According to a report in the Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper on Sunday, it was a 60-year-old farmer in Pingtung County who brought the factory at the center of the cooking oil scandal to authorities’ attention, sending them information about the plant five times, but the authorities did not take action.
The story drew the public’s attention to the county’s Environmental Protection Bureau, placing the Pingtung County Government under a lot of pressure.
There is no doubt that the county government had been careless, but if an external body had not conducted the investigation and the bureau had “investigated” the waste oil factory instead, it is possible that nothing would have come of it: The main perpetrators might never have come to light and the story might never have developed into the national scandal that it has.
The reasons for this are systemic problems — five of which are identified here.
First, the channels by which people can report violations are not sufficiently transparent. That the farmer informed authorities five times to no avail suggests that there is little supervision or transparency in the process.
That is, there is no central government or third party oversight, which means officials can wrap up the investigation whenever they want.
Another possibility is that the officials knew from experience that if they acted on the information and conducted a thorough investigation, they were likely to meet all sorts of obstacles, such as pressure from their superiors or elected representatives.
The farmer could have gone straight to a local prosecutors’ office, either in Pingtung or elsewhere, or the national-level Environmental Protection Administration, the Agency Against Corruption, or the Criminal Investigation Bureau, but he chose to inform the Greater Taichung police on the recommendation of a friend.
This suggests that the farmer had a very limited understanding of the official channels available to report violations and that the public — especially those living in remote areas — do not know the best way to report violations to the authorities.
It also shows that the law enforcement agencies are not getting the message across, or are not sufficiently transparent.
The second problem is the lack of bureaucratic accountability.
There have been cases where a handful of government officials have taken matters into their own hands and been proactive in enforcing the law, undaunted by resistance from other powerful quarters.
However, these individuals were the exception rather than the rule. Because of flaws in the system, it is far more common for rank-and-file civil servants to choose not to do the responsible thing.
From my own observations over the years, few rank-and-file civil servants have much passion for their jobs. They go by the adage that the more you do, the more chance there is of making a mistake and this, together with the prevailing political climate, tends to dampen their enthusiasm for taking action.
The third problem is the lack of trust in elected officials. In theory, members of the public can approach their local elected representative to ask for help in resolving any issues they might have.
These elected representatives have the ear of government officials, so they should be able to go through these channels to ask officials to make sure the law is enforced.
However, it appears that the farmer did not have that much trust in his elected representative.
It is possible that he might have felt relatively disenfranchised, or that little importance was given to his vote. Perhaps the elected representative was perceived to be in the pocket of the factory owner and so the farmer did not trust the official. Or maybe, more generally, the state of politics at the time does little to recommend it to ordinary people, who have come to lose their faith in politics.
Fourth, sometimes people are suspicious of local judicial institutions.
Because of the gravity of environmental pollution violations, people have the option of lodging reports not only with the Environmental Protection Administration, but also with local judicial institutions, including the local district prosecutors’ office, various government ethics offices, the Investigation Bureau or the police.
However, because there is very little interaction between these institutions and ordinary citizens, or because these bodies do little to promote themselves, so that the public is not sure of what to make of them, or perhaps because the public has doubts that they will enforce the law properly, people are more likely to turn to judicial institutions elsewhere for help.
The last problem is that civic food safety groups are simply not active enough. The hope is that these groups will keep a close eye on companies that break the law.
This case shows that the food safety groups in Pingtung have been sitting on their hands. Perhaps it was the remote location of the factory that enabled it to remain under the radar of these groups. It has to be said that, although there are many civic food safety and environmental protection groups in Pingtung which have made a considerable contribution to protecting the environment, this issue has not received the attention it should have, either due to a lack of resources or because the task is simply too big.
Still, this latest scandal could be a turning point for food safety in the nation.
As the central government has the greatest amount of resources and people are more likely to trust it, it must come up with a plan of action to address the issues discussed above. Only then will there be hope for the nation.
Yang Yung-nane is director of the Research Center of Science and Technology Governance at National Cheng Kung University.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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