Maintaining the Natural Beauty of Penghu

Tuesday, 25 April 2006 00:00 Tzu Chi Foundation
Penghu County, located off the southwestern coast of Taiwan, covers an archipelago that consists of 64 isles of different sizes. People call them "the Chrysanthemum Islands" or "the Wind Islands" and liken them to "a string of emerald pearls strewn on the sea" to extol their unpolluted natural beauty. White sandy beaches, blue coasts, columnar basalt formations, and fields blanketed with blooming wild daisies make the archipelago a charmingly attractive place to visit.

Salty winds from the sea blow across Penghu County all year long, stunting the growth of crops. Unable to live by agriculture, the residents make their livelihood from the sea. Since living off the sea depends on the quirks of nature, life is not easy for the Penghu people. Fortunately, the beautiful scenery of the islands has allowed tourism to flourish, bringing in money for the locals.

Tourism has helped support the local economy, but it has also changed the scenery and ecology of the islands. As sightseers throng to Penghu, the increasing amount of garbage mars the breathtaking landscape of the Chrysanthemum Islands.

Not wanting to stand by and watch their homeland being inundated by garbage, a group of locals are working to restore the beauty of Penghu. They pick up PET bottles stuck in the cracks of rocks, gather used cardboard boxes, and set up recycling bins for tourists to throw empty bottles in. They also sort out the recyclables and transport them, by truck or by boat, to collection centers.

Rolling up their sleeves, bending down, picking up one discarded bottle after another--these people are recreating a Penghu with untainted landscape and a clean, sparkling sea. In the following pages, we will report on the recycling efforts of the people (focusing on two places--Niaoyu and Magong), and see how they try to make a difference in the world with their seemingly insignificant but actually immensely important actions.

Tourists and Garbage in NIAOYU
When our boat sailed into a small port on one of the isles in Penghu County, we saw a bird sculpture standing on the shore looking out toward the sea. "Welcome to Niaoyu ["the island of birds"]"--a sign told us we had arrived at a little island which used to be home to countless birds but now contains a fishing village.

As soon as we stepped onshore, the smell of fish greeted us. In a large square, some fisherwomen were turning over dried fish with a rake. The scales of the fish, reflecting light from the sun, glistened brightly. In front of a house, a woman was picking and sorting through a basin of spiral shells. Several children were playing not far away, adding merriment to the otherwise peaceful atmosphere.

The houses in Niaoyu face the sea, and the main road of the village runs right in front of the wharf. As you stroll down the main road, you see black barrels every ten meters (33 feet) or so along the way. Turn off the main road and into the alleys, and you see even more barrels standing at the street corners. A closer inspection reveals that all the barrels are full of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, or steel containers. It's a bumper harvest!

Though inconspicuous, the barrels play an important role in the island's recycling work. They guard the environment of Niaoyu like dutiful sentinels.

A landfill about to burst
Covering an area of more than 20 hectares (50 acres), Niaoyu has a population of 1,000. Ever since the first settlers arrived on the island, the local people have made their living from the sea. They lead a simple, regular life, going to work early in the morning and coming home after dark.

In recent years, such a simple lifestyle has begun to change. Since Niaoyu started developing its tourist industry, a large number of vacationers have visited the island, attracted by the basalt formations that form the special geographical scenery of the island. With the tourists comes the garbage. Plastic bags, soft drink cans, and glass wine bottles litter the beach. Recyclable items such as cardboard boxes are piled high in front of the local temple and by the wharf, along with other unrecyclable trash.

Three years ago, members of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association came to Niaoyu to conduct a free clinic. Alarmed by the garbage problem, they encouraged residents to engage in recycling and turn the rubbish into a valuable resource. Responding to their call, Shi Long-er, who had always been civic-minded, volunteered to pitch in.

"I started by collecting used cardboard boxes," said Shi. "Then it occurred to me I should invite others to join me since the work was too much for me to do by myself, so I went to Wu Jia-xin and asked for his help." Shi and Wu, both natives of Niaoyu, lived next door to each other. Besides being a fisherman, Shi was also the chief commissioner of the local temple, and so he was very busy. Thus he asked Wu to work with him to promote recycling work on the island.

Shi also asked other villagers to help. With the amount of garbage rapidly increasing, they knew they could no longer sit back and look on nonchalantly, so most of them were willing to lend a hand. Besides, the village's landfill, which opened only 10 years ago, was almost filled to the brim. Something had to be done to help solve the problem.

Throw them in
Shi thought of a way to inculcate the habit of recycling among the villagers: he placed black barrels on which was written "Tzu Chi Recycling Bin" along the streets for people to throw recyclable resources in.

"These black barrels were actually discarded water cisterns," Shi observed. "They have a large capacity and suit our purpose well. I put them along the streets and told the villagers to put unwanted PET bottles, steel containers, or aluminum cans in them. The barrels are near the villagers' homes, so it isn't much trouble for them to take recyclable items out to the barrels. Gradually, everyone got into the habit of recycling."

"We also collect wastepaper," Shi added. In the past he would buy string to tie up the paper, but now even the string is gathered from garbage. "In this way, we don't produce any more garbage during recycling, and we can save some money." He pointed to a bicycle perched nearby. "Every one or two weeks I ride around the village. When I see any recyclables, I put them in my bicycle basket and bring them back." What he referred to as his "basket" was actually a barrel that had been cut in half--it had also been salvaged from the trash.

After all the recyclables are collected and sorted out, they are transported to Magong, the largest city in Penghu County. "I have a boat, so I could easily deliver the recyclables myself, but then nobody else would have the chance to help. So I asked other boat owners if they were willing to help transport the recyclables, and almost all of them said yes. So you see, most people have a good heart."

