Thank You EPA!

Chinese version: 對行政院環境保護署環境影響評估審查委員會第137次會議的心得與收穫


We poor Taiwanese

I was really upset after the 19 December Environmental Impact Assessment Commission (EIAC) meeting. There are a number of reasons for my being upset, but the main factor was likely the stunning performance by those commissioners and members of the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) that support what I would call "conventional" development, and the relatively weak performance by those of us on the committee who tend to be more conservative when it comes to spending taxpayers' money and who would like to take a little more time reviewing cases in order to effectively carry out our mandate under the laws.1

Also, many of those who should have been at the meeting were not represented. Perhaps because they hadn't been notified, or perhaps because even if they received a notice, they wouldn't have been able to understand it if for no other reason than the nonsensical nature of one of G-d's2 creatures (humans) being so self centered and short sighted as to even propose such a "development" project. Might we mourn for the waters of Taiwan; its seashores; its mountains and forests? For we, and all generations that follow are so much poorer after that meeting.

Ah Q Doesn't Go To America

Fortunately I have a short memory and am prone to rationalize. So in the manner of Ah Q3 I made two decisions, prompted entirely by the results of the aforementioned meeting.

Originally I was to have left for the U.S. on the afternoon of the day following the meeting. My wife and I were to have flown to Tucson, Arizona, where we would join my parents, all brothers and sister, their spouses and children and a number of other close relatives. Despite the prospect of seeing all of my U.S. family together, I have to be honest and admit that I was dreading the trip. Perhaps it was some holiday angst or perhaps it was because I am somewhat afraid of flying (my illness in 2002 was preceded by a series of transoceanic flights), perhaps because flying across the ocean for a holiday doesn't jive very well with the image I am trying to project and the most fundamental precept of our association: "I want you to live simply."4

I am also so uncomfortable with the U.S. lifestyle that I would prefer to avoid it entirely, but with all the family getting together and my parents being in their mid 80s this was a rare and rapidly diminishing opportunity. It really was the thought of my parents' disappointment if we didn't show up that kept Meihua and I in preparation for the trip up until a few hours before our scheduled departure.

But the memories and impressions of that 19 December meeting kept haunting me. The subsequent "on-line" discussions also reminded me about how many of the United States' negative attributes (e.g., addiction to automobiles and highways, over-consumption at the expense of other people and beings, etc., etc.) have been adopted by Taiwanese in recent years, and that reminder underscored how by having been appointed to the commission, I have a real opportunity to stem some of these negative trends.

These thoughts made me change my mind. I decided not to leave Taiwan or take any time off for the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Someone had sent me the blog that allegedly had the musings of the EPA official in charge of the environmental impact assessment process. The EPA, by the way, is not at all happy with this new group of appointees (our terms began in late August 2005 and will continue until 30 June 2007) as we have impeded the "efficiency" of the process by questioning and raising issues that somehow haven't been raised during the 20 or so years of environmental impact assessment in Taiwan. The blog entry attributed to the EPA official emanated pleasure at the results of what she obviously felt was a successful meeting. There was also a comment on the blog from Vice Minister Tsai Dinggui who had served as the chair of the meeting in question due to the Minister's absence.

Those comments set in motion some interesting thoughts, led me to make some interesting connections, and to come up with an interesting initiative--my second decision.

The Bears' Fund

First, I thought about the shortcomings in my own abilities when it comes to the EIAC--it's all in Chinese and despite having been here for 30 years it still isn't like a native language. And then there are all the substantive and procedural issues surrounding the law and relevant practices. Second, I thought about how much money I would save by not going back to the States--airline tickets, presents, etc. In a somewhat Joyceian manner I put these together and made that second decision which was to establish what has now become known as "The Peggy & Howard 'Taiwan Black Bear' Environmental Defense Project: Facilitating Participation by All Stakeholders" or simply as "The Bears' Fund."

Peggy and Howard are the first names of my parents. They are devoted birdwatchers and appreciators of the Wild. Over 40 years ago one of my brothers came up with the name "the Bears" for them based on a brand of Mexican gin they like to drink (Oso Negro). Also, I think the Taiwan Black Bear (Selenarctos thibetanus formosanus) needs a little more exposure these days, particularly in view of the pandering panda lovers who want to spend millions to bring a Chinese panda to Taiwan while continuing to ignore the likelihood that our own bears will be extinct before long unless urgent action is taken (see "Pandas for You and Me").

So I put up NT$100,000 (about 1 US$ = NT$34) to start the fund and committed to donate each NT$2,000 stipend I receive from the EPA when I review a case or attend a meeting or site visit in connection with an environmental impact assessment.

What is the purpose of the fund?

Simply to aid all people involved in the environmental impact assessment process in doing a better job of fulfilling our mandates under 1) the Environmental Impact Assessment Act:

This Act is formulated to prevent and mitigate the adverse impact of development activity on the environment in order to achieve the goal of environmental protection.

