Ask anyone in the world about Taiwan, and you will probably hear about its economic miracle—becoming a developed nation with electronics manufacturing and petrochemical processing. However, recently more people in Taiwan are asking themselves, does it make sense for a small subtropical island to focus on heavy industry, which takes a toll on the labor force, the health of residents, and the limited natural environment?

To give us some thoughts on this question is Professor Wenling Tu from Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, who is a founding member of several environmental NGOs and is a professor of public administration, and Ms. Hsin-I Lin, a researcher with Citizens of the Earth Taiwan, a foundation working on issues specific to the environment, including industrial pollution and waste.

We speak about Kaohsiung’s petrochemical pipe explosion from last year, how Taiwan’s development has been skewed towards unregulated industrialization, and what are the most hopeful and worrying trends for the next five to ten years.

Ketagalan Media (KM): We thank Professor Tu Wen-ling and Ms. Lin Hsin-yi for talking with us about the environmental impact of Taiwan’s largest industries. First, I want to know how did the two of you step into this field?

Prof. Tu Wen-ling (Tu): I became involved around college, in the 90s. Of course when I was younger, I saw the prettier side of Taiwan, but by the 90s there were a lot of environmental movements that sprung up, like the anti-nuclear, forestry, or anti-light metals movements. After I went to the United States, I felt very strongly that the environment will be a big challenge for Taiwan going forward, so I studied environmental policy. Also I realized that Taiwan was not part of the international conversation on the environment. Taiwan was shut out of formal diplomacy, like the United Nations, since the 70s; that was also when the world paid more attention to the environment and started discussing relevant policies.

I wanted to do something about that, so we first founded a Taiwanese students’ group called Environmental Task Force, and then the Taiwan Environmental Action Network (TEAN), to work on NGO diplomacy and share Taiwan’s environmental experience with the world. That was more than twenty years ago!

Lin Hsin-I (Lin): I am really a newbie in this field. I just joined Citizens for the Earth Taiwan (CET) about half a year ago. Originally I was a forestry major, and as a student of science we learned to use statistics and data, but I realized it’s really the people who decide how things go. So to solve our problems, I believe that people are the key, and so I switched to sociology. Sociology taught me to be critical, to think about problems with systems that we take for granted. It gave me a new perspective on the world.

Tu: Hsin-I mentioned CET, and TEAN actually merged with them back in 2011. When TEAN first started working with NGOs in Taiwan and trying to connect them to the world, they all supported the idea but thought language was an issue. So we wanted to form an NGO that uses a second language, to put together. At the end, we were able to get young people in America, the UK, and even France to care about Taiwan’s environmental issues.

KM: Taiwan’s leading industries are basically electronics manufacturing, and petrochemicals. After the documentary “Beyond Beauty” and also the Kaohsiung gas explosion incident last year, a lot of people all of a sudden realized how bad the problem is. How did we get to here today?

Tu: “Beyond Beauty” really only showed the tip of the iceberg. The issues in the movie have been the focus of NGOs and community groups for a very long time, like the Houjin River and Dalinpu in Kaohsiung, but the movie really brought mass attention to it. The problem was of course a long time in the making—it’s the result of land use policies that only emphasized economic growth at the expense of preservation. It’s the classic Taiwanese thinking of grabbing short-term gains, making a quick return. Fortunately, Taiwan also has residents and volunteers who fight for these issues, so once the public realize the problem we can point to distortions within government policies.

Although Taiwan is now part of APEC, but we are not connected to global trends in social justice issues. Taiwan’s development is still very skewed towards using economic growth to attract international attention. But Taiwan is an island; we have limited resources. We need to have very good long term planning. So far, we have only been killing the hen for the egg, so to speak. Electronics and petrochemicals are our largest industries, contributing to our GDP, providing jobs, and putting Taiwan in the international supply chain. But our petrochemical industry is really made up of a handful of state or privately owned enterprises with sizable government subsidies, with no regard for any long term strategy or the health of our people. Therefore, we see areas with heavy industry in Central and Southern Taiwan are also heavily polluted. Electronics manufacturing is a newer industry, and it has been a challenge to understand or regulate it, since the industry changes so quickly.

KM: But wouldn’t Taiwan need petrochemical or electronics industry for economic survival? We interviewed Dr. Chen Hsin-yu (who ran for Kaohsiung City Council for the Flanc Radical), and he said we could replace the petrochemical industry with handcraft and woodworking. Would something like that really contribute the same kind of economic value or job opportunity as petrochemicals? Or is there really a substitute? Or how do we begin to regulate it?

