Environmental groups yesterday accused the government of failing to protect state-owned forests after 40 hectares of state-owned land in Taitung County was found to have been deforested in April.
“They [betel nut farmers] cleared small native trees on plots of lands in Changbin Township (長濱), Taitung County, and with the larger trees, they cut holes into the trunks or the roots and injected pesticides into the trees,” Citizens of the Earth secretary-general Lee Ken-cheng (李根政) told a press conference in Taipei, while showing images of what they have discovered.
“After the trees are gone, they start to grow betel nut trees, which have more economic value,” Lee said.
Lee said environmental groups reported the situation to the Council of Agriculture’s Forestry Bureau nearly a year ago, but the government did nothing to stop it.
Judging by the size of the betel nut trees, Lee said the plantation of betel trees was started at least 15 years ago.
“The Forestry Bureau has conducted several surveys in the area over the past 15 years, the latest one being in 2009. I do not think it can reasonably claim to have had no idea what was happening, and if it knew and did nothing then clearly the bureau is not doing its job,” Lee said.
He said deforestation in coastal mountainous areas of Taitung poses a serious threat to people living on the narrow plain between the mountain and the Pacific Ocean, because the mountains are quite steep and very close to the ocean, which offers only a small buffer zone in the event of landslides.
“Originally, the jungle in these areas was dense, beside which the area has a rich underground water reservoir and deep-rooted native trees helped to keep the water there,” he said.
“Betel nut trees cannot serve the same function because they have smaller and shorter roots, so if an excessive amount of rainfall falls in the area, large landslides are very possible,” he said.
A Forestry Bureau official surnamed Hsu (許) who appeared at the news conference said that although the area was a state-owned forest, the Forestry Bureau had no jurisdiction over it because it fell within an Aboriginal reserve area and was administered by the Council of Indigenous Peoples.
The bureau had notified the Tai-tung County Government of the problem, Hsu added.
Council officials, including Council of Indigenous Peoples Minister Sun Ta-chuan (孫大川) and chief secretary Chen Cheng-chia (陳成家), declined to comment.
A Taitung County Government official who wished to stay anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the county government had already referred the case to the police and prosecutors.
“Actually, although the forest is administered by the council, the Forestry Bureau could still refer the case to the judiciary, there’s really no need to go around in circles like this,” the official said.