Potent sleuths

In Taiwan, citizens turn pollution detectives

Published: Saturday 15 October 2005

Potent sleuths

-- Nowadays, Taiwan's forest-covered mountains can hardly be seen through the island's increasingly foetid yellow smog. 50 years of overdrive industrialisation has left the country with such rampant pollution problems that experts, reacting to a recent environmental survey, said that it would take another half century just to clean up. Of course, such a timeframe would only be feasible if future pollution levels dropped dramatically -- meaning either a dramatic about-face by Taiwan's thriving industries, or a sudden strengthening of the country's cash-strapped Environmental Protection Administration (epa). But Taiwan has now struck upon a third option: the democratisation of environmental oversight.

Starting last December, the epa gathered a handful of private citizens -- retired military officials, former public servants, teachers -- and, after arming them with notebooks, binoculars, and digital cameras, sent them out to take note of countrywide waste disposal practices, both large- and small-scale. Although the program was little more than an extremely low-cost pilot project, the community-monitoring program reportedly proved surprisingly successful, leading authorities to bust several companies involved in illegal toxic dumping. Buoyed by those successes, officials have now gone on a more extensive recruiting drive, strengthening the ranks to around 70 eco-spies.

A renaissance Indeed, the Taiwan epa itself is currently in the midst of a renaissance. Its new head, scholar-turned-politician Chang Kow-Lung, indicated the increased urgency in June by suggesting that while "land resources have been over-exploited due to the fast growing population, God won't provide permanent protection in the face of greed." Since then, the epa has undertaken a flurry of countrywide groundwater and soil testing, leading to a series of damning public reports that included information on record-high levels of mercury, dioxin, and a host of heavy metals. From July through September, environmental officials are conducting a dramatically increased schedule of spot-checks on roughly 200 factories and recycling plants.

Still, of the estimated 20 million tonnes of industrial waste to be produced next year by the country's factories, up to 25 per cent will expectedly be disposed improperly. Now that community input has been officially incorporated, however, even as the government temporarily redoubles its focus on suspected polluters, the eyes of the new volunteer detectives will linger long after the official workday ends.

Since the new anti-pollution brigade comprises fisherfolk, shop owners and others familiar with the communities they are monitoring, the effects of the new program are already being noted by worried industry owners. "These volunteers have a tendency to report everything they see," complains a chemical factory owner, "This has the potential to disrupt business operations."

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