Distraction Free Reading

When Cash Rules: A Local Researcher/Activist’s Fieldnotes on “Passive Locals” Living Around Mailiao’s Petrochemical Complex

Yunlin is a coastal county in Western Taiwan famous for its agricultural produce, also known as “the barn of Taiwan.” However, the exchange value of agricultural produce has plummeted significantly since the 1970s. This has led to the outmigration of the underemployed able-bodied rural workforce to the cities, leaving behind the old and the young. As a consequence of this migration and Yunlin’s agricultural history, the county developed a reputation for being backward and poor. Residents of Yunlin have been eager to prove this stereotype wrong. As such, when the siting proposals of the Formosa Plastics Group’s the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant met with vehement protests and refusals from politicians and peoples of other counties, Yunlin enthusiastically jumped at the chance to host the industry and the development, seeing it as an opportunity to refute these stereotypes. The construction of the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant began in 1991, and operation started in 1998. Located on 21km2 of reclaimed land and coastal areas of Mailiao Township in Yunlin, the complex is one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world with a NTD$ 1,500,000,000,000 (approximately USD$ 53,870,625,000) annual revenue, which comprises 10% of the Taiwanese GDP.

While the Sixth Naptha Cracking Plant brought jobs, it also brought controversies over pollution. In 2009, a study conducted by Professor Chang-Chuan Chan from the College of Public Health at National Taiwan University pointed out that industry-related carcinogens detected in the air samples from the vicinity of the plant and heavy metals in the urine samples of local residents had increased significantly since the operation of the complex. This corresponded to a higher incidence of cancer in neighboring communities. This was the first time that the potential industrial hazards of the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant were made public. In 2010-11 there were several industrial explosions that resulted in toxic emissions in the complex. As general awareness about pollution increased amongst the public of Taiwan, the environmental and health controversies surrounding the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant started to attract the attention of activist NGOs and mainstream media, becoming a hotly debated national issue.

A satellite view of the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant in Mailiao, Yunlin on Taiwan, showing coastline, the megaproject, and the surrounding rural settlements.

A satellite view of the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant in Mailiao, Yunlin in Taiwan, showing coastline, the megaproject, and the surrounding rural areas and towns. Source: Screenshot taken from Google Maps.

Strangely, as a Mailiao local, I never encountered any of these discussions at home. I only learned about these controversies during my undergraduate studies at National Taiwan University in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. I returned home, hot-blooded, and determined to “fight the industry,” and “free my people,” I was shocked by the reaction of my friends and family in Mailiao. They not only rejected the findings of Professor Chan and the discourses of environmental NGOs but also criticized them as “outsiders,” seeking to “only come here to blackmail and demand money.” Their attitude caused a profound confusion: Why do my people, some of the most kind-hearted and decent human beings I know, show such animosity to the well-intentioned scientists and activists who try to help us? Is it true that my people have been bought out and that economic incentives have blinded and silenced my people? Or might there be another explanation?

I returned to my home of Mailiao as a graduate field researcher in 2018-19. Through extended fieldwork, I have learned to “become Mailiaoian” again and learned to see things through a new kind of local perspective. A dichotomous characterization of local opinions as simply “for” (bribed) or “against” (not bribed) the industry and development does not get us far in understanding local struggles (or the seeming lack of recognition of any kind of resistance). By attending to the lifeworlds of the people of Mailiao and the ways in which their everyday experiences have become increasingly entangled with and inseparable from the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant, we can start to unpack and make sense of the complex actor-networks and actions (as well as inactions) that at once produce and are reproduced by industrial pollution controversies.

The Formosa Plastics Group vs. Scientist-Activists: A Battle of Knowledge Production and Dissemination

Environmental NGOs base their critique of the Formosa Plastics Group’s Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant on the epidemiological studies conducted by Professor Chan. Chan’s team detected high concentrations of industrial pollutants in the ambient air adjacent to the petrochemical complex and corresponding biomarkers in the residents’ bodies. His team then acquired health statistics from Yunlin County on cancers specifically related to those pollutants from a government database and found a spatial relationship between exposures and outcomes – the health conditions of those who reside closer to the petrochemical complex are more negatively affected. By establishing an association between the emissions of the petrochemical complex, the transmission of air pollutants, industry-related exposures, and health outcomes in local residents, Chan argued that the Formosa Plastics Group’s Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant had contributed to negative environmental and health impacts in surrounding communities, and should be held accountable for doing so.

