Distraction Free Reading

Data Activism and Petro-Public Knowledge “Across Borders”: The Formosa Plastics Global Archive

When our research group entered the Formosa Plastics museum in Taiwan, the first thing we noticed was a massive piece of kauri wood, sitting protected under a dome of glass. Wang Yung Ching, chairman of the company and formerly Taiwan’s richest person, had acquired the burl in 2002, after seeing it in an art gallery in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. As our tour guide explained with excitement, Wang was captivated by the wood’s radiant strength, representing the “immeasurable capabilities and longevity of the Formosa Plastics Group”, making it an ideal “centerpiece” for the company’s six-floor museum[1] . Exhibits celebrate the founder and spirit of the Formosa Plastics Group (complete with dioramas and wax figures) and a miniature replica of Formosa’s 6th Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant in Central Taiwan. The fourth floor has an Earth Conservation Theatre. The sixth floor conveys how Formosa has given back to society through investment in education, hospitals, and cultural heritage projects[2] .

A group of people standing in a circular lobby look upon a large piece of wood that is encased in thick plexiglass.

Figure 1. A group of visitors looking at the kauri burl from New Zealand, on display in the entrance hall of the Formosa Plastics Museum. Photo by Tim Schütz, January 2021.

The Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) is one of the largest petrochemical conglomerates in the world, with facilities in Taiwan, China, Vietnam, and the United States. Formosa also has a record of explosions, routine pollution, and “mafia-like” behavior with environmental activists and other critics (Democracy Now 2020; PRI 2020). In October 2019, Formosa agreed to pay a record settlement of $50 million for their release of plastic pellets into Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek in Texas. In Louisiana – in the petrochemical corridor known as “Cancer Alley” – environmental justice groups are challenging the opening of a new, multi-billion dollar Formosa Plastics complex (Mosbrucker 2020). In Yunlin and Changhua County, following explosions and air pollution at a Formosa-owned naphtha cracking facility, Taiwanese citizens have pushed back against the expansion of the company (Tu 2019). Furthermore, transnational Vietnamese advocacy groups are fighting for compensation following the 2016 marine disaster, a massive fish kill caused by toxic spills from a Formosa-owned steel mill (Jobin 2021a).

What is the role of public knowledge infrastructure – museums, community archives, cultural institutions – in these disastrous times (Elinoff and Vaughan 2020)? What do current attempts at building public knowledge infrastructure to push back against the petrochemical industry reveal about power dynamics in late industrialism (Fortun 2012)? STS scholars have important roles to play in the analysis and design of public knowledge infrastructure (Waterton 2010). If archives reflect our knowledge economy, and STS scholars are increasingly involved in their design, what do they need to become in light of urgent energy transitions alongside escalating geopolitical tensions between China, Taiwan and the United States? These questions are at the heart of the Formosa Plastics Global Archive that we describe here – a collaborative effort that you are welcome to join.

Archiving Formosa Plastics

We began thinking about how to support a transnational community concerned about Formosa Plastics in spring 2020, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had learned about the challenges of studying Formosa through two ongoing, collaborative research projects: The Asthma Files, focusing on air pollution across the US, Ecuador, India, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as Quotidian Anthropocenic, studying how planetary change unfolds at the local level, while also linking outside researchers to local experts. Both projects run on the Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography (PECE), an open source (Drupal-based) software supporting virtual research environments for cultural anthropologists, historians, cultural heritage scholars, and other researchers working with diverse data (including extensive unstructured data).

Through research in diverse communities near petrochemical plants, we learned about the importance of “civic data” (Wylie et al. 2017) — data that are freely available and organized to be useful for monitoring and responding to multinational corporations like Formosa Plastics. Building on Dewey (1927), environmental civic data are data that help turn entangled economic, environmental and public health issues into matters of public concern[3] . Many activists have been monitoring Formosa for over thirty years, collecting a wide array of evidence, including oral histories with workers, leaked plant audits, photos, and small plastic pellets (so-called “nurdles”). Activists also recognize the need to build infrastructures for connecting their sites and cases. As researchers, we have become increasingly invested in understanding and helping build what we might think of as “petro-public” knowledge infrastructure and civic data capacity – including technical infrastructure, public data resources, analytic and visualization capabilities, and supporting educational programs and the development of fields of expertise.

The Formosa Plastics Global Archive – hosted on the PECE instance disaster-sts-network.org  – grew out of a remote meeting with shrimp boat captain Diane Wilson, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against Formosa Plastics in Point Comfort, Texas. Watching and resisting Formosa since the early 1990s, the records Wilson has kept fill a large barn. Together, we figured out how to upload the leaked company audits, interviews with workers, meeting notes, and years of news clippings to the archive. Traveling by kayak, Wilson and others have also been tracking Formosa’s plastic pollution discharge to local waterways. Weekly water monitoring reports produced by Wilson and collaborators include photographs and textual descriptions of plastic pellet pollution at water discharge outlets from the Formosa plant[4] . Since some material has been used in recent lawsuits, publication of the data needs to be strategic; to manage this, we use PECE’s capacity to preserve and work with data in digital spaces restricted to a delimited group until ready for release.

