In 2009, an old camphor tree in Taipei, the largest of its type in the city, was transplanted to make way for the Taipei Dome development project at the former Songshan Tobacco Factory site. It died shortly after. The city government decided to keep the dead trunk to commemorate the old tree. I sincerely hope that Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) intends to do more to atone for the damage the city did. He could, for example, stop the development of the Taipei Dome in its tracks, and have a new municipal park created at the site instead.
On 228 Memorial Day in 2009, six individuals, myself included, formed a circle around the trunk of the old camphor tree. We were arrested and detained, although one of us, Calvin Wen (溫炳原), managed to stay up in the tree for 27 hours. In the end, prosecutors decided not to press charges, citing freedom of expression. Back then, the environmental impact assessment for the development project was still being carried out. More than 1,000 old trees should have been listed as protected, yet they were felled or transplanted to clear the land and make things easier for the developer, Farglory Group (遠雄).
We decided to start a Chipko movement — in which concerned individuals form protective cordons around threatened trees — because in the previous year the city government transplanted 300 old trees to off-site tree banks: More than 100 of them died within just a few months. These tree banks became tree graveyards — rows of dead or dying trees. As if this wasn’t disturbing enough, just before Taipei City councilors went to inspect the trees with experts and academics who wanted to ascertain their age, the city government tried to destroy the evidence by incinerating the affected trees.
Article 6 of the Taipei City Tree Protection Bylaw (台北市樹木保護自治條例) clearly states that trees on public land should be preserved where they stand. However, the city government ignores this, only observing the article about what needs to be done should it be impossible to keep the trees in their original location. The Taipei City Tree Protection Committee has turned into a committee that discussed tree transplantation technologies.
However, technology does not ensure professionalism or neutrality, and is often vulnerable to interference or meddling by political and business interests. Technology is empowering, but has no power in itself. The city needs to get the priorities right. Members of the Taipei City Tree Protection Committee said two Chinese fan palms on Guangfu S Road should be kept where they are because the developers believed that it would be too expensive to dig up the trees, root system and all, which would be necessary to transplant them successfully. However, at the very same meeting, when talk turned to the old camphor tree, the developers suddenly had total confidence that the tree would survive if moved.
In recent years, tree protection movements have been started all over Taiwan. Local governments have bent over backward denying reports that they have cut down trees, insisting that all the trees were being relocated. When questioned about the old camphor tree at the former Songshan Tobacco Factory, officials said they had gained a lot of experience and learned valuable lessons as a result of the tree’s unsuccessful transplant.
However, more than 100 old trees were transplanted from the site of the Taipei International Flora Expo and many dragon junipers died suddenly after being transplanted. So much for all the effort that has gone into greening Taipei.
Taipei City’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, in charge of the old Taipei mayor’s residence and its rehabilitate-operate-and-transfer development project, still has a notice up saying they are moving electricity transformers. This is to distract attention from the fact that they are actually developing the land instead of keeping it green and cutting down old camphor trees in the process.
The old camphor tree at the former Songshan Tobacco Factory was not situated in the center of the plot of land, but contractors insisted that it had to go. One reason was the project’s huge commercial profits, which meant contractors wanted to dig up the entire plot, while another reason was that an L-shaped plot of land, which would have been necessary if the tree had stayed, would place too many design restrictions on the project.
Old trees need careful protection. When they are transplanted, they are often severely damaged, if not outright killed. Those who have power over this are placing the financial interests of corporations before that of these venerable trees. This is something that really needs to be addressed. If a tree is going to be kept in remembrance of its venerable existence, it should be retained on the original site: the place where it grew and flourished, not the place where it came to its ignominious end.
The Tree Protection Committee handed out a NT$100,000 fine to Taipei City’s Department of Education, which is in charge of the Taipei Dome’s build-operate-transfer project. This isn’t going to change a thing. The officials in charge do not understand the importance of trees.
Pan Han-shen is the spokesman of the Taiwan Green Party.
Translated by Drew Cameron
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