Aug 3 to Aug 9
Even though his moniker mimicked that of a Buddhist master, Nien Hsi-lin (粘錫麟) was devoted to one religion: the environment. “Environmental Protection Preacher” (環保弘法師) was more than a nickname, though, it was Nien’s actual job title when the full-time activist moonlighted as an environmental writer and speaker for a Buddhist magazine in 1990.
Only finding his true calling at the age of 47, Nien liked the title so much that he listed it as his occupation on his national identification card.
Photo courtesy of Green Formosa Front
“I don’t plan on changing the job title,” Nien says in his 2008 biography by Lai Pei-ju (賴珮茹), long after he stopped working for the publication.
Nien says that he led a “dispirited and decadent life” before he joined the fight in 1986 to prevent chemical giant Dupont from building a titanium dioxide plant in his hometown of Lukang (鹿港). The success of the anti-Dupont movement was a pivotal moment in Taiwan’s environmental protection history. Just five months after Dupont scrapped its Lukang project, the Executive Yuan upgraded the Department of Health’s Environmental Protection Bureau to an independent Environmental Protection Administration, greatly expanding its scope and responsibilities. The Dupont fight also became a model for future anti-pollution protests, with Nien involved in many of them.
“I’m no mighty justice warrior, I just feel the sorrow of the disadvantaged,” he writes in the foreword to his biography. “When faced with authority and corporate tyranny, ordinary people like workers, farmers, women, Aborigines, fishers are Taiwan’s disadvantaged. But at the most disadvantaged is the environment, because the environment cannot speak up for itself … That’s why I have so stubbornly carried on with my mission.”
Photo: Chien Jung-fong, Taipei Times
Until his death on Aug. 7, 2013, Nien never stopped preaching and railing against the authorities and big business. At the age of 70, he made the news for heckling then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) at a national environmental conference.
“Taiwan’s core values seem to only revolve around elections, and politicians will do anything to win … They are only interested in seeking immediate benefits, ignoring the decay of social mores and placing themselves beyond the destruction of the environment,” he writes. “If Taiwan becomes a complete wasteland, what meaning would independence or unification have?”
Photo courtesy of Taiwan International Documentary Festival
Nien separates his life into the “pre-Dupont” and “post-Dupont” period.
“My life only began when I started opposing Dupont,” he writes.
The pre-Dupont Nien first served as an elementary school teacher in Changhua County. Disillusioned with Taiwan’s education system and unhappy with his arranged marriage, Nien quit his job in 1971. After a few failed ventures, he left home and drifted around Taiwan, much to the chagrin of his family. Nien does not detail what exactly he did between 1971 and 1986, only noting that he lived an aimless life and made many gangster friends.
During this time, Taiwan’s rapid industrialization and unchecked development took its toll on the environment. The anti-Dupont movement was the nation’s first organized pushback with concrete ideals, goals and strategies, Nien writes. While Taiwan was still under martial law in 1986, the KMT’s iron grip had loosened; such activities would not have been possible earlier.
Although Lukang’s economy was floundering and would have benefited from Dupont’s venture, Nien says that its residents were proud of its rich cultural heritage and history. They were already wary of the pollution caused by the Formosa Chemicals & Fibre Corp (台化) plant in Changhua City, and just two years prior, the Bhopal Disaster in India shocked the world when a gas leak from a pesticide plant killed nearly 4,000 residents and injured 500,000 more.
In February 1986, newly-elected Changhua County Commissioner Lee Tung-liang (李棟樑) delivered on his campaign promise and began organizing local resistance against the Dupont project. Nien writes that nearly the entire Lukang community took part in the fight, from laborers to the middle class, from students to the elderly. The many temples in Lukang also used their influence to rally local support. And finally, intellectuals from around Taiwan also arrived to offer their expertise.
Nien says the biggest challenge was to keep the momentum going, and they devised all sorts of methods to make sure that something was going on daily over the 400-day battle.
“We had no precedent to refer to, and since Taiwan was under martial law, methods used by activists in other countries could not be duplicated here,” Nien says. “We tread carefully on the edge of the law, took caution not to fall into the traps set by the enemy, and developed countless methods that were groundbreaking at that time.”
From petitions, exhibitions, marches and public hearings to forming an association and launching an anti-pollution publication, Nien says they got more creative along the way. At one point, about 20 protestors used their blood (drawn safely by a local nurse) to write the words “Firmly oppose Dupont’s plant, protect our homeland to the death” on a large banner that hung outside the Wen Wu Temple (文武廟) for visitors to sign.
Dupont did not send officials to Lukang until September, seven months after the opposition began. Nien says that whenever they appeared in town, informants would notify the protesters, who would rush to the scene and block their way.
On March 12, 1987, Dupont finally relented and scrapped the plant. The town’s temples held a joint procession to celebrate the occasion and to thank the gods for the victory.
“We came up with a comprehensive two-year plan, but we managed to drive Dupont away in just over 400 days,” Nien says. “There were so many ideas that we didn’t get to use.”
Nien didn’t have to wait long to unleash these unused ideas, as he soon headed to Kaohsiung to help the Houjin (後勁) community oppose CPC Corp Taiwan’s (台灣中油) Naphtha Cracker. This struggle was detailed in the June 1, 2018 edition of this column.
“After Dupont, I understood that Taiwan’s environment had been affected to alarming levels,” he says. “That’s when I decided to become a full-time environmental activist. I hopped in my car and drove around Taiwan, asking people if they needed help with any issues.”
He stayed in Houjin for the next 18 months, but this movement eventually failed and the residents accepted the government’s compensation package and promise to move out after 25 years.
In 1990, the Executive Yuan enacted the Anti-Hooligan Law (檢肅流氓條例) in response to the growing social unrest following the lifting of martial law, and Nien was listed as an “environmental protection hooligan.” He probably enjoyed this moniker the most, and was actually upset that he was only ranked number two on the list, behind Houjin leader Liu Yung-ling (劉永鈴). He never went to jail, but was frequently harassed and followed by police and government agents.
Nien spent the next decade moving from incident to incident, taking his final battle back to his hometown in 2005 against a local coal-fired power plant. He admits that he completely neglected his family, and in 1989 the Independent Evening Post (自立晚報) ran an apology letter he penned to his wife.
He barely made any money, but he says, “if one’s values do not include material prosperity, then, even though things may be tough, one will survive somehow.”
“I chose a thorny, rugged, lonely path, abandoned all worldly values and cut off family ties, but I’ve never regretted doing what I wanted.”
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