On Feb. 26, a county affairs meeting in Miaoli County approved a draft self-government ordinance for the conservation of leopard cats. The departments that drafted the ordinance will urge the Miaoli County Council to deliberate it in May.
Last year, the Miaoli County Council and the Taichung City Council deliberated leopard cat protection ordinances, but remitted them to the proposing authorities. In both cases, councilors were worried that the proposals would impose unwanted restrictions on development projects.
However, there are plenty of examples from around the world of wildlife conservation boosting local economic development.
Miaoli County’s mascot, Maolimiaow (貓裏喵), is a leopard cat whose name is based on an old name for Miaoli. The Taichung World Flora Exposition is also using a family of leopard cats as mascots.
The task of formulating self-government ordinances should go beyond arguments about restrictions. It should involve more positive elements such as drawing up a leopard cat conservation plan, raising money for a conservation fund and working out how leopard cats and residents can coexist and prosper.
Hopefully, Taiwan can cherish its leopard cats as much as Japan does its Iriomote cats.
Some councilors are opposed to the part of the draft ordinance that tells government entities to establish an “ecological validation mechanism” for public works because they think it would be too restrictive. They fail to appreciate that such a mechanism would help reduce the risk of projects drawing protest when construction is under way. Contrary to what those councilors think, it would allow development projects to proceed more smoothly.
The system of environmental impact assessments seeks to manage end-of-pipe pollution at source. However, experience over the past few decades has been that by the time an assessment takes place, the project has gone through more than half of the required administrative processes. By that time, developers are generally unwilling to terminate the project. This leads to clashes that get overheated and end up as zero-sum games.
The ecological validation mechanism, which some local governments have implemented under pressure from civic groups, has affected road-building projects where the authorities have worked with teams of ecology experts during planning. This has resulted in the planned routes, inasmuch as possible, avoiding ecological hotspots (biotopes), or being designed in such a way as to reduce their impact.
A negative example is the construction of the Daan River Wetland Park in Miaoli County’s Jhuolan Township (卓蘭) where leopard cat activity had been detected. Unfortunately, the project badly damaged the leopard cats’ habitat with concrete structures, which ironically included a pond in the shape of a leopard cat. This led to construction being halted under pressure from public opinion, but by that time the project was already 80 to 90 percent finished.
In this age of electronic democracy, information spreads quickly. Government departments can no longer get away with pushing projects through recklessly with the mindset that once it is under way, it has to go ahead.
Academic research has already established the approximate boundaries of leopard cat habitats. The more funding that is put into this research, the more accurate the information will be, and the more precisely land planning and use can be managed.
The “ecological validation mechanism” would only offer soft suggestions. It would not have the power to veto a project. While it should not be seen it as a panacea and one cannot expect too much of it, there is also no need for councilors to worry needlessly and block the institution of what is meant to be a helpful decisionmaking tool.
If, over the 17 years that have passed since the Basic Environment Act (環境基本法) was drawn up in 2002, government entities at all levels had really established environmental information systems, as stipulated in Article 15 of the act, they could have clearly surveyed every unit of land in Taiwan. This would have given every developer a framework to follow. It would have made environmental assessments quicker and more efficient, and reduced economic costs and risk.
On Feb. 20, an environmental impact assessment committee in Taichung decided by an overwhelming majority that an application for a 20 hectare expansion of the Horng-Shee Tai-Ping Golf Course in Taichung should not go ahead. If the company that runs the golf course had known beforehand that there were leopard cats and black eagles in the vicinity, of course its owners would not have been so foolish as to bash their heads against a brick wall.
Leopard cats only live in lowlands and foothills below 1,500m above sea level, so their habitat overlaps considerably with that of humans. Money and resources should be invested in the few remaining areas where leopard cats are found to develop a new, green economy in which humans and leopard cats can coexist and thrive. It should not be a one-way process of restricting the public’s right to develop land and resources.
County and city government should do their duty by proposing leopard cat conservation plans. They should expand public-private partnerships in measures that non-governmental groups have already implemented fairly successfully, such as growing and marketing leopard cat-friendly rice, helping farmers mend chicken coops, filing reports on roadkill and so on.
These things should be embedded in county and city government department plans. Money for leopard cat conservation funds could be collected from public works projects in proportion to their scale.
Central government taxes should also be used, as local governments would be doing a service for the whole nation by conserving a precious genetic reservoir. Every death of a leopard cat is as serious as the destruction of a precious relic in a museum.
Formosan clouded leopards and leopard cats are the only feline species endemic to Taiwan. The extinction of clouded leopards in Taiwan has left Formosan rock macaques without any natural predators, allowing them to breed excessively and become a pest. If leopard cats follow clouded leopards into extinction, it could lead to a collapse of ecological diversity that would affect people as well.
Pan Han-shen is the international secretary of the Trees Party.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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