Thursday, June 10, 2010

Artists battle scientists, government over fragile wetland

In a show of force, prominent members of Taiwan's literary and artistic circles banded together with well-known writer Chang Hsiao-feng in opposing the government's plan for a 25-hectare block (62 acres) of land in Taipei City. The army depot known as “202 Arsenal” is slated to become the National Biotechnology Park (NBP). The government allotted the land to Academia Sinica in 2007 and construction at the park was scheduled to begin on June 1.

Preserving the city’s last piece of green land

In the United Daily News, Chang, a writer and former professor of Chinese Literature at Soochow University in Taipei, has urged President Ma Ying-jeou to abandon the project and to preserve the “last piece of green land” in the city. President Ma took Chang’s supplication seriously and inspected the allotted land on May 10. Along with other government officials, Ma decided that it was not wetland as Chang and other environmentalists had claimed.

Instead, President Ma attempted to persuade Chang to agree to the government’s development plan. Upon hearing this, the 70-year old Chang was seen on TV, dropping to her knees and bowing her head three times, begging the president to change his mind.

Although only a small portion of the 185 hectares of the former arsenal will be used for construction of the NBP, the 25-hectare wetland is considered the most choice of the whole piece. Chang stressed that once the concrete structure is built, it will destroy the ecological balance of the area.

On May 16, in a compromise, cabinet spokesman Johnny Chiang said that the government will suspended construction at the park, and will form a monitoring group to conduct environmental assessments over the next six months to find a balance between ecological conservation and development.

Academia Sinica: surprised and frustrated

According to the United Daily News, the Academia Sinica President Wong Chi-huey said, “I can understand the sense of distrust expressed by environmental groups." Taiwanese society previously had no respect for environmental protection. He hopes this incident will establish a new pattern of taking environmental protection into account in future economic developments.

However, Wong noted that the development of Taiwan’s biotech industry is a race against time. Putting its national resources behind growing its biotechnology, South Korea has successfully developed four new drugs that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Taiwan, on the other hand, has no drugs in development due to the difficult integration of all parties involved. If Taiwan cannot create a biotech brand, it will forever remain only as an original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

Although Taiwan might have excellent basic research and experience in human trials, it lacks the transition process to new drug development. The establishment of the NBP is designed to create those missing links. Wong said there were several cities and counties that approached him to offer land for a national biotechnology park, but he declined their offers thinking that the NBP would benefit from being close to Academia Sinica, National Taiwan University, National Yang Ming Medical University and other major hospitals in the Taipei metropolitan area.

The Central News Agency reported, Academia Sinica thinks the wetland Chang Hsiao-feng is striving to preserve is not located within the planned biotech research park, but the media and other groups have focused their attention and attacks on Academia Sinica. All this has left Wong feeling surprised and frustrated.

As an internationally recognized chemist, Wong has worked at the biotech research unit of Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California and was recruited by former Academia Sinica President Lee Yuan-tse to come to work in Taiwan. Many people feel sorry for Wong who is regarded as Taiwan's best contender for a Nobel Prize, but now, also considered an ecological foe.

Has Taiwan learned its lesson?

Because of its proximity to the capital, Nangang was selected as the site for the “202 Arsenal” when it relocated from China to Taiwan in 1949. As the production site of sensitive munitions, the arsenal was considered a high-risk military facility. In maintaining security, the depot was exempt from development and became isolated from the outside world. Military control, plus a low level of construction has kept the depot fairly unspoiled.

The “202 Arsenal” occupies a total area of 185 hectares. About 25.31 hectares are designated for the planned NBP site, in which only 9.6 hectares will be developed and the other 15.71 hectares will be preserved in its original green state. On the other 160 hectares of land, 15.8 hectares are used by Taiwan’s national army as a base for its Patriot missiles, and the remaining area (including the wetland Chang proposes to preserve) is currently not tied to any plans, reported the United Evening News.

With regard to the current dispute for the NBP, the United Daily News editorial said it is sad that Taiwan has paid a heavy price for not yet learning to discuss issues of environmental conservation and development and it has resulted in not being able to attract long-term foreign investment. Ever since the beginning of the large-scale environmental protests movement (the Anti-DuPont incident in Lugang, Changhua County) in 1985, the emphasis has been on using emotional warfare to get the other side to surrender. This is not a wise approach for dealing with such issues.

However, another writer Sang Ping-zai expressed a different view in the United Daily News. “I saw something great from this dispute. That is, the government reacted immediately to the cause Chang Hsiao-feng stated. Even President Ma entered into the dialogue. Both sides are rational. Whatever the outcome, both sides are honest and focused on the issue.”

This response differed from the past, Sang noted, “There have been numerous social movements where…the government did not want to talk to the other sides, blaming them for their political motivations…” "This time, Ma’s administration took a high-profile response to Chang Hsiao-feng, as Chang is a famous female writer who has a good reputation in society. The most important thing is that she is not considered a political figure. There is no need for political concern for the Ma’s administration,” said Sang

Environmental protection vs. technology

In the editorial, the United Daily News added, “Biotechnology is the fourth industrial revolution, and a high value-added knowledge industry. It is a brand new industry to transform the island and give birth to a new Taiwan.

The Economic Daily News also says the “202 Arsenal” is a rare and precious area of land and swamp in Taipei. But there are many other similar places with little land value in Taiwan. From the perspective of economic development, employment opportunities have been concentrated in the north, not in the south, resulting in a serious imbalance. Therefore, the government should place more effort on finding other locations in central and southern Taiwan for biological science and technology parks to replace the “202 Arsenal.”

Kaohsiung City Mayor Chen Chu said that if Taipei does not want the biotech park, Kaohsiung welcomes it with open arms. She noted that it takes only 90 minutes from Taipei to Kaohsiung by high-speed train. There are many universities in Kaohsiung so there is no shortage of talent.

Stricken with cancer but still fighting to preserve one of Taipei’s last large green spaces, Chang has gained the support from Taiwan’s literary and arts community. In a statement on May 16, the group said they wanted to follow the example of the Na’vi tribe in the Hollywood movie Avatar to fight to preserve the land. Chang and her supporters have demanded that Academia Sinica and the consortium leave the green site, and have asked President Ma to preserve the 185-hectare green space as Taipei's Central Park. They urged the people to work together to help save the last piece of green space in Taipei.

Can environmental protection and technology development co-exist side by side? The successful development of biotech parks in Boston, San Francisco and San Diego seems to indicate so. In the meantime, Wong is still hoping that the discussion of the National Biotechnology Park will return to a more rational footing.

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About Me

The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.