venue for the Taipei International Garden and Horticulture Exposition (國際花卉博覽會), MRT lines and underground parking lots beneath public parks. Moving so many trees is a step back after all the progress that has been made over the past years by planting trees.

The creation of a Hakka cultural park in Taipei City was first expected to involve moving more than 200 trees. After lobbying by residents and environmental groups, along with an investigation by a Taipei City Cultural Affairs Bureau committee, a new plan involves moving less than 80 trees.

The Taipei City Tree Protection Bylaw (樹木保護自治條例) is a rare example of local legislation to protect the environment. It protects clusters of trees and seeks to change the view of forests as just groups of trees. The red cedar uprooted in Taitung weighed 3 tonnes: We can only imagine how many animals and other creatures suffered from the removal of the 27m-high tree.

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