Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Additional observations and thoughts on the Trip to Yuanli Township

The coastline of Xi Ping Li (西平里), Yuanli Township (苑裡鎮), Miaoli County (苗栗縣)
Here are some additional observation and thoughts to our feature article in the Taipei Times, as there was space restriction to a newspaper article.

The reason for my venture to Yuanli Township was two-fold: 1) In the past few months, I saw quite a few protests in Yuanli and in Taipei against wind turbines.  As an observer of the Anti-Nuclear Power movement in Taiwan, I was curious; 2) This is a movement where I found most of the student leaders are from the National Taiwan University, my host institution in Taiwan.  

Some updates

As one walks on the embankment in Fang Li Li (房裡里) in Yuanli Township (苑裡) of Miaoli County(苗栗縣), one can now see No.26 of the InfraVest wind turbine, erected just two days ago.  This was the very first of the six wind turbines InfraVest Wind Power Co. planned to build in Yuanli Township during Phase One of its construction.  Of the 2km coastline of Yuanli, InfraVest Wind Power Co. plans to erect 14 wind turbines.  

Township residents and students have been protesting at the construction site since the beginning of construction.  With the past week being the most physical and confrontational.  Most protesters have been arrested more than once.  Some are facing lawsuits from the wind power company and will have to go to court to answer their criminal charges.  Yet, they persist.  

The township residents and students I spoke to said that they are supportive of green energy, and in this case, wind power energy, as many of their pamphlets and press conferences have iterated.  Interestingly, all the students who are currently residing in Yuanli are also involved with the Anti-Nuclear Energy Movement.  The residents pointed to the nearby Tunghsiau Fire-Powered Power Plant and articulated the importance of having clean, renewable way to generate energy. 

"We've seen what the fire-powered power plant did to the environment", said the 60-year-old farmer A-Bei in a green tank top, "We don't want those, but I'm also afraid these wind turbines are going to be so close to my house and farm".  

As one approaches the construction site, a banner with "Support construction of wind turbines, Reject Pro-Nuclear Energy activists (支持風車興建, 抗議擁核打手)" is ostentatiously secured to one of the fences.  I find the banner confusing as it provides no explanation as to how the company concludes the objection to wind turbines in Yuanli equals support for nuclear power and the protesters are in fact nuclear energy supporters.  

A security guard quickly approached us, as we exited the taxi, and held up a placard that says "Moving toward non-nuclear, Taiwan needs green energy substitution (邁向非核, 台灣需要代替綠能)".  At first, I thought the placard was redundant, as most members of the resistance movement support this same policy.  Then, I quickly realized there was an attempt to differentiate the company, as the representative of green energy verses the protesters, as supporters of nuclear power.

I was then surrounded by a few InfraVest employees counter-protesting with other colorful placards with messages ranging from asking the Yuanli Self-Help Group president to return the money he allegedly illegally profited from having his art studio on government land, to condemnation of violence, to urging the residents and students to not be used by the Self-help organization president.  

It happened that the Vice President of InfraVest, Ms. Wang Yun-yi, was on site monitoring the construction of turbine No.26, so I chatted with her for a while.  

"It would making me very happy if this is the last time I have to explain myself", she told me.

She explained her company's endeavor to build wind turbines along the west coast of Taiwan, and that they passed the Environmental Protection Agency's evaluation and received permission to build.  She was upset that, according to her, after all the concession she made, the residents now refused to let the company build a single turbine.  It was my understanding the company would proceed with construction with help from the local police and its own security personnel.  Instead of the original six, the company would build only four.  

Institutional incompetence

Yuanli residents and supporters
protestin front of EPA
The violent physical confrontation in the past week and InfraVest's insistence to erect wind turbines in Yuanli did not come as a surprise.  

The consequence of not proceeding with the project could cost the company everything, as projects like the one that span from Chunan to Yuanli requires tremendous capital and financing from banks.  Every day InfraVest falls behind schedule or unable to build, it cost money, a lot of money.  The unconfirmed figure is between NT$500,000 to NT$1,000,000 per day.  

The frustration from the company executives is certainly understandable.  To the company, it already submitted the necessary paperwork and retained permission from the government.  The company is legally to build but is unable to.  The company also hoped for local politicians to act as arbitrators; however, after repeated failure to reach consensus, local politicians are also not touching the controversy with a ten-foot pole.  The company is now left to resolve the problem on its own.  

Protest at the Executive Yuan
A business's desire for profit is natural.  As InfraVest states on the company's website, "Investment in wind energy should bring forth profit.  This is necessary for a sustainable development of renewable energies, a distinct goal of many governments".  If green energy brings profit while protecting the environment, then the situation would be ideal for all.

It is up to government agency, the Environmental Protect Agency(EPA) in this case, to maintain standard and to determine which business or company is best for Taiwan's environment and citizens.  It is the EPA's responsibility to investigate and to determine if InfraVest did indeed manipulate statistics and survey, as the residents of Yuanli alleged, and reject such evaluation if necessary.  

The fact is, as Mr. Wang told me, InfraVest received no rejected until June 3rd, when the EPA rejected the company's second Difference in Environmental Impact (DEI) evaluation and the company's proposal to erect 29 wind turbines in Taoyuan County.  The reason: there were discrepencies in InfraVest's paperwork.   