An infographic showing the various locations of the Formosa Plastics Archive, which includes sites throughout Taiwan, Vietnam, and the U.S. gulf region.

Figure 2. Front page of the Formosa Plastics Global Archive, with collections focusing on the city or county-level. Screenshot by Tim Schütz, April 2021.

Based on the data – generously shared by activists – researchers can help add further layers of analysis. Like Wilson, locals in Yunlin County and Changhua County, Central Taiwan have collected advocacy documents, EPA reports and news articles, focusing particularly on Formosa’s air pollution and its detrimental consequences for oyster farming. For example, through an interactive timeline of news articles, legal anthropologist Shan-Ya Su (one of this piece’s co-authors) recounts how local Yunlin residents – framed in dominant narrative as “backward” and susceptible to industry influence – did in fact express suspicion and resistance against the 6th Naphtha Cracker Plant. We also paired Formosa’s quarterly local newspaper Qin Qin Bao with a photo essay documenting the corporate influence of Formosa (from building local schools to gyms and funding security forces). PECE’s annotation function allows us to contextualize the company’s deep reach into the community.

[Our Island Episode: Petrochemical Kingdom on the Sea: The Sixth Naphtha Cracker Complex 六輕 海上石化王國 (25 min, 2019)]

Enlisting journalists (and other cultural producers) in the archiving effort further helps understand the importance of news capacity in relation to Formosa. In Taiwan, we reached out to the producers of the public environmental TV show Our Island 我們的島, who have investigated Formosa Plastics since the 1980s[5]. Project lead and documentary director Chin-Yuan Ke considered the archive as a resource for producing episodes with a wider transnational focus. Per our request, the team also added English subtitles to episodes pertaining to Formosa (see translated episodes), turning them into a resource for non-Mandarin speaking advocates. Scholars have noted that getting information about the company in general has become increasingly difficult as interlocutors fear retaliation by the company (see Jobin 2021a). Using the archive to attend to various degrees of media injustice will be important across sites, especially, given the dramatic decline in local news outlets in places like the United States.

The archive can also support data-intensive advocacy efforts of different kinds. In Southern Louisiana, the StopFormosa coalition, led by the faith-based group RISE St. James, keeps mounting impressive organizing and social media campaigns against the approval of the new Formosa complex by Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality[6]. Here, the archive can help supplement reports, for example by safely storing grey material that is frequently hard to find and lacking basic metadata, such as author names or dates. At the time of writing, the coalition achieved a suspension of the plant’s construction, calling for a re-evaluation of the sacred slave burial grounds located on the site. The data used in this activism included independent archeological examinations (first initiated by Formosa), and later aerial photographs. This demonstrates how diverse data relevant to environmental activism can be. Civic data infrastructure needs to have a place for this kind of data — data that don’t have generalizable importance but are critical at the local level. Civic data infrastructure, however, also needs to have global reach. Data related to landmark decisions can inspire plaintiffs and lawyers seeking litigation against Formosa Plastics in different places.

A group of people stand around a mounted exhibit on a wall displying court room sketches.

Figure 3. Paul Jobin discussing his courtroom sketches with visitors during a public exhibition held at 林廢墟Tacheles in Taipei. Photo by Staff of International College for Innovation, March 2021.

Provoking a civic “petro-public” into existence means bringing people to the archive. Building on critically acclaimed projects like the 2013 exhibition When the South Wind Blows (Huang & Chen 2018), our research team staged a public event in Taipei (Figure 3), including printed documents, do-it-yourself displays of plastic pellets and framed courtroom sketches. The courtroom sketches were drawn by Paul Jobin on a case in Taiwan started by a fenceline community (see also Jobin 2021a). These sketches powerfully recall both the dynamics of the legal case and are an inspiring example of collaboration between academic researchers and communities impacted by pollution. In working with these data, we learned that court illustrations are a recognized data type and that we can learn from on-going curation of these at places like the U.S. Library of Congress.

