June 14, 2015

Above and beyond the beauty of Taiwan

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I cried tonight.

I was watching a showing of the acclaimed documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above from Director Chi Po-lin, courtesy of MOViE MOViE and Duddell's.  The images shot from the skies above my beloved Taiwan were indeed beautiful and breathtaking - well, some of them at least... But I also got to see a lot of things which were deeply disturbing and thought-provoking, and I couldn't help but cry.  Cry for my country because my fellow countrymen have spent the last few decades destroying the very land which we call home.



For those who have seldom (or never) ventured beyond Taipei's city limits, Taiwan is in fact a beautiful island.  The Portuguese sailors who first set eyes on her referred to her Ilha Formosa for good reason.  The high mountains, the forests, coastline... all offer some breathtaking views.

But that beauty is being destroyed, bit by bit, at the hands of the natives.  No, this time we cannot blame Imperialist Japan for chopping down our 1,200 year-old cypress trees and shipping them off to Tokyo to become the famed original torii (鳥居) at Meiji Shrine (明治神宮).  This time it's all on us.  We did, after all, voluntarily chop down and sell off another 1,500 year-old cypress tree to replace the original torii after it was destroyed by lightning.  Well... at least somebody got paid the second time...

For years, I've known that people living in the mountains - some of them aborigines (原住民) - have been chopping down trees believed to hold little economic value, and planting betel palms (檳榔樹) to harvest betel nuts for quick cash.  Not only does this destroy the beauty of our mountains, it's also an environmental disaster in the making.

It's no secret that Taiwan sits on the Ring of Fire.  Earthquakes are a common occurrence.  By cutting down trees with deep root systems - which tend to keep soil in place on top of the mountainous rock - and replacing them with betel palms whose roots don't reach down very deep, these people create a dangerous situation where the earth no longer stays on the mountains.  Then Mother Nature comes with a one-two punch.

First, earthquakes shake the earth loose on the mountains, as there are no longer deep roots to hold them in place.  Then the typhoons and the rains come, pouring down with increasing vigor with each passing year, bringing the earth down from the mountain tops, causing mudslides which wash away roads and houses downhill.  The mudslides travel downhill with such brutal force that it knocks down and uproots even more trees in their paths, creating a vicious cycle.

All this so that people can make a few bucks selling betel nuts, which are then mixed with limestone powder and chewed by the locals, who proceed to spit out the remnants on the streets and pollute the environment.  But that's another story.  Meanwhile, owners of tea plantations and cabbage farms at high altitude also commit the same crime, as more trees are felled.

More environmental damage is done by Taiwan's thriving aquaculture.  All those fish farms along the coastline pump up lots of underground water, gradually depleting the freshwater supply.  Local industry are also big consumers of water, with world-class flat panel makers and other electronic companies among the main culprits.  All this at the same time that the capacities of the island's reservoirs are on a downtrend - thanks to all the silt build-up from the torrential rains that carry the loose earth from the mountain tops.  And you know what happens when you pump out more water from underground than the earth can handle?  The land sinks.

Taiwan's world-famous electronics industry is responsible for some of the worst pollution in the country.  One of the unexpected byproducts of filming Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above is that some of the footage of pollutants being pumped out to sea enabled the local authorities to nail Advanced Semiconductor Engineering for their crime.  The fact that they built underground pipes to secretly pump toxic pollutants into our oceans made it particularly heinous.  Last year I almost choked on my coffee one morning when I read about the company's success in issuing Asia's second "Green" bond.  You must be fucking kidding me...

There were, of course, more stories told about how we are destroying the very land that nurtures us... such as cement makers chopping down our beautiful mountains, then shipping half of their production for export.  WHAT-THE-FUCK?!  Why would anyone who loves their land do something ridiculous like that?!

Well, like most of the stories being told in this movie, it all came down to one word: GREED.  Short-term gains.  Making a quick buck while destroying the land you live on, fucking it up and leaving a total mess for your kids and grand kids.

So yeah, I cried tonight.  I cried for the bleak future that my country faces.  I cried for the selfishness and short-sightedness of my fellow countrymen.  I cried because people all around the world were doing the same type of stuff to our beautiful planet.

Only the beautiful voices of innocent children reminded me that there may still be hope.



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