Recently a number of environmentally related protest movements in Taiwan have hit the headlines, including forced farmland expropriations in Dapu (大埔) and Siangsihliao (相思寮), fears over work safety because of fires at Formosa Group’s Mailiao naphtha cracker plant, which is also involved in controversy over plans to expand it, and finally the construction of another plant by Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology.
Some have gone as far as to interpret these protests against the government as being politically motivated, and there have also been accusations that they are “anti-business.” It strikes me that, while you can say these protests are, indeed, “anti-big business,” the thing the public is really opposed to here can be better described as “bad business,” with its lack of regard for either the “little people” or the environment.
If we were talking about good business practice, what we might call “benevolent business,” that sought to bring regional prosperity and improve people’s quality of life, what would there be to protest?
In the past, the focus has been on economic development, be it in industry or commerce, in order to improve the lot of the Taiwanese. The price paid for this was the serious pollution it caused. Wealthy businesspeople, with the government’s blessing, built plants and factories wherever they saw fit, regardless of the damage to the environment.
They would release toxic waste water and gases into the environment with impunity, polluting our rivers and poisoning our farmland. The result was that wealthy businesspeople lined their pockets at the expense of the health and heritage of the common person, day in, day out.
Just to rub salt in the wounds, the general public gets to foot the bill for the clean-up operations to deal with the mess these businessmen have left behind. It’s the all-too-familiar scenario of the rich getting richer while the poor just get screwed. Now that the public’s eyes have been opened to what is going on, it is little wonder that they are not happy.
Unfortunately, it seems that neither the government nor the businesspeople in question really get it: They don’t appear to realize the public is wising up to their game. For them it’s business as usual, for which you can read “trying to pull a fast one over the public.” The arrogance is astounding. Environmental Impact Assessments are either dealt with in a cursory manner or not at all.
This is how you get a situation in which the premier of the country can dismiss concerns over endangered dolphins having their routes blocked: “Dolphins know how to make a detour in the waterfront at Taichung harbor, why can’t they do the same in Changhwa?”
And then you have the kind of behavior where the rights of farmers are trampled just so the government can get itself into the good books of large corporations, like we have seen in the forced expropriation of farmland in Taichung. Seen like this, it is not so much that the public are protesting against the government or taking an anti-business stance; it is more like the government and big business colluding together and the people no longer standing for it.
There is no reason to suppose that industrial development and environmental protection are mutually exclusive. For them to co-exist, however, it requires a change in the way the government and businesses behave: They need to up their game and learn to put the environment first.