Sun, Mar 31, 2002 - Page 17 News List

Progress without ruffled feathers

The resolution of a potentially explosive situation between conservationists and the Taiwan High-speed Rail Corporation shows that development and ecology can peacefully coexist

By Derek Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

One autumn afternoon just prior to the Chinese Moon Festival (中秋節), Nita Ing (殷琪), chairperson and CEO of the Taiwan High-speed Rail Corporation (THSRC), and a small entourage pulled up to a remote location at Kuantien (官田) in Tainan County. Clad in jeans, Ing approached a small group of astonished men, none of whom had the slightest idea who the young-looking woman could be. She politely presented them with a few boxes of moon cakes, a traditional and popular gift at that time of the year, as an ice-breaking gesture and sat down on the muddy ground under the shade of a tree to chat with them.

This scene has been repeated yearly ever since the THSRC won the biggest build-operate-transfer project bid in the world against the Chunghwa High-Speed Rail Consortium, led by Liu Tai-ying (劉泰英) in 1999. The investment capital involved in building the high-speed rail from Taipei to Kaohsiung along Taiwan's west coast is estimated at more than NT$446.4 billion (US$12.7 billion) and is scheduled to be completed in October 2005.

The bidding on the high-speed railway project in 1999 made bird-watching communities increasingly nervous. Since the government decided in 1990 to set up an ad-hoc Bureau of High Speed Rail, business conglomerates in Taiwan and abroad have congealed into two competing consortiums. News reports and politicians all over the country engaged in propagandizing about how great a boon the project would be both to the growth of Taiwan's economy and the general public's travel convenience. Hardly anyone was paying attention to the project's potentially disastrous impact on the natural environment of the west coastal regions of Taiwan.

Ing, one of the most distinguished female entrepreneurs in Taiwan and perhaps in the whole of Asia, enjoys visiting the site and meeting these handful of men every year for some good reasons.

For one, the high-speed rail will traverse a huge piece of farmland, an area which happens to be the highly critical natural habitat of Taiwan's pheasant-tailed jacana (水雉). This bird was selected in 1997 by Tainan County residents to be the county symbol. This also turned out to be the home county of President Chen Shui-bien (陳水扁), elected in 2000. Some conservation experts predicted that, if no quick and effective remedial measures were taken, the railway project would deal a final blow to the very existence of this particular species of bird in Taiwan.

Perhaps the most important reason is that the high-speed rail project cannot afford delays nor confrontation from the local conservation groups. The project is too obvious of a target for environmental protection groups to easily mobilize their forces. Once the fire of ecological concern is spread, the consortium, which includes international banks and business groups, may be intimidated and back off from the project.

The Bayer Group's NT$50 billion chemical plant project in Taichung County would serve as a reminder to any big company from abroad. Bayer decided at the last moment to pull its investment plan from Taiwan in 1997 due to unfavorable news coverage and persistent and fierce protests from environment groups all over Taiwan.

Since the early 1990s, local conservation groups have been urging the government and the public to undertake a joint effort to revive Taiwan's decreasing jacana population. In an ironic and embarrassing twist, the same year that the jacana was named Tainan's county bird, their number shrank to around 40 and they were facing immediate extinction, according to a field study report published in 1998.

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