Friday, February 22, 2008

Click for sky lantern

Taiwan Lantern Festival causes concern for environmentalists

By Jonathan Adams
International Herald Tribune, Feb. 20, 2008

PINGSI, Taiwan: On a bridge here one night this week, Candice Lee and Lynn Liu, both 22, giggled as they lit an oil-soaked wad of folded paper at the bottom of a meter-high lantern. Like a hot-air balloon, the illuminated lantern rose from their outstretched hands up into the darkness.

Written in ink on the lantern was a plea to the gods for romantic intervention: "We've been good girls - please send us men."

Every year during the Lantern Festival, thousands of people in Taiwan light such lanterns and send them skyward with prayers - a folk ritual dating back centuries that has counterparts on the mainland, as well as in Japan, Vietnam and Thailand.

In Taiwan, the festival reaches a climax here Thursday, the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar. Some 40,000 to 50,000 people are expected to crowd this former coal-mining community in northeastern Taiwan - the island's "sky lantern" capital - to take part in a mass celebration that will sow the night sky with thousands of incandescent lamps.

If Taiwan's environmentalists had their way, though, at least some of those people would stay home. As an incentive, Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration this year introduced its "virtual sky lantern" Web site, where people can release a digital lantern rather than a real one.

The goal is to blunt what the EPA says is the environmental harm of the festival.

Every year the debris from thousands of burned-out lanterns litters the Taiwan countryside. Some even ignite fires: In 2006, according to press reports, a sky lantern set a field on fire next to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, sending up huge clouds of smoke and forcing officials to temporarily shut a runway.

The virtual lantern campaign is just the latest front in the battle between the island's environmentalists and other activists, on one side, and adherents of traditional folk, Taoist and Buddhist practices on the other.

"Some people say sky lanterns make too much garbage and damage our environment," said Andy Hsiu, of the Taipei County travel and tourism bureau, which promotes the annual festival. "But others think it's not a big problem. They'd rather protect our tradition."

Environmental and other forms of activism gained steam in Taiwan after martial law was lifted in 1987 and the island democratized. Now, Taiwan is trying to strike a balance between activists' demands and respect for cultural traditions that date back centuries. In the process, it is exploring creative compromises like the online sky lantern site, rather than banning traditional practices outright.

Take "ghost money." Like other ethnic Chinese across Asia, Taiwan families, businesses and temples regularly burn paper "ghost" money in ancestor worship and other rituals. During major festivals like the Tomb-Sweeping Day or during Ghost Month (the seventh month of the lunar calendar), smoke from burning paper chokes Taiwan streets.

But environmentalists say the smoke is more than a nuisance; it is a pollutant and health hazard. In 2005, the Consumers' Foundation, a private group, published a study that showed that burning ghost money releases benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals. The study found benzene levels as high as 0.8 parts per million from ghost money burned in an enclosed space. Taiwan's EPA says that all benzene emissions are harmful. Factories can be fined for emitting more than 0.5 parts per million.

City environmental bureaus have taken the lead in trying to curb paper money-burning. Several cities maintain Web sites where users can "virtually" burn ghost money. For several years now Taipei and other cities have offered to collect and burn paper money for residents in environmentally friendlier mass incinerators.

These substitutes appear to be catching on. According to the EPA, ghost money collected by such services has risen from 160 metric tons in 2003 to 4,200 metric tons last year.

"These traditional practices can't be prohibited or stopped all at once," said Harvey Houng, a senior researcher in the EPA's waste management department. "But the alternatives are gradually winning converts from the public."

Even some temples are joining the environmentalist wave.

Last year, the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist group conducted its first-ever "virtual" repentance ritual, in which digitalized images of paper money being burned were shown on a huge screen at its main monastery north of Taipei.

"A lot of Buddhist groups criticized us because it wasn't traditional," said Susan Chen, of Dharma Drum Mountain's international affairs division. "But it's very environmentally friendly."

Animal welfare advocates have a more difficult fight on their hands with the "divine pig" practice. In this tradition of Taiwan's Hakka Chinese ethnic group, pigs are fed to gigantic proportions and then slaughtered to honor ancestral spirits. In recent years, this has turned into a contest to see who can raise the most massive swine.

One winner of a recent contest in Dasi Township, Taoyuan County, weighed in at a whopping 864 kilograms, or 1,900 pounds (pictured above).

Starting in 2004, Buddhists and animal rights advocates began publicly opposing the practice. Some temples have since bowed to the pressure by offering pigs made of rice or other materials. But they are meeting stiff resistance from divine pig-raisers.

"I don't think the 'divine pig' contests will stop in the near future," said Sechin Yeong-shyang Chien, a professor of philosophy and animal ethics at Taipei's Academia Sinica who has spoken out against the practice. "But I think the protests will do some good in raising people's awareness of the issue," he said, adding: "They can realize that there are alternatives."

"People can use vegetarian pigs made from rice to show their piety or worship their gods," he said. "They don't have to put pigs through this cruel process."

Sky lanterns may be another case in which old habits die hard. Lu Cheng-chung, an official at the Pingsi local district office, pointed out there was a strong economic incentive for the practice to continue.

"A lot of people here depend on the sky lantern business to make a living," Lu said.

He and Taipei County officials defended the practice, insisting it was environmentally friendly. Some lantern-selling shops buy back downed lanterns, giving locals a financial incentive to retrieve them. And Lu said more than 100 firefighters would be standing by at the mass lantern-lighting Thursday to put out any accidental blazes.

Down the street, at the lantern shop he has run since 1989, Lin Yi-pei insisted that his lanterns were safe and nonpolluting. He said he sold 2,000 to 3,000 lanterns every festival season at 100 New Taiwan dollars, or $3.15, each. He dismissed the EPA's "virtual" lantern Web site as the work of killjoys.

"Who wants to just click on a computer?" Lin said. "It's not the same, the feeling is different."

Back at the bridge, Candice Lee had her own verdict on the Web site option.

"Boring," she said.

"Very boring," added her friend Lynn Liu.

As their lantern shrank to a distant ember above their heads, they said they would be unlikely to try a virtual substitute.

They will certainly come back again to send up another lantern, Lee said, "if we don't find boyfriends by this time next year."

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