Sugar Plantations, Chemical Plants, Covid-19 is another (virtual) exhibit and tour we originally developed for students in the undergraduate course Environmental Injustice and educators in the Beyond Environmental Injustice Teaching Collective. The tour is designed to mimic physical-world walking tours, inspired especially by the “toxic tours” run by environmental activists in many settings. Rendered virtually, the tour collects diverse representations of Cancer Alley (put together over many years) that are especially powerful in tandem (helping people zoom into the deep history and complex landscape of Cancer Alley). The tour makes use of many functions and genres of the PECE software, especially the shadow-box-like PECE essay. The presentation encourages visitors to zoom out, moving from the proposed site of the new Formosa Plastics to the company’s global reach. Here, students find a comparative angle for their own case study research on Southern California’s fenceline communities or Turkey’s Toxic Valley.

Based on our research and field work, our research group continues to advance the designing and development of the Formosa archive, working across sites in Taiwan and the United States, moving between academia, courtrooms, personal data collections (like Diane Wilson’s barn) and cultural institutions (like the Formosa Plastics Museum). As curators, we are intensely attuned to the overlapping contexts in which the archive we are building will operate, working against both the isolation of geographically distributed communities impacted by Formosa Plastics’ operations. Akin to the influence of Taiwan’s literary public sphere of the country’s democratic development (Au 2020), and the contribution of its environmental movement (Jobin 2021b), the archive might be able to push discourse on ‘just transitions’ in new directions. To do so, the Formosa Plastics Global Archive needs to be multilingual, and telling many stories at once.

Civic Data and Just Transitions

Envisioning petro-public knowledge infrastructure has many challenges, including constantly reflecting on what we have built[7]. One challenge is to draw out the particularities of the many sites in play (Calhoun County in Texas, USA and Yunlin County in Taiwan, for example) – in the Formosa Plastics Global Archive and beyond – while sustaining a global and planetary frame, and possibilities for transnational alliance across activists. The archive can serve as a site to understand how local activists of different sites work together and how the collaborative process changes the way activists see themselves and their transnational counterparts who have also suffered from Formosa pollution, in different ways.

Holding internal PECE Design Team and peer-review sessions have been a generative mode for asking what more is needed. Our team has also learned from adjacent archiving efforts such as ToxicDocs (Rosner et al. 2018). In conversation with the developers, we learned about ways to deal with legal pressure by industry lawyers, as well as possibilities for hosting data across projects. Located at the intersection of STS and Anthropology, archive and installation ethnography provide rich, politically important possibilities for collaboration with the communities they study. The Formosa Plastics Archive contributes digital infrastructure and research capacity to Taiwan Studies, a growing field driven by interests in the country’s democratic experience, national identity, and geopolitical struggle over independence (Chen 2020). As Ketty W. Chen, Vice President of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (2020) points out, a surge in Chinese disinformation campaigns needs to be met with the development of trustworthy online platforms for research and analysis.

Offering interpretative flexibility and various genres of expressions are therefore important features of the digital workspace. In her analysis of environmental advocacy in East Asia, Haddad (2021) points out that activists in Taiwan have increasingly moved from protest to working with stakeholder networks. The archive supports collaborations with cultural institutions like the Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana, located on a site formerly owned by Formosa Plastics (Seck 2014). Inspired by lively forms of protest like the Juneteenth observance held by RISE St. James or a citizens’ theatre organized by residents in Taisi village to address air pollution, we are thinking about possibilities for ‘knowing’ Formosa Plastics in subversive ways. What would it take, for example, to use the material to design an alternative walking tour through the Formosa Plastics museum?

Futuring Collaboration

Formosa’s seemingly unshakable kauri wood stands in contrast to the warp and weft of petrochemical development. Fueled by a boom of cheap US shale gas, petrochemical companies around the globe are expanding, aware that they are an unsustainable industry. Coal-based and crude-oil-to-chemical complexes (COTC) in mainland China and the Middle East promise the “future proofing” of fossil fuel production and the absorption of “the shocks of green transition” (Mah 2021)[8] . Formosa, a legacy company with aging facilities, is feeling the pressure of both increased regulation and changes in market structure. A recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) concludes that Formosa’s investment in Louisiana is “unviable.” One reason, the authors argue, is declining demand for imported petrochemicals in China, curbed by the country’s homegrown production capacity as well as ongoing trade wars with the United States (Sanzillo & Mattei 2021, 2) .

In Taiwan, where environmental advocates have also called for a shift “from a brown to green economy” (Duo & Wei Jie 2014), Formosa is operating alongside controversial new energy projects. In an August 2021 national referendum, Taiwanese citizens voted on the construction of a third liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Taoyuan (Oung 2021)[9]. Since the project would likely destroy a local algae reef, Formosa Plastics has offered to move the contested LNG terminal to Central Taiwan, phasing out one of the company’s own coal-powered plants. After initial conversations between Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen and Formosa’s current chairman, government officials argued that the plan is unrealistic, given missing permits and inadequate pipeline infrastructure (Oung 2021). While proponents describe gas power as a “transition technology,” it further drives industrial production and complicates what counts as a green or a just transition. As the Taiwanese government aims for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (Yu-Chen & Lim 2021), analysis of Formosa’s attempts to continue its production will remain important.

