Wed, Oct 04, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Release of sky lanterns needs to be restricted

By Richard Saunders

Tonight, a Sky Lantern Festival will be held in New Taipei City’s Pingsi District (平溪) for the second time this year, to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, so it is perhaps the perfect time to consider this controversial activity and the impact it is having on the local environment.

It is said that sky lanterns were first used as a kind of early warning device to alarm local residents when bandits were in the area, so the activity is rooted in historical practice.

Unfortunately, this original cultural/historical significance seems to have been lost on many visitors, who release the lanterns year-round (and often in large quantities on weekends). In my opinion, the lanterns have instead become a kind of symbol of the selfie generation.

For many tourists I have witnessed over the years at Pingsi and nearby Shifen Township (十分), the object of the activity appears to be to have fun with friends, painting messages on the side in the slightly bizarre idea that they will be carried to the gods, take a few selfies with the lantern, wow and whoop as said lantern ascends and then post some photographs on social media. It is harmless entertainment and this would be perfectly fine, if only it did not cause so much harm to the surrounding countryside.

The presumption that all (or even a majority) of the lanterns can be found and cleared is frankly naive and fundamentally flawed, as anyone who knows the rugged topography of the area will immediately realize. Most sky lanterns do not obediently fall beside trails to be picked up by cleanup crews.

From personal experience, even those that do fall in easily accessible places sometimes do not get picked up for weeks, maybe even months. The majority instead fall far from trails, often in inaccessible places, where they are left to rot — at least the bits that can decompose.

During several cleanups of the area in the past few years, we have found quite a few abandoned lanterns (all within easy reach of good trails) that had wire frames, which do not decompose for decades or even longer, which pose a threat to wildlife as well as being a stain on the beauty of a special landscape. The glaze used on the paper and the ink used to paint messages on the side of the lantern also contain chemicals that probably are not good for the environment.

I sympathize with those who love to release sky lanterns — it is a magical activity, but it is extremely unlikely that your lantern will ever be picked up and disposed of in the correct matter.

A major argument in favor of continuing the year-round sale of sky lanterns is that they have become a hot tourist draw and that the money they bring in is a major boost to the local economy. However, the upper Keelung Valley — where Pingsi is — has uncommon scenic and cultural interest, with a clutch of spectacular waterfalls, some of the finest hiking in New Taipei City, several atmospheric, historic villages with good food, an interesting history and its own quaint branch railway line. Even without the sky lanterns, the area would not have a major challenge attracting tourists.

I certainly do not think releasing sky lanterns should be banned outright, even if that were possible. Instead I would suggest the activity is limited to two annual events: the Sky Lantern Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival, when limited numbers are released in relatively controlled conditions.

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