In his documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (看見台灣), documentary filmmaker Chi Po-lin (齊柏林) captured numerous instances of environmental destruction and their consequences, bringing the issues to the attention of the public.
The movie was a poignant reminder of humanity’s hubris and ignorance.
If Chi had not passed away in a helicopter accident while shooting a sequel, he would have been able to document the environmental changes that have occurred since he filmed his first documentary only five to six years ago.
Nevertheless, some of his final observations on the nation’s environment remain emotionally powerful.
Last month, while flying across the Taroko National Park after shooting footage of whales off the east coast, Chi noticed that mining operations in the area had significantly reduced the size of a mountain.
He filmed footage of an Asia Cement Corp quarry and shared it with a friend, lamenting: “Asia Cement has dug even deeper than five years ago.”
Chi’s words were sad, but true.
In Taiwan, whenever a corporation gets its hands on a piece of pristine environment, nature always loses.
As a result, mountains are being destroyed.
Banping Mountain (半屏山), which straddles the border between Kaohsiung’s Zuoying (左營) and Nanzih (楠梓) districts has become a target of many quarries because it contains a large amount of limestone. More than a decade of mining operations in the area has entirely changed the local topography and reduced the height of the mountain from 233m to 181m. In a way, one could say that the mountain once known as Banping has now passed into history.
The Asia Cement quarry in Hualien County’s Sincheng Township (新城) near Taroko National Park has caused a 776m mountain to shrink to 295m.
In response to Chi’s remarks on the depth of the mining operation, the Bureau of Mines simply said that the company has not expanded its mining operations in the county.
It was clearly an attempt to divert the public’s attention from the scope of the operations.
However, the most ridiculous response has to be that of Far Eastern Group chairman Douglas Hsu (徐旭東), who insisted that digging deeper into the mountain is good for the local ecology, because a deep quarry could be turned into a big reservoir and used to raise fish.
That anyone would say such a thing is shocking.
Meanwhile, Hsu has repeatedly emphasized how much he loves Taiwan, but it is difficult for anyone not to disapprove of the way he is treating the nation that he claims to care for deeply.
Rivers and lakes are being contaminated.
Environmentalist group Citizen of the Earth, Taiwan in 2006 found that the Houjin River (後勁溪) in Kaohsiung contains hundreds of times more chlorinated organic chemicals than the legal limit permitted by the EU.
The group suspected that Formosa Plastics Corp’s petrochemical plant in Renwu District (仁武) was the source of the pollution, as samples matched those from the plant, which is located upstream of the site.
The company vigorously denied having illegally discharged wastewater into the river, adding that its wastewater is discharged into the ocean in Zihguan District (梓官) after being processed at a treatment plant at Dashe Industrial Park.
Based on experience, many would think that if a big corporation like Formosa Plastics adheres to the law — as the company claims it is doing — it would not break the law abroad.
However, last year the company, without much protest, accepted a US$500 million fine for a chemical spill by its subsidiary steel plant in Vietnam before the plant even began making steel. Why was the company, which often denies pollution allegations in Taiwan, so quick to admit its mistakes in Vietnam?
In 2013, when Advanced Semiconductor Engineering Inc (ASE) was found to have been illegally discharging wastewater into the Houjin River, turning it orange, the Kaohsiung City Government fined it more than NT$100 million (US$3.3 million).
However, the Supreme Administrative Court overturned the verdict and spared it the fine.
It seems that the nation’s rivers must have changed color all on their own and the wastewater from plants had absolutely nothing to do with it.
The skies are also becoming unrecognizable. Ask a student or teacher from National Changhua University of Education what the sky looks like when there is no rain or typhoon. Is it blue or gray? Do they see clouds or discharge from Formosa Chemicals and Fibre Corp smokestacks at its naphtha cracker in Yunlin County’s Mailiao Township (麥寮)?
Ask the students of Yongguang Elementary School in Changhua County’s Gongguan Village (公館) whether the air is odorless as they have learned from textbooks or if it smells so bad that it makes people want to throw up.
The land is being disfigured. Mountains and forests have their natural mechanisms to maintain an ecological balance. Only when that mechanism is destroyed from deforestation will landslides occur.
Today, it is nearly impossible for any individual or company to obtain a mining permit on national land. The problem is not the cost, but rather getting the approval. Such permits are granted by the National Property Administration and the Forestry Bureau based on rules set down in 1978, when Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) was still premier. The rules allow Taiwan Cement Corp and Asia Cement to excavate marble in national forests for an annual rent of NT$32,512 per hectare, while Formosa Plastics and Ruentex Group pay annual rent of NT$38,000 per hectare.
Strangely, when the Council of Agriculture in 2014 proposed that the Ministry of Finance double the rent to reduce debt, which has grown out of control, the ministry said there was no need. The ministry is clearly trying to help big corporations by keeping their costs low.
The Kaohsiung City Government spent NT$3.7 billion to clean the Houjin River over the course of six years. However, all that investment was wasted when ASE polluted the river again.
Formosa Chemicals and Fibre recently obtained permission from the Yunlin County Government to renew its 12 coal burning permits at its Mailiao plant.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Economic Affairs has approved Asia Cement’s application to extend its quarry permit for 20 years after reviewing it for only three-and-a-half months and without any environmental impact assessment.
It appears that the government is always highly efficient and cooperative whenever a big corporation wants a piece of national land. As a result, the land is being rented out to big corporations at the price of less than NT$13 per ping (3.3m2) per year.
The environment is becoming increasingly damaged and no one knows when things will get better.
Chang Kuo-tsai is a retired National Hsinchu University of Education associate professor and a former deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors.
Translated by Tu Yu-an
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