In the meantime (Fischer 2018), we are working toward new forms of academic-activist collaboration, partnering with communities and activists focusing on diverse but connected Formosa Plastics plant communities. Our contributions are different in different places. In Texas, seasoned Formosa activist Diane Wilson is on the 20th day of a hunger strike (as of April 26, 2021), protesting the building of a new port on her beloved Lavaca Bay. The port would both further pollute the bay and extend export of fossil fuels from the United States to the rest of the world. In the immediate term, we need to help draw Wilson’s hunger strike into visibility, supporting her very locally grounded critique of global resource flows and capitalism. Meanwhile, we also need to keep up the work of digitally archiving selections of the huge data cache of data that Diane has built over thirty years of Formosa activism. In Louisiana’ St. James Parish, Louisiana, the circumstances are different. We need to support ongoing activism against the siting of the new, highly polluting facility, making clear that the parish has “seen its burden.”

In Yunlin and Changhua County, the circumstances and needs are of another order, asking what kinds of data would support ongoing litigation (Tu 2019). Unlike in Louisiana and Texas, direct protest might not be the first strategy of choice. A libel lawsuit by Formosa against a public health scientist studying air pollution – though unsuccessful – is still fresh on many minds. Partnering with international organizations and developing regional campaigns across Asia might offer new paths forward. At the same time, we need to pay attention to domains beyond plastics. The Taiwanese Supreme Court recently decided that the environmental disaster caused by Formosa Steel in Central Vietnam will be re-trialed in Taiwan (JFFV 2020).

This is the creative and political challenge of the Formosa Plastics Global Archive – and of critical ethnology and STS research writ large: finding ways to organise across scales, working across geography, and generation, linking university researchers and students to impacted communities, activists, journalists, artists, and government representatives who share commitment to inclusive prosperity and planetary health. If you can imagine playing a role in civic oversight of the petrochemical industry, please get in touch.

This post is part of the series “(Re)Assembling Asias through Science.” Click here to read the series’ introduction and contact editors Chunyu Jo Ann Wang (chunyuw@stanford.edu) and Tim Quinn (quinnt@rice.edu) if you are interested in contributing!


We would like to thank Jo Ann Wang and Tim Quinn for inviting our contribution and for their generative comments. We would also like to thank Eduard Fanthome, Kim Fortun, and Paul Jobin for additional editing and feedback. Our collaborative field research was made possible by Wen-Ling Tu (International College for Innovation, National Chengchi University) and the Center for Asian Studies at University of California, Irvine.


[1] The Formosa Plastics museum is located on the grounds of Chang Gung University in Taoyuan, which grew out of a hospital set up by Formosa in 1976 “to make a meaningful contribution to Taiwan’s society.” Today, the university uses “the successful management model of Formosa Plastics Corporation and its resources” to build students’ knowledge of management .

[2] On the Wikipedia talk page for the Formosa Plastics Museum, user Frood points out that the entry’s promotional tone reads like “paid editing.”

[3] In The Public and Its Problems (1927), pragmatist philosopher John Dewey argues that democracy depends on the formation of publics with a shared concern about social problems, but that powerful market and state forces often subdue the formation of these publics and, in turn, their criticisms. Publics thus need to be prompted to form, leveraging diverse modes of communication, producing signs and symbols through which people can see themselves in context.

[4] Wilson also donates plastic pellets to the citizen science initiative Nurdle Patrol at the University of Texas at Austin.

[5] For sociologist Paul Jobin (2021b, 43), Our Island is an example of Taiwan’s “civic ecological nationalism”, which he defines as a mix of concerns over ecology, democratic values, and national identity. The latter, Jobin argues, is distinctly “non xenophobic,” geared towards civil society and Taiwanese identity formation.

[6] In Spring 2021, a group of UN human rights experts denounced Formosa’s “Sunshine Project,” arguing that the new Louisiana plant would further entrench environmental racism. Earlier, US president Joe Biden had referenced “Cancer Alley” when issuing plans to address environmental injustice. For fenceline residents, the statement also threw into sharp relief how long the government had ignored their exposure to toxic chemicals in the past (Taylor 2021).

[7] See Fortun et al. 2021 for a list of analytic questions for conceptualizing and designing PECE-enabled community archives.

[8] Though offering higher yields than transportation fuels, COTC technologies still pose continued risks of marine oil spills, air pollution, and negative climate impacts (Wang 2020).

[9] The vote will also include deciding whether to re-start the construction of a fourth Nuclear Power Plant near Taipei, undoing Taiwan’s current anti-nuclear policy (Hsiang and Hsu 2021).


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