High-growth economy comes at a price: toll on environment

April 25, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

HSINCHU SCIENCE PARK, Taiwan -- Befitting an island aspiring to become an advanced industrial society, Taiwan sports European fashions, German cars and American graduate degrees. But the new high life has an exorbitant price.

Once known as Formosa -- "beautiful" in Portuguese -- Taiwan has maintained one of the world's highest economic growth rates for four decades and produced a textbook case of environmental degradation.

This island is one of the world's most densely populated and industrialized places. It has 10 million motorcycles and 3 million cars, double the number of only six years ago and 20 times the U.S. vehicle density. Traffic is so bad it takes two hours just to drive the 40 miles here from Taipei, the capital.

Taiwan's air is worse than that of Los Angeles. Less than 3 percent of its sewage is treated. Urban waterways are virtually dead. Landfills overflow with garbage, at times prompting ocean dumping. No one knows what has happened to all the toxic waste produced here.

Rates of asthma, cancer, alcoholism and amphetamine use have risen rapidly. The divorce rate has doubled since 1980, becoming Asia's highest. Taipei's congestion, noise and stress provoke hundreds each year to seek psychiatric help for recurring bouts of panic.

"If we continue along the present path, by the year 2000 we can expect to be in a precarious position," concludes a 1989 report by a group of Taiwanese academics. "Air, water, soil and living things all show signs of sickness; in some cases, critical signs."

Government planners believe more sustainable economic growth may be found in this 13-year-old industrial park, a 1,500-acre island of clean, high-tech development with 140 companies and 25,000 workers -- 4,000 of whom live in a U.S.-style planned community.

Here is the source of 3 percent of the world's annual output of personal computers. More significant, here also is the first Taiwanese company to sell its breakthroughs in silicon-chip fabrication to Japan.

Taiwan's economy has been built on labor-intensive exports, products developed elsewhere but assembled here. Now many believe the island's economic survival depends on leaping to less-polluting, knowledge-based industries selling their own cutting-edge products.

"Semiconductors are the future of Taiwan," says Kuo Yun, a former general now directing a research group trying to spawn new industries based on island-grown technologies. "If we want to compete in the world, we have to develop information-related industries."

This transformation is made necessary by the rise in wages accompanying economic success here. Taiwan is no longer a cheap place to make goods -- especially in terms of the U.S. dollar, which depreciated against the island's currency by 50 percent in the late 1980s. Many manufacturers have moved to mainland China and Southeast Asia.

The government has responded with a six-year, $300 billion plan remake Taiwan's infrastructure, foster high-tech industries and clean up its environment. It in cludes new highways, mass transit systems and housing areas.

Announced in 1991, the ambitious plan quickly prompted questions about its affordability and potential for corruption. Some say Taiwan is not ready to go high tech. Environment regulators already say their part of the plan will take 10 years, rather than six.

The plan's success may hinge on Taiwan's move last week to resolve trade disputes with the United States, which is threatening sanctions that could devastate the island's economy.

Cleaning up Taiwan's pollution will also be difficult. Studies show that the environment has worsened since the founding of Taiwan's Environmental Protection Agency in 1987. "We're running in place," says Richard Fan, the agency's chief science adviser.

The EPA has too few inspectors with too little power to counter the clout of factory owners with local officials, environmentalists say.

In surveys, pollution has led islanders' concerns for the last 10 years. From 1988 to 1991, researchers identified almost 500 protests by pollution victims -- local protests often resulting in government payments. But no strong, island-wide environmental movement has emerged.

That can't last forever, predicts Edgar Lin, an ecologist and opposition legislator. "The government so far is just buying people off," he says. "Eventually they will rise up and hold it responsible."

But Chien Ching-piao, Taipei City Psychiatric Center director, believes Taiwanese may have become addicted to rapid development.

"We say Taipei should be called "Type A,'"' he jokes, referring to the popular label for hard-driving personalities. "We're so used to working harder and longer in order to compete that people just take this environment as normal."

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