Another modern day David vs. Goliath story.
Around the world, we have seen the struggles of groups of people who stand up against economic development that they fear will destroy their natural environment, and their ecologically-sustainable livelihood. Recently, the world witnessed diverse groups of people protecting the natural water supply in North Dakota against the development of an oil pipeline. Other struggles to protect the environment in Hawaii and the Amazon have been shared primarily through social media, but most struggles by Nature’s champions are invisible to the public eye. These groups have one common belief:
“What good is money when we run out of clean air and water? At some point, we have to start protecting the natural resources that sustain all human beings and all living things.”
“It’s another struggle in the timeless battle between forces of economic development versus champions of environmental protection.”
The story is similar to many others around the world, but there are a few factors that make this case worthy of public attention. The first thing that makes this case notable is the central figure standing up against a road development project, Tun-che Cheng (鄭敦哲). This resident of the agricultural community of Sigang, is fighting to protect his family’s land, known as Little Sigang Forest Farm, on the eastern edge of Sigang District.
TC Cheng is an unconventional character by local Taiwanese standards. His English is almost fluent, and his appearance takes people by surprise, making it hard for most people in Sigang to relate to him. He gained an appreciation for trees and nature from his father and grandfather, who planted the trees that now make up the small forest. The 90-yr-old grandfather placed incense and a small altars of rocks at the base of the trees that are slated to be cut down by developers, as a sign of respect and thanks. TC also has an uncanny respect for nature and knowledge of sustainable living. His concepts of organic gardening, mulching, farming in harmony with native plants and wildlife are lost on most of the local farmers and landowners, who mock his methods of farming. Regardless of the difficulties, Mr. Cheng continues to share his sustainable farming knowledge and experience to professors and college students and any visitor who is willing to learn. He has also co-created with other organic farmers in Tainan City a sustainable food-to-table community farming concept.
When the city government made offers to purchase the land needed for the new road expansion, all landowners eventually gave in. Tun-che Cheng was the last holdout, as he listened to the reasoning for the development plan, he wasn’t convinced that the project was in the best interest of the people of Sigang District. The other landowners were upset, and they believed he was holding out for a higher price. But on the contrary, TC understood that as a holdout, Tainan City government would be able to use Eminent Domain laws in Taiwan to force him to sell his land for much lower price than they offered to everyone else.
What makes TC unlike most people in Taiwan is that money is not a motivating factor to him. He could have accepted the government’s offer and bought another tract of forested land in Taitung or elsewhere. But, what he chose to fight for was the protection of Sigang’s last remaining forest for the people in the community, and to keep the living legacy of his father and grandfather alive.
Little Sigang Forest Farm, the living legacy, is another factor that makes this case notable. It is a parcel of land approximately 7 acres in size, framed by tall trees and filled with bamboo, grass meadows, and all types of lush growth. There is nothing quite like it for miles around, as most usable land in the lowlands of Tainan City have been developed for residential or commercial purposes. Here, you can find endemic wild animals in the shade of the trees or in the tall grass, including lightning bugs, frogs, snakes, a variety of birds and squirrels. It is almost as if TC Cheng has preserved a diverse, biological piece of living history.
In this little corner of Tainan City, economic practicality seems to have been put aside to make room for TC’s dream of sustainable co-existence with Mother Nature. Mr. Cheng also believes that his principals and ideals should be valued even more than short-term financial gain in Tainan City, because of the problems with pollution and global warming. TC hopes the locals can gain more appreciation for the fresh air and cooling effects his forest offers. The natural shade provides retreats from the hot sun for TC and his friends, as they can lounge in one of his hammocks, or enjoy baking organic pizza in his outdoor pizza oven.
In order for the land to sustain his lifestyle, he does grow many types of organic fruits and vegetables, with the help of a few friends, but mostly from his own toil. He sells the crops at an outdoor market in Tainan City, but he hopes to expand the farm-to-table concept for the local residents. His family also has a small greenhouse nursery, where they grow ornamental plants. The land does provide some economic impact for the local economy, but it is work in progress. More importantly, it is a labor of love.
What’s important in this case is how the drive for economic development has been stopped and postponed on several occasions by TC Cheng and his small group of friends. Not having financial means or social influence, Mr. Cheng turned to reason and facts to build his case. He has challenged the government’s impact studies, and proved that Sigang District does not have traffic problems that require a new thoroughfare to be built around the middle of town. He challenged the traffic count figures and carried out his own traffic counts to disprove the official figures. He recruited the help of small groups of environmentalists, and professors to build a case for the environmental impact of the project. More importantly, during the many meetings and discussions in Sigang, Tainan City, and Taipei, TC invited the media to hear his side. With the landowners, developers and politicians attending the meetings with their friends, it was often overwhelming for TC, who often stood against them alone. He believes in his message, but he is worried that the influence of money and power drowns out his voice.
When looking at the proposal, TC’s case is that the politician behind the project is using figures that are inaccurate to build a case that there is a need for the road. The project’s proponents are promoting economic growth and progress as the main reasons for the new road, but TC believes that the proponents have not provided any plan that could justify their claims. What is certain is that the landowners along the new road will have economic benefit in terms of land value.
The proponents claim that the new thoroughfare would ease traffic congestion along the town’s main route, Jhongsan Rd (Hwy 19). The opponents have traffic count figures that disprove any traffic congestion problem. Also, a close look at the proposed route may cause one to conclude that the new road would actually create more congestion, of the main bridge leading into the town. The Jen-Wen River bridge is a bottle neck of traffic, and if the traffic light directs traffic in three directions, instead of the current two, it would slow down traffic.
As for the economic impact for Sigang District, the new road may cause new houses and small businesses to be built, but it would direct traffic away from Jhongsan Rd, where many local businesses rely on the steady flow of traffic to survive. Taking customers away from one place and bringing them to another location in town isn’t exactly economic growth.
On the contrary, providing a clean, tranquil environment, fresh air, and organic produce for local residents will make Sigang a more pleasant location to live in. The residents near Little Sigang Forest Farm enjoy the relative peacefulness of their home, but when they were approached by TC to join them to voice their concerns about the road development, they declined. Many people in Taiwan do not want to stand out or make waves, so it has been difficult for the defender of Sigang’s environment to attract supporters to share his concerns. Also, most people don’t have the means to take time of from work to attend public meetings about this case, nor do they have the money to travel to Taipei to share their voices. It is also interesting to note that most of the people of Sigang District, who will have some impact from diverted traffic, don’t even know about the project.
Tun-che Cheng has a clear plan for Sigang District, to provide an alternative solution for growth and development, based on environmental harmony, sustainable and high quality of life. He wants to help people to see things a different way, in order to appreciate the value Mother Nature provides to their lives. TC asks:
“Is it truly worth it to sell out a high quality of life for our community for short-term financial gain?”
At some point, human beings may learn the consequences of their irresponsible, self-benefiting choices, but TC does not think it is too late, and will not give up trying to save his little piece of Nature. The Ministry of the Interior has met several time to discuss the Eminent Domain proceedings for this project, and Tun-che Cheng is ready to face them and the project proponents. He is willing to endure the criticism, taunts and anger directed at him, but he seeks people who feel the same way about the environment to join him to show the government that people do care about the environment.