Existing limitations – such as lack of baseline environmental and health studies, ineffective oversight and monitoring of the petrochemical complex, corporate secrecy over emissions data, as well as the negligence of the state – are instantiations of “undone science” (Hess 2016) which condition the possible course of actions that scientist-activists can take. Scientist-activists cannot establish a “direct” causal relationship between the exposure and outcome for each individual, i.e. prove that a particular event of toxic emission has resulted in a particular disease in a particular individual. Instead, they can only establish an “indirect” causal relationship through epidemiology, i.e. demonstrate that both the industrial pollutants in ambient air and corresponding diseases in the local population reported have increased significantly since the operation of the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant, resulting in a statistically significant temporal and spatial correlation between the exposure and outcome. However, the epistemology and methodology of epidemiology cannot rule out all “uncertainties.” This opens and sustains a space for “epistemic conflicts” (Hess ibid.) that corporate scientists and publicists strategically maneuver.

The Formosa Plastics Group fought back with scientific studies and alternative discourses produced by public health scholars friendly to industry. These scholars criticized Chan’s scientific methods as problematic and conclusions as over-reaching, arguing that epidemiological research is merely a “descriptive tool” and cannot be used to determine “causal relationships” between emissions and disease. At the same time, publicists from the Formosa Plastics Group hammered on corporate commitments and concrete efforts made towards environmental protection and social responsibility. They stressed that the corporation has adopted the most advanced Best Available Control Technology (BACT) and their pollution control and prevention performances have not only surpassed the national official requirements but were also in compliance with those of the most developed countries. They also opined on the fact that this industrial port area is certified as a “first-class water area” (qualified for mariculture and recreation) by Taiwan’s EPA and as an “eco port” by the European Commission, pointing to these credentials and the fact that it also provides uncontaminated wetland habitats for several endangered species as solid proof of the plant’s eco-friendliness. Further, “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) programs, such as offering free health check-ups, community health education on tobacco, alcohol, and diet control, etc. also promoted the idea that health problems are most likely caused by genetics and lifestyle choices of the individuals, or by other-than-industrial pollution sources already identified by the government (e.g. traffic and dust pollution).

What Formosa Plastics Group has done here is nothing new. Harm industries, such as Big Tobacco and Big Oil, have strategically produced and disseminated “uncertainties” and fed on “controversies” in scientific knowledges and practices to avoid regulations and responsibilities (Proctor and Schiebinger 2008). Both Professor Chan’s team and Taiwanese environmental NGOs are familiar with these corporate tactics. Why then did the repertoire of the Formosa Plastics Group work so exceptionally well in Mailiao? How did the people of Mailiao come to trust the knowledges and discourses produced and disseminated by the corporation over those by the scientist-activists? This is particularly curious since most local residents I interviewed have reported “foul smells” and acknowledged that it is impossible for the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant to cause no pollution at all.

Localizing the Corporation/Corporatizing Mailiao

Frequent industrial accidents, such as explosions, fires, and leakages in 2010-11 were watershed events that changed corporate-Mailiao relations. Prior to these disastrous industrial accidents, the Formosa Plastics Group paid little attention to local grievances or demands. The accidents led to unprecedented protests which forced the corporation to change its CSR (corporate social responsibility) policies, especially those regarding the local distribution of jobs and contracts. Although the Formosa Plastics Group had promised to prioritize local hiring since the plant’s inception, this promise was only partially realized due to educational qualifications and quota restrictions. After the industrial accidents, the Formosa Plastics Group outsourced a lot of contacts to local companies owned by local leaders. These local leaders distributed job opportunities to local unskilled workers. At the peak of infrastructural repair, maintenance, and expansion, 20,000 new workers were employed in Mailiao. This also led to a boom in commercial activities and service industries. Mailiao seemed to have become a “lively township that never sleeps” compared to other nearby sleepy townships which didn’t even have convenience stores or night markets. At present, nearly every person in Mailiao has friends or family members who are either directly working for the Sixth Naphtha Plant or indirectly benefiting from it.

