Cabinet’s wetlands bill encounters opposition

PROTECTION?:Lawmakers and activists railed against a provision that would remove an area’s classification as a wetland when necessary in the interest of the public

By Loa Iok-sin and Lee I-chia  /  Staff reporters

Thu, Dec 27, 2012 - Page 3

A legislative committee review of a draft bill on wetlands protection was stalled yesterday as lawmakers and environmentalists disagreed with several clauses in a Cabinet version of the bill that would allow declassification of wetlands and permit restricted development.

Amid concern that the development of coastal industrial parks has had a damaging effect on ecology, the Ministry of the Interior launched preparatory work on a draft wetlands act in 2009. The proposed act was approved by the Executive Yuan late last month and submitted for legislative review.

Although the government has responded positively to public calls for a draft bill to protect the nation’s wetlands, lawmakers across party lines and environmentalists questioned clauses in the Cabinet proposal that would allow conditional development on officially designated wetlands.

The draft act lists 82 wetlands across the country, with a total land mass of 5.68 hectares. It requires development projects in these areas to follow three principles: minimizing damage on wetlands, reducing environmental impact and establishing an ecological compensation mechanism.

“The objective of the law [on wetlands] is to protect the wetlands, maintain their functions and safeguard biodiversity, as well as use them wisely,” Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源) told the Internal Administration Committee meeting. “Developers using wetlands have to assume responsibility for restoring the land to its original state.”

The Cabinet’s draft bill also calls for the establishment of core areas and ecological preservation areas “in which all development and construction will be totally prohibited,” he said.

In addition to allowing the use of wetlands for development “when necessary,” Article 9 of the Cabinet’s draft act states that official classification as wetlands can be “changed or removed when necessary in the interest of the public.”

The clauses triggered opposition from lawmakers, who said the proposed act’s definition of and regulations governing wetlands were too loose and should be revised to better protect these ecologically vital areas.

“The objective and spirit of the legislation is to maintain the wetlands,” Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Lin Shu-fen (林淑芬) said. “Maintaining wetlands means that we should, first, allow zero loss of wetlands, and, second, allow zero loss of the functions of wetlands.”

People First Party Legislator Chang Show-foong (張曉風) agreed.

“Wetlands are made by God,” Chang said. “A wetland is a wetland; it wouldn’t stop being a wetland just because manmade rules declare it so.”

Lin Tzu-ling (林子凌), a member of the Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association who was invited to attend the meeting, criticized the Cabinet’s proposal as a “wetlands development act” rather than a bill to protect wetlands.

Chinese Nationalist Party legislator Chiu Wen-yen (邱文彥) said even if a wetland has been damaged, the government should work on restoring it rather than abolishing it.

The Fisheries Agency expressed concern that part of the definition of wetlands — the depth of water being below 6m during low tide — may affect the fishing rights of fishermen in some areas.

Several legislators also said the ministry should not have the authority to “abolish” designated wetlands.

Construction and Planning Agency Director-General Yeh Shih-wen (葉世文) said it is common practice for governments to have the power to remove a status when it has the power to grant it.

“Of course, we hope that we would never have to void the status of a wetland, but it may happen that a wetland disappears because of a severe natural disaster, that’s when we have to void the status,” Yeh said.

However, Yeh’s answer found little support. As the deadlock continued late into the afternoon, committee chair Pasuya Yao (姚文智) asked the two sides to hold more detailed discussions on the issue before the next meeting to review the law in a couple of weeks.