Lin: For petrochemicals, I think there are two things we can work on to regulate. First is to regulate the import of raw chemical materials. The government should know who is importing what chemicals, how they are used, what the toxicities are. Taiwan is a fast changing market, and the manufacturers themselves might not know how these chemicals work. Right now we do have a Toxic Chemical Material Regulations Law, but there are still ways we can improve it.

Second, the residents, communities and citizens need to have access to transparent information; simply, its the right to know. We the people need to know what risks we are exposed to. How the industry will change depends on what the people know. In the past, we think the “scientific experts” have all the answers, but that is because only they had access to information. We want to spread the knowledge, and bring more wisdom from the people to find solutions together. Any decision on substitutes or changes to our industrial landscape should be worked out with the people’s input.

KM: In other words, we need to let more people know, so more people can think of solutions together?

Lin: As for a substitute industry, we are used to thinking each city has to have one big industry, but that’s not necessarily true.

Tu: To add to the question about substitute industries, for a resource-strapped island like Taiwan, developing industries that use large amounts of electricity and water probably isn’t a good idea. It’s important for the people to know and decide for ourselves. The Sixth Naptha Cracker plant, in Yunlin, was originally planned for Yilan County. But the governor at the time Chen Ting-nan rejected the proposal, based on the comprehensive planning for Yilan at the time, which said Yilan’s geography was not suitable for petrochemical plants. Compare that with Yunlin, which produces 60% of Taiwan’s rice, chicken, and vegetables. Does putting a petrochemical plant there improve or limit its development?

In Kaohsiung as well, the state of the environment will limit industrial growth eventually. Our petrochemical industry is concentrated on the lower-profit part of the supply chain, and 80% of our products are shipped to China for higher-value processing. Taiwan isn’t even an oil-producing country. So who is getting the benefits? Who is bearing the costs? We should think clearly about this. As for electronics, we are not opposed to it, but why not invest in improving its impact on our health and the environment? The Taiwanese are smart, we can become a leader in this area, a knowledge exporter. We should have that kind of confidence.

KM: So to use the government’s power to set limitations on the industry, to redirect resources to other directions? Since if the industry is left to its own devices, they won’t have an incentive to improve?

Tu: Not only do we leave them to themselves, we roll back regulation, and subsidize their tax bills and water bills. We sell them precious, limited resources on a discount. This kind of policy causes our development to be skewed.

Lin: And speaking of agriculture, Taiwan’s agriculture technology has actually always been at the world’s forefront, but our policies constantly ignore our farmers. Why don’t we keep supporting something we are already good at? It’s a shame to eliminate that part of our economy.

KM: Finally, what would you say is the best and the worst trends for the next five to ten years?

Tu: Taiwan has very unique geographical resources. 70% of our area is mountains, with over 200 mountains above 3,000 meters (about 9,800 feet). Overall, there are still much we can preserve. For example, the biodiversity, the DNA databank, within our mountains. We should value our natural gift, and really re-imagine what development should mean to us.

The worst trend would be unrestricted development. We have nuclear power, but we don’t think about the long term consequences of where to store nuclear waste. Given climate change, would nuclear power become an all-encompassing disaster for us? We need to include all those risks in our energy strategy.

Our job is to use our resources smartly, focus on what we’re good at. We are hardworking, but we don’t work smart, so we are all working overtime to burn our resources. But if we can combine our ability to think on our feet, with the right use of our resources and our cosmopolitan culture, I believe we can come up with something more sustainable. The election this past November reflected some of this sentiment I believe.

Lin: I don’t think anyone can say for the next five to ten years what will happen, but I believe our generation of young people will be very busy. We are faced with encroaching economic influence from China. Our labor conditions, being overworked, will push us to the limit.

KM: Even if we are busy, but wouldn’t it also be a big accomplishment, if we can resolve these issues?

Lin: I agree! The first thing though I think is to “re-understand” Taiwan. Here’s a personal story—I went to Dalinpu in Kaohsiung once. Dalinpu is the area where people say we should build a petrochemical zone, after the gas explosion. It’s already a heavy industrial area, and the residents suffer through very serious industrial pollution. They have only a small patch of beach for their use, and the elders have to take sleeping pills to sleep at night. That’s why the younger people are out protesting.

