New guides for ecological healing

By Hochen Tan 賀陳旦  / 

Wed, Mar 05, 2014 - Page 8

With his film Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (看見台灣) Chi Po-lin (齊柏林) reveals Taiwan from 300m above the ground. The majestic and innovative views mesmerize audiences. The high-resolution images etch the sores on the land onto our hearts. This is a rare example of public education. Shocked officials hurried to offer a prescription consisting of an end to high mountain roads. Is this enough? Is it even right?

Planned correctly, roads foster development, but they can also drive destruction, causing landslides in remote areas. The right thing to do is put an end to environmental destruction and heal our bleeding land. However, that is not enough.

If Taiwan is unable to transform overly concentrated development activities and minimize excessive environmental destruction, profit-driven producers will continue to flirt with danger.

One strict law will not be enough to overcome strong public pressure and any halted road construction is likely to soon resume — Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) would do well to remember the lesson of the Central Cross Island Highway, severely damaged by the 921 Earthquake in 1999 and then again by floods caused by Typhoon Mindulle in 2004.

The key to starting from the ground up is the question of how to guide the transformation.

From the start, guidance and assistance must adapt to local situations and prevailing circumstances.

To alleviate the widespread environmental destruction resulting from development that is shown in Chi’s documentary, Taiwanese cannot depend on unilateral standards and top-down instructions. Instead, relying on communities and local action to rally activists is crucial.

Next, in encouraging local vitality, we must not place our hopes in high mountain areas where the environment is too fragile and the damage can be clearly seen. Instead, we must begin in the areas where the environmental conditions can support human settlement.

Three years ago, the Satoyama Initiative, which has been advocated by Japan for many years, was officially accepted by the UN.

This initiative encourages a symbiotic and harmonious relationship between residents and the environment. It does not prohibit the development of natural resources, but uses the environment in a controlled manner. The key is partial, but continuous, onsite grassroots-level action.

Satoyama refers to regions separating foothills and flat land, and is similar to the mountains and hills surrounding Taiwan’s cities. Our ancestors conquered the topography and developed mountains and valleys, leading to what we see today.

Over time, most of these human changes have become part of the natural environment and this is precisely what the Satoyama Initiative is about: Building local action by inheriting from those who came before and passing on to future generations could perhaps become the strongest and most solid way of rebuilding the environment now that Chi’s film has shown the destruction.

Over the past few years, the Forestry Bureau has initiated an environmental conservation plan focused on using water terraces. The bureau focused on terraces because the plan was founded on what our ancestors did. It can be seen universally that when older surviving agricultural techniques are integrated with value-added distribution channels, incomes increase and whole villages benefit.

Helping farmers to repair irrigation canals and bring back water changes the natural scenery, and it puts a smile on people’s faces when they share in public affairs. At the same time, the ridges and paths between fields help preserve water and prevent floods, and can help alleviate the negative effects of extreme weather. The contribution to the environment is regional and lasting.

The Forestry Bureau’s “Satoyama Taiwan” project brings us back down to the ground from the heights of Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above, documenting three cases of restored water terraces that have explored the integration of production, life, environment and actions in different areas.

After having seen Chi’s film, “Satoyama Taiwan” offers a solution, and the three “Satoyama” villages offer us a new way toward participation.

Seeing Taiwan suffer, restoring our homeland and preserving it for future generations: Any place in Taiwan could be another Satoyama and we can start the work right now.

Hochen Tan is a former chairman of Chunghwa Telecom and is chairman of the Taiwan Ecological Engineering Development Foundation.

Translated by Perry Svensson