And 2) the Basic Environment Act:

Economic, technological and social development shall equally emphasize environmental protection based on long-term national interests. However, in the event that economic, technological or social development has a seriously negative impact on the environment or there is concern of endangering the environment, the protection of the environment shall prevail.

How will the fund operate?

For every meeting held by the Commission (subcommittee and plenary session) we will encourage attendance by at least one representative of as many concerned social and environmental groups as possible so that as many different voices can be heard. This will include every case, regardless of whether it is a new project (e.g., hearing on an environmental impact assessment report) or an old case (e.g., a hearing on a discrepancy report filed by the developer), and regardless of the size of the case, although given the scarcity of resources (people and funds) we would normally accord a higher precedence to a new development and a large project (e.g., Su Hua Highway, Chang Hua Coal Fired Power Plant, Steel Plant in Yunlin).

It is a fact that nearly all supporters of a development project are compensated monetarily either directly (e.g., the developers and their consulting companies) or indirectly (e.g., government agencies that want to achieve some sort of political gains or credibility or points--and all the members of these organizations are after all salaried--we have no reason to believe until presented with evidence to the contrary that there is anything beyond that salary being given to these officials).

On the other hand, the persons that oppose a development project frequently are not paid for the time they spend in opposition activities, they must use their own time and often take time away from their day jobs. If they can't spare the time or can't afford the costs, the case may go unchallenged as the commissioners are generally given insufficient time and resources to check all of the developer's statements (and the other government agencies rarely spend any time at all on the environmental aspects).

It is also a fact that every development project will have some adverse impact on the environment, adverse impact that is often not outweighed by its positive impact. So whereas a development project often does not comply with the relevant laws and regulations (including the two laws cited above), as noted above, those who might be best positioned to identify illegalities in these development projects often do not show up at meetings.

There are two likely reasons for them not showing up. First, they may not be aware of the meetings and second, they may be aware but they are unable to take time off from work or possibly to pay for the cost of the bus, train or plane fare or the meal and accommodation costs of staying in Taipei.

The first of these can be handled simply by the EPA publishing--say a week in advance--all EIAC-related meetings and site visits that are to take place the following week. For the second item, while we can't guarantee that potential participants can take time off from work (although we will be happy to write an invitation), and before the EPA sees its way clear to set up its own system for ensuring that all voices are heard5, we will use this fund to pay for travel and accommodations for those people who want to have their voices heard at the meetings or on-site visits and for those people who can help those who are voiceless or whose languages we no longer understand.

As noted above, the initial funding will come from the savings of my "non visit" to America and will receive NT$2000 every time I attend an EPA meeting (we already have NT$16,000 in addition to the initial 100K fund). Naturally, donations are welcome from friends both within and without the EPA. Details of the fund's administration will be posted shortly on our website.

In the meantime, please give us your comments and please do not hesitate to apply for funding: your participation is far more valuable than money.

And finally to my parents, thank you for teaching us about the "others".

1At the meeting we "approved" six cases. including a major expansion of a coal-fired power plant despite the lessening need for energy due to the migration of industry to China and the government's insistence that they are going to "get serious about Kyoto", a desalinization plant on an off-shore island under the guise of providing drinking water for residents when it is part of "tourism development" plans for the area; major off-shore natural gas platforms; a new housing development in a 40-plus year old secondary forest--housing for the rich despite the recognition that the population has reached a peak, land use a major problem and the increasing income gap between rich and poor is exacerbating social stability; industrial parks in southern and northern Taiwan despite under-utilization of existing parks. The one developer whose project that was rejected, the construction of an artificial lake in central Taiwan, was no doubt encouraged to come back after seeing the performance of the committee on the other cases that day.

2"G-d" is a convention I borrow from Thom Hartmann's The Prophet's Way and although I probably have a slightly different understanding than he does on the role of religion and G-d in our lives, I think using this representation helps to include and keep more people from non-monotheistic religions in the discussion.

3 Ah Q was a fictional character in the short satire "The True Story of Ah Q" written by Lu Xun, one of China's greatest writers of the early 20th century. Ah Q was a rather pitiful character who had been exploited, beaten up and otherwise abused by a number of different people and authorities, but he nearly always came up with some sort of rationale whereby he could convince himself that he really came out on top. "Ah Q" in Taiwan has become a colloquial way of describing a person or a persons attitude.

4I am sure this quote need not be attributed, but I have this Adbusters' poster hanging behind me in my office with the Dalai Lama smiling and saying, "I want you to live more simply." I really believe this, and it hurts to spend money on things that are so obviously and directly connected with environmental degradation.

5For example the regulations on filing fees payable by developers could easily and quickly be adjusted by the EPA's including a surcharge in the rates for EIA report reviews, such surcharge to be used to pay consulting companies and individuals amounts equal or greater than the amounts paid by developers to their consulting and public relations companies. The person's and organizations opposed to the projects would thus be closer to achieving an equal footing with the developers.

Two Decisions and The Taiwan Black Bear Fund: A Tribute to My Parents on 1 January 2006

(This is an adapted and slightly altered version of an article that first appeared in Wild's Chinese-language site on 26 December 2005)

Robin Winkler