I sat in at a meeting where environmental engineering students were talking to the residents as part of their class on doing environmental assessments. Interestingly, when the residents talked about their memories and histories, the students ignored them. All the students wanted to ask was “tell us what you want to do instead of petrochemicals.” They were talking past each other.

It was a strange feeling, that our generation of technicians and engineers are separated from the actual land. The see the experience of living on the land, and the relationships between people, as far less important as the answers they can calculate from data. This is the ultimate in rational capitalism, and I think it’s very scary. That’s how I was taught as a science major. I think we have more important problems than GDP growth. If we want to know which direction we should go, then I think we should we get to re-understand Taiwan again.

KM: Thanks so much to Prof. Tu and Hsin-yi for your time and thoughts.




Ketagalan Media (以下 KM):今天我們謝謝杜文苓教授與林心乙來跟我們討論工業與產業對環境造成的議題,第一個想請問兩位是什麼機遇才開始關心台灣的產業對環境的負面影響?為什麼會走到這個領域?

杜文苓教授(以下「杜」):我開始參與台灣環境的研究是1990年代大學的時候,在小時候我看到的台灣是比較漂亮的一面,但台灣的環境在當時有巨大的轉變。社會開始有許多環境相關的運動,像是反核、森林運動、後勁反五金,在大學的時候接觸到很多資訊;後來到美國來時覺的環境問題是台灣未來要面臨的挑戰,所以就念了環境政策。另外在美國也發現其實台灣很缺乏國際的環境資訊,因為 1970 年代之後台灣跟聯合國斷絕了關係,但那也正是整個國際上對於環境開始重視,環境的立法越來越多,而台灣卻完全的缺席,相較來說台灣在國際環境資訊上落後很多。我覺得應該協助台灣在這方面與國際接軌,所以一路從台灣學生社團 Environmental Task Force 一直到後來正式成立 Taiwan Environmental Action Network (TEAN),希望運用環境的外交策略把台灣的環境問題能讓國際知道,同時也把國際的局勢帶到台灣,一路已經二十幾年了。


林心乙(以下「林」):其實我算是剛加入專職環境運動的工作者,我加入 Citizens for the Earth Taiwan (CET) 大約半年的時間,之所以會想要接觸環境運動,是因為我大學主修森林系,一直在自然科學的領域裡面,就學過程當中發現我們很會運用數字、利用科學,但真正影響資源分配的是人,人才是關鍵,要解決人類與國家社會的問題,要著力點應該在人身上而不只是科學,所以我才開始接觸社會學。這是一個非常批判性思考的學科,會讓人去思考合理規則下的運作到底可能出現什麼問題,教導我換一個看世界的角度。

杜:剛剛心乙有提到 CET (Citizen of the Earth, Taiwan),TEAN,我們這兩個組織在 2011 年左右合併,成為一個單一組織,TEAN本來在台灣是有立案的社團,而在海外成立時其實是抱著年輕人想要做環保外交,用環境的 NGO 來跟國際的 NGO 連結,但台灣的 NGO 都說語言是一個滿重要的隔閡,所以我們才想在國外發起第二外國語的 NGO,大家可以貢獻心力。可以說不同世代的年輕人在不同地方都努力的在貢獻給環境,所以後來美國、英國、法國都有一群人在為台灣的環境發聲。




KM:台灣必然要靠現在的石化業或電子業來做為經濟生存的方式嗎?我們之前訪問過基進側翼的議員參選人陳信諭醫師,那時有聊到高雄石化產業公投的話題,他認為如果到時石化業離開高雄後可讓精密手工業來取代原本的就業機會,但這也引起許多質疑,這樣的替代行業是否能撐起石化業貢獻的 GDP?石化業與電子業的替代品是什麼?要怎麼去平衡這兩大產業的負面影響?











杜:台灣在世界上的地理資源相當特殊,我們有超過兩百多座的三千公尺以上高山,70% 是山地,天佑台灣我們被開發的沒有太慘烈,還有許多保留的價值。在全球暖化的狀況下,台灣中央山脈能儲存的基因資料庫還是相當豐富,我們應該看重老天賜給台灣的豐厚自然資源,對於開發的想像應該要更仔細的評估。










(Feature photo of Kaohsiung’s China Petroleum Refineries, by Kaohsiung City Government.)


About The Ketagalan Project

History and culture are the frames that prescribe how we understand the world around us. Our co-hosts present in-depth interviews on how art, culture, history and politics intertwine throughout time and space to connect us. Find out about the cosmopolitan modern Taipei downtown in the 1920s, regional trade, the future of aboriginal culture and more.