Aside from economic integration and redistribution, local leaders/contractors also afforded the Formosa Plastic Group participation in social collaboration and consolidation. They have become the critical “adhesives” between the corporation and the local residents. These local leader-contractors are passionate about partaking in communal affairs. Many of them hold positions in the local government and religious associations, such as in local town halls and communal temples. The Formosa Plastics Group also actively participates in local clan, community development, and agricultural associations. Through the multidimensional ties and networks that the Formosa Plastic Group has cultivated and sustained with the local leaders and associations, the corporation has established legitimacy and local influence.

In addition, coastal Yunlin is often regarded as “the most rural of the rural.” The financial situation of Yunlin County is awful and the local government is severely and chronically under-resourced. When the Formosa Plastics Group expressed a willingness to give back to the township through the local government, many local politicians jumped at the offer. Even now, the Formosa Plastics Group’s yearly donation makes up more than 80% of local government revenue. The corporation offers free electricity and water for local residents, free lunches and scholarships for school children, and handsome subsidies for elderly home care, etc. The corporation also builds community centers, elementary schools, and hospitals in Mailiao to promote the imaginary of “廠鄉一家親” (“the factory and the village are one big family”).

Formosa Plastics Groups’ actions resembles other contexts in which rich powerful corporations replace negligent or weak states as the de facto sovereigns through the provision of critical infrastructure and social welfare (Hansen and Stepputat 2006). As many studies on corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs have shown, transnational corporations often skillfully deploy CSR programs as useful tools to navigate through local socio-political waters and displace/dismiss pollution or exploitation concerns, while establishing themselves as benevolent, charitable “upstanding citizens” (Shever 2010; Bensen and Kirsh 2010). Through economic and socio-political collaborations and entanglements, the Formosa Plastics Group has established the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant as a model for rural development and prosperity. More importantly, the corporate rhetoric of “everyone is Mailiaoian” – which calls to dissolve the factory-village dichotomy and work hand-in-hand together for Mailiao’s shared future – strikes a chord with many of Mailiao’s people. This new material and semiotic articulation of the factory and village as “one” and the factory as “local” is key to understanding the hostility that the local residents come to have towards the scientist-activist groups.

A large fishfarm in front of a horizon of smoke stacks with smoke from the Naphtha Sixth Cracking Plant in Mailiao

A fishfarm nearby the Naphtha Sixth Cracking Plant in Mailiao, Yunlin. Photo Credit: Author.

 

“Local” Industry vs. “Outside” Activism: Why Hasn’t the Anti-Petrochemical Complex Movement Gained Traction Locally?

In 2010, Professor Chan was highly regarded and respected by the locals in Mailiao making the pollution of the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant more public. However, as time passed, local opinions of Chan have deteriorated and many even refuse to collaborate with his follow-up epidemiological research. How did this shift happen? Local leader-contractors and their local employees were critical to these changes. They had better systems for disseminating information and through their influence networks from the Formosa Plastics Group. Whenever a piece of information/opinion that is disadvantageous to the corporation or its petrochemical complex emerges, this local web of actors is able to quickly rebuke it and substitute it with a new piece of information/opinion. In contrast, the scientist-activist groups are mostly urban-based and do not have the time or resources to remain in the area and build trusting ties with the locals. Their lack of local connections, both in breadth and depth, as well as substantial inability to be present over time make effective communication and mobilization extremely difficult.

Aside from the “scientific critiques” of Chan by industry-friendly public health scholars, local politicians also launched media attacks on his personal integrity. They claimed that the Formosa Plastics Group had declined to fund Chan’s 60,200,000,000 NTD (approximately 2,161,673,640 USD) health research project proposal in the past and that Chan has been “fabricating studies” against the corporation ever since as revenge. Chan’s epidemiological studies on the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant since 2009 were all funded by the Yunlin County Government. However, the Yunlin County Government has been receiving large amounts of donations from the Formosa Plastics Group every year. This double role as the financial beneficiary and the legal regulator of the petrochemical complex spurred conspiracy theories about Chan and the county governor colluding to blackmail and demand money from the wealthy Formosa Plastics Group with false pollution claims, i.e. the scientist-governor duo attempting to find faults with the industry just to advance their own prosperity without really caring about the environment or the community.

