Thursday, March 4, 1999 Published at 22:03 GMT
Toxic waste In Taiwan
Thousands of tonnes of waste have been dumped in Taiwan
By Francis Markus in Taiwan
As we got out of the taxi outside the local government building, the first thing we saw was a truck full of figures brilliantly dressed up in traditional costumes of all kinds - the richly-coloured and braided outfits worn by the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan and even some efforts at reproducing Cambodian national dress.
Their protest is eloquent, if silent, for these are beautifully put-together straw scarecrows. We soon find the human protestors, numbering a few dozen, in a second-floor conference room, berating local government leaders about a toxic waste site outside their town, a few kilometres away.
Formosa Plastics apologises
When the meeting is finished, we hitch a lift on their chartered bus, to the next stop, the district court. There, they formally file a suit both against the government's environmental protection authority and against Formosa Plastics. For it's this company which has found itself apologising for the dumping of thousands of tonnes of waste, not just in Cambodia, but in Taiwan itself.
It's ironic, though, that it's taken the discovery of tainted rubbish in an impoverished Asian neighbour, to awaken people's consciousness to the problem here in Taiwan. I can actually see that kind of response to the outside world's response, played out at the courthouse.
The toxic waste site
A couple of local newspaper photographers insist that as the only foreign journalist present at this modest protest, I pose with my microphone, questioning a local official, to illustrate international media interest. Then it's back aboard the demonstrators' bus, to the last stop, the toxic waste site itself.
I shuffle around the dusty, raised corner of a field, where angry townspeople tell me there is several times more waste dumped than at the Cambodian site. They complain about a bewildering array of different symptoms when I ask about the effect of the waste.
A couple of men roll up their trouser legs and show what to me seem like mosquito bites. Another man says he's been coughing. He brushes off any link with the cigarette pack in his shirt pocket.
Several of the protestors seem reassured by the local government's pledge to have the waste promptly analysed and to monitor the water supply for traces of contamination.
The effects of pollution
As I head back towards Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city and industrial hub, source of a great deal of the pollution, I can empathise fully with how it feels to live by a toxic waste site. I'm left wondering whether the headache and sore eyes I'm suffering from are a result of exposure to something nasty, or are the onset of flu symptoms.
I also reflect about whether the government's drive to implement its relatively recent anti-pollution legislation will work in practice.
A senior government politician I once interviewed in Taipei joked to me off the record that Hong Kong could boast of freedom and rule of law, but no democracy, Singapore benefited from rule of law but no freedom or democracy, while Taiwan enjoyed - if that's the word - freedom and democracy, but no rule of law.
A show of public support?
As far as democracy is concerned, the small band of protestors seem much encouraged as their convoy passes, by the sounding off of a barrage of New Year's fire crackers. They put this down as a show of support from the public for their protest.
But some observers I talk to down in Kaohsiung think that ordinary people, who do not happen to have toxic waste dumped in their back yards, are still a long way from being galvanised by the issue.
And maybe it's just that kind of broad spectrum public pressure which will be needed to make a real impact on Taiwan's toxic waste problem.