Just six days after Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) demanded that Cabinet officials “take an iron fist” to environmental problems, Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源) on Thursday vowed to close all unlicensed lodgings in “high-risk” disaster-prone areas of Cingjing (清境), Nantou County.
The mountainous area, with its cool air, hiking trails and fruit farms, has become a popular getaway spot for weary urbanites in recent years, and 134 guesthouses and bed-and-breakfasts now dot the landscape around Cingjing Farm (清境農場).
According to Lee, only four of those establishments are actually operating legally and those that are not will soon feel the long reach of Taipei bureaucrats, with “no room for negotiation.”
Since these lodgings did not spring up overnight like mushrooms after a rain, this sudden interest by the ministry and other Cabinet agencies appears more of a cover-your-rear-end move than a measured response to the environmental damage and safety issues created by such retreats.
It is clear what prompted this outpouring of governmental concern: the release of, and public reaction to, director Chi Po-lin’s (齊柏林) stunning documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (看見台灣). The film has broken national box office records since it opened on Nov. 1 and triggered renewed debate over the environmental cost of the nation’s decades-long drive for development.
Executive Yuan Deputy Secretary-General Chien Tai-lang (簡太郎) said on Friday last week that Cabinet ministries and agencies have been divided into five teams to work on 16 major issues highlighted by the film, including illegal gravel and sand mining, the build-up of sediment in reservoirs, land subsidence, excessive hillside development and polluted rivers. The teams were told to present an initial report to Jiang within one month. However, Chien said the government “will take a holistic approach and not just focus on the 16 problems.”
Yet just two weeks earlier, the Cabinet was steaming ahead with its draft for regional development, the “National Regional Plan,” which would relax regulations on land use, allow small-scale industrial parks to be established without an environmental assessment and streamline application and review procedures for major projects. Critics say the proposal would ease restrictions on development in reservoir areas, farmland and active fault zones.
All of the environmental damage shown in the film has occurred under the noses of government officials, including those whose job it is to monitor and protect this nation’s mountains, forests, rivers and coastal areas. Yes, the aerial viewpoint of the film makes it easier to grasp the extent of the damage that has been wrought on this land, but the erosion of mountainsides, deforestation, unrestrained building of hotels and guesthouses and pollution of rivers and seashores can easily be seen from the ground.
The government continues to prioritize development, an imperative that will be difficult to reconcile with the newfound zeal for conservation. It is not so much a question of how long this latest reform drive will last, but whether the fat cats will win out as they have in the past.
Opposition is already being heard in response to the outcry created by the film and Jiang’s “iron fist” call. Owners of some of the Qingjing guesthouses have reportedly asked the government not to “mislead” the public based on the documentary.
That is like shooting the messenger. There is nothing “misleading” about Chi’s film. He has just made it more difficult for government officials — and the public — to ignore the cost of unchecked development and slap-on-the-wrist punishments for companies that damage the environment.
Chi won the Golden Horse award for Best Documentary on Nov. 23. He deserves a medal for his unflinching wake-up call.