The locals are skeptical not only of Professor Chan but also of urban environmental NGOs. Many local residents who work at the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant have pointed out that the “outside” activists often hold preconceived biases against the petrochemical industry and base their critiques on “ideologies” rather than “facts.” For example, on the controversies surrounding flaring, outside activists insisted that the smoke emitted from flaring is hazardous, while the local workers contested that the smoke only consists of water vapor and carbon dioxide (precisely because it has to be flared) and that the outside activists are uneducated about the science and technology behind flaring and thus alarmed by the appearance the smoke. These local workers also use their own bodily experiences to refute outside judgments or opinions as exaggerated or unfounded. For example, my cousin, a senior worker at the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant, admits to smelling irritating odors in the petrochemical complex now and again but still claims: “If what the outsiders said is true, how can I be healthy still after working there for more than twenty years?” Further, outside activists’ call to “shut down the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant” is seen as too radical and impractical for many Mailiaoians, whose livelihoods and futures are closely tied to that of the industry. The discourse and language of progressive environmental activism do not meaningfully engage with or respond to their understandings and concerns. As such, activist attempts to mobilize and organize locals against this polluting industry have resulted in repeated frustration and mistrust on both sides.

To many Mailiaoians, the Formosa Plastics Group has made concrete material and semiotic efforts  to “become Mailiaoian” since the industrial accidents in 2010-11 and thus was gradually recognized as an “insider,” while the scientist-activist groups “only show up here once in a blue moon when something goes wrong at the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant” and thus remain “outsiders.” Mailiaoians do not reject science. Rather, the unfamiliar and elusive figures of scientist-activist-outsiders and their hard-to-fathom/unrelatable social movement messaging are what is causing aversion. There are some local residents who are unhappy about the pollution and diseases caused by the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant. However, as Mailiao’s government resources, people’s incomes, and socio-politico-religious ties become deeply entangled with the industry and ‘development,’ most people have chosen to swallow and accept this cold, hard reality.

A businessman looks over the horizon to observe the Naphtha Sixth Cracking Plant in Mailiao, Yunlin, Taiwan.

A business worker observes the Naphtha Sixth Cracking Plant in Mailiao, Yunlin, Taiwan from a distance. Photo Credit: Author.

 

Conclusion

The Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant controversy in Mailiao is not just about a dichotomy between “economic development” and “environmental protection.” The locals’ perceived passiveness or inaction towards the polluting industry cannot be explained by reductionist assumptions, such as being “blinded by money” or “bribed into silence.” Instead, we must pay attention to how each actor-network navigates through and interacts in specific local contexts and how they battle over knowledge production and dissemination in a bid for legitimacy and authority. Following Tsing’s formulation of “contamination as collaboration” (Tsing 2015), I believe that Mailiao and the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant co-produce/keep co-producing each other in unique processes of “contamination-collaboration.” I still remember my shock and anger at my people’s passiveness and inaction towards the polluting industry when I first returned to Mailiao in 2018 as a researcher-activist. As I gradually unpack the complex entanglements my people have with the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant and their seemingly contradictory sentiments around it, I have also come to understand their mistrust and resistance against well-intentioned scientists and activists from the outside. If one spends time in Mailiao, one will realize their local rationales and experiences are not foolish excuses or fantasies, but rather reflect unique industry-village encounters inscribed on environments and bodies. Social justice might have to take on more than one formulation.

 

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!

 


References

Benson, P., and S. Kirsch. 2010. “Capitalism and the Politics of Resignation.” Current Anthropology 51(4): 459-486.

Hansen, T.B. and Stepputat, F. 2006. “Sovereignty revisited”. Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 295-315.

Hess, D. 2016. Undone Science: Social Movements, Mobilized Publics, and Industrial Transitions. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Proctor, R.N. and Schiebinger, L. 2008. Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance. Stanford University Press.

Shever, E. 2010. “Engendering the company: Corporate personhood and the “face” of an oil company in metropolitan Buenos Aires”. Political and Legal Anthropology Review 33(1): 26-46.

Tsing, A. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

 

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