In March last year, a gaunt-looking man climbed 5m above the ground into the branches of a tree in a bid to save nearby trees from workers’ saws at the Jiangcui Junior High School in New Taipei City’s Banciao District (板橋).
The determined environmental activist was Pan Han-chiang (潘翰疆), whose “tree-sitting protest” lasted 11 days.
His efforts only ended when police roughly pulled him down, which left him injured and in need of medical treatment.
“Some boys dream of living in a tree house. It came from my childhood passion of reading comics and books. I used to fantasize about living in a tree house, and this sparked my affection for trees,” Pan said. “But it was only recently, due to last year’s protest at Jiangcui school, that I got a real taste of living in a tree.”
Pan said he got the idea to climb the tree from American environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived in a 55m California redwood tree for 738 days from Dec. 10, 1997, to Dec. 18, 1999.
Her efforts helped to save the surrounding tract of redwood forest in Humboldt County, California, preventing its logging by a lumber company.
When Jiangcui school decided to cut down the trees to make way for the construction of a swimming pool and parking lot, Pan was determined to emulate Hill’s effort.
Enduring the dangers of hypothermia and discomfort, he did everything while up in the tree, including eating and drinking.
He was assisted by his brothers, younger brother and Green Party Taiwan executive Pan Han-shen (潘翰聲), and elder brother Pan Han-kuang (潘翰觀), who owned a coffee shop.
Through media coverage, Pan Han-chiang’s “tree-sitting” actions helped raise public awareness for tree protection.
However, Pan did not start out as an environmental activist. He majored in business management at university. After graduating, he worked for international companies for seven years.
He joined the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union in 2000, taking up the position of deputy secretary-general, and he later set up the Greater Taipei tree protection movement.
“Although I could apply my foreign language skills and business knowhow working in international trade, the aim was always to make a profit. Through my tree protection efforts, I have learned that one person’s actions can bring about changes to society,” he said.
A key turning point was the development project of Taipei’s Songshan Tobacco Factory in 2009.
Pan and his younger brother headed the campaign to save trees on the site. Eventually they could not stop the project from going ahead and the camphor trees were removed.
Since then, Pan Han-chiang’s gaunt but energetic figure can be seen at many campaigns to save trees around the Greater Taipei area, including the intervention efforts by activists last year to stop the demolition of the Buddhist sanctuary of Puantang (普安堂) in Tucheng District (土城), New Taipei City.
He said the nation’s tree-protection policies are inadequate.
“We do not have one single government agency to take charge of tree management. Most assessments [of trees] are based on a superficial estimate of the tree’s age or its circumference, which decides whether a tree is to be saved. This only preserves old trees, or those deemed to worthy of protection,” he said.
“It means that trees in parks, and trees on boulevards are left without due care. There are no regulations protecting these trees from being chopped down or deliberate damaged by people. Often, vandals are only charged with ‘destruction of public property’, a minor offense with lenient penalties,” he said.