Li Ah-Ma outside of her home
Unfortunately, the case of Yuanli is not the 
first time the Environmental Protection Agency demonstrated its incompetence.  If there were discrepancies, then why did the EPA not discover them until the second round of DEI?  One can also reference the Miramar Hotel resort(美麗灣) in Taitung and the Yoho Beach Resort (悠活麗緻度假村) within the Kenting National Park.  It wasn't until after the discovery that the Yoho Beach Resort has been operating in the past 14 years without EPA approval that the EPA announced it would launch nationwide inspection of developmental projects.

For Yuanli township, the EPA did grant InfraVest permission to build.  Even though the lawyer hired by the Yuanli Self-help Organization filed suit for the EPA to revoke InfraVest's evaluation approval, the suit will take time and there isn't any order for InfraVest to halt construction in the meantime.  

The Self-help Organization requested InfraVest to stop construction pending negotiation with the residents and suit.  The request was rejected by the company.  In all, the trust between two sides has deteriorated to the point that my fear is no consensus can be reached at this point.  

Overzealous Security

As the wind power company became more press for time to complete their project, and after the Miaoli Police was reprimanded for not following protocol, InfraVest hired a group of men to guard its construction site.  One of the things I experienced immediately when arriving Yuani, other than the scorching sun, was company security hovering and attempting to drive anyone and everyone from the beach. 

As I walked on the embankment, a public road, four or five security guards followed me or lingered close by.  And, as I was chatted with Ms. Wang, the Vice President of InfraVest, one security guard shoved a camera in my face to film me.  
The guy with all the questions
It should be fairly obvious that I am neither a protester or a resident, yet the attempt to intimidate persisted.  Security guards stood in my path, blocking my access to the beach, watching my every move.  Not only that, they also attempted to question who I was, twice.  However, when I asked them what was going on in return, I was given "How would I know?" as an answer.
Permitting such behavior from company security guards, regardless the legality of construction, does nothing but to escalate tension between the employees and the township residents.  It also does nothing to help the company's ultimate goal, if it is truly to promote green energy and provide an alternative to nuclear and fire power. Whether the hiring of these thuggish security guard is due to company executives feeling there is no other option in dealing with the residents, Ms. Wang did not say.  

Tension came to a clash on June 8th, when a group of 20 to 30 guards attempted to forcibly remove the protesters.  Some guards were observed kicking students while they were down on the ground.  Since then, there are clashes every day, sometimes multiple times a day.  It's taxing for all parties involved.

Battle continues

The protest goes on in Yuanli township with the police becoming increasingly aggressive in removing protesters from seaside.  InfraVest held yet another negotiation meeting last weekend that went nowhere, as the company maintained its bottom line and position of erecting four wind turbines and that there is no distance regulations worldwide, including in Taiwan.  The company also declares that the instigators should bear all responsibility if the latest negotiation fails.  

I wonder how the story of Yuanli will end.  Maybe there still is a chance for reconciliation and consensus between the residents and the wind power company.  Maybe the wind turbines will be erected with the police, protesters and company security guards going through the same routine of blocking, removing, arresting, releasing everyday.  We'll see.  

I do maintain, however, as we said in the Times article, the case of Yuanli could serve as a platform for open discussion on what kind of renewable energy method is best suited for Taiwan.  Maybe it's wind power, as the American technician told us on site - Taiwan is a great place with lots of wind all year round.  If so, which kind of wind power machine is best for Taiwan's limited land.  

When one follows the timeline of the Yuanli controversy, it is not difficult to see there were several critical junctures that the dispute could have been resolved, but opportunities were missed and trust is now broken.  In the end, my feeling is the Yuanli controversy hurts all parties involved, except the central government.  As a social scientist, it's an incredible privilege to be able to get so close to the players of this case, to listen to stories from all sides and to record them.

(Photos by author, 陳三郎 and 許哲韡)

1 comment:

Mike Fagan said...

Resubmit with a minor correction...


Generally, I think your and J.M.'s reporting on this episode in Miaoli is very good. The contempt for the local thugs noted with the phrase "white shirts" is very good. That being said, my general precept for commenting is to offer criticism rather than praise, on the assumption that criticism is of greater value. So...

"I do maintain, however, as we said in the Times article, the case of Yuanli could serve as a platform for open discussion on what kind of renewable energy method is best suited for Taiwan."

If that discussion is framed as about renewable energy, then it's not much of an "open" discussion is it? And that's not simply due to the implied exclusion of fossil fuel sources from the discussion, but also because the selective focus on renewable energy implies a decision about which ends are to be sought, and which are to be excluded.

Reducing CO2 emissions is an implied end of that discussion. Yet even if the Taiwan government could tommorow magically reduce CO2 emissions to zero, this would not affect the ongoing increase in worldwide CO2 emissions. The costs of such a policy would be very large whilst the ostensible benefits would be zero.

Limiting the growth of electricity demand is an implied end of that discussion, since a switch to renewable energy would necessitate a reduced rate of increase in the supply of electricity. The natural consequence of this is electricity price increases - which will tend to affect the poor most of all via their more general effect upon other market prices.

The excluded ends are obvious: all of the things that could have been done had not the money been wasted on reducing CO2; the attempt to protect the poor from price inflation in the markets; any attempt to rationally disengage the State from electricity production.

There are many other points that could be made, but basically an "open" discussion about renewable energy would be little more than a talking-shop for fashionable people to admire their own plump, round biases and dangle their erect ignorata in front of one another at the implied expense of everyone else.

An "open" discussion about energy should be just that: an open discussion. There is nothing to fear from alternative views and disagreement.