While there were people who gladly pitched in to help, there were also people who questioned Shi's motives. He once heard people say something like, "Perhaps he profits from the recycling effort, otherwise how can he be so enthusiastic about it?" In order to prove that he and the other recycling volunteers are not doing the work for personal gain, he makes a point of posting the donation receipts made out by Tzu Chi on the village bulletin board to show that all the proceeds obtained from selling the recyclables are donated to the charity foundation.

"Why do we give? That's because there's love in our heart. I know my conscience is clear, and that's enough," said the sturdy fisherman.

One evening in July, Shi strolled down the main road of the village, inspecting the black barrels along the way. "They're almost full. It's time to collect the recyclables and sort them out." He and a few friends got a cart, put a large empty barrel on it, and then walked towards the places where the recycling barrels were placed.

Soon, Shi and his friends had finished collecting the garbage and transported it to a vacant lot by the wharf. Shi then went along the street, knocking on doors and calling, "Time to do recycling!" Neighbors opened their doors and waved to him with smiles on their faces.

Going back to the wharf, Shi and a friend emptied out the barrels packed with recyclables. PET bottles, soft drink containers, and iron boxes cascaded out. Soon a large sea of recyclables appeared before us.

"The neighbors here are very obliging. They always put down their work and come here to help in the evenings." No sooner had Shi said this than we saw several people walking toward the wharf from a short distance away.

Among them was a rubicund, middle-aged fisherwoman named Shi Pei. Wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat and over-sleeves to protect her from the sun, she had come directly from the seaside where she worked. Bending down to the pile of recyclables, she picked up one bottle after another and unscrewed the caps. She moved briskly and adroitly. Speaking of her participation in the recycling work, she said, "As the saying goes: those who have money can contribute money, and those who have strength can contribute strength. We're simply giving our bit and doing whatever little we can." Bathed in sweat, she gave a sonorous laugh.

Hong Yu-hui, who works at a tourist boat company owned by her husband, separated steel cans from plastic bottles while talking on her cell phone. Although she had gotten off work, there was still some business to attend to. "I'm happy to come here and help," she said after finishing the call. "Doing recycling is like cleaning our own homes. In a way, we're helping to save the earth."

"There's so much garbage in Niaoyu," said Shi Qing-shuang, another villager who had come to help. "We should've started doing recycling a long time ago." She has a recycling bin behind her house. When she goes to the seaside to collect spiral shells, she also picks up discarded plastic bowls and glass bottles that litter the beach.

More than 20 people had gathered at the wharf to classify the recyclables. Unscrewing caps, sorting aluminum cans from plastic bottles, stepping on them to flatten them, counting the number of bottles.... With the united efforts of the villagers, the sea of garbage gradually dwindled away. When dusk descended, the work was finished. People started leaving in twos and threes. Shi stood under a street lamp wiping his face. "After supper, it's time for me to go out to sea." When his boat returned the next day, he would transport the recyclables to Magong.

Led by Shi, we came to the grocery store owned by Wu Jia-xin's family. Wu, who together with Shi had started the recycling program in Niaoyu, had died of a heart attack just a few days before. Wu's wife took out a group picture and pointed to her husband in the picture--a dark-complexioned man with an amiable smile on his face. "He was always like that--always enthusiastic about village affairs."

Shi's eyes filled with tears when he began to talk about Wu. He said that Wu was a considerate person who always showed concern for the welfare of others and that he was highly regarded in the village. Before they initiated the recycling program on the island, Wu had been in the habit of picking up discarded glass bottles at the wharf to prevent people from stepping on them and getting hurt. "The pontoons at the wharf were also made by Jia-xin. He fashioned them out of Styrofoam, plastic barrels, and wooden planks to make it easier for people to get on and off a boat." A woman who happened to be shopping at the store gave a thumbs-up at the mention of Wu's name. "Even a three-year-old knew who Jia-xin was. He was a really enthusiastic person."

Needless to say, Shi and Wu played indispensable roles in the island's recycling work. Weng Xiu-zhen, a recycling volunteer, commented on these two good friends: "Shi, full of energy, is a guiding force for the recycling activities on the island. As for Wu, he often did things quietly and was popular with the villagers. The close cooperation between the two was crucial for the success of the recycling activities in our community."

Although Wu is dead, he still lives in the loving memory of the villagers, who will undoubtedly carry on the work he left unfinished.

At the wharf where many boats were moored, we saw the reflection of the moon in the water. In a few hours, Shi's boat, loaded with recyclables, would sail toward Magong in the early morning light.

An Old Veteran in MAGONG
It was 4:00 p.m., and the afternoon sun slanted across the Magong Recycling Station. A truck full of flattened cardboard boxes backed into the station. Chen Xin-ji, a recycling volunteer, climbed onto the truck and covered the load of cardboard boxes with a net. Fastening the net to the sides of the truck, he remarked, "It's very windy here in Magong. Securing the recyclables with nets will keep them from being blown away."

Off to one side, some female volunteers were squatting on the ground, deftly sorting PET bottles. In an indoor area, several dark-skinned elderly men were taking apart copper wires and electronic appliances. Their swarthy complexion led me to conclude that they were fishermen. Upon inquiry, they confirmed that they indeed used to make a living from the sea.

One of the volunteers, Chen Qiu-ji, remarked, "I used to work on an ocean liner. Now that I'm retired, it's nice that I can come here and keep myself occupied." Today, Chen is always the first to come to the recycling station and the last to leave. He is really dedicated to the recycling work.

The Magong Recycling Station, now bustling with life, was not always like this. Eight years ago, it was still a "wasteland" as the idea of recycling and environmental protection was still new to the local residents.

Tourists and garbage
In 1998, Chen Jin-hai, a Tzu Chi recycling volunteer, paid a visit to Magong. At the time, the foundation had already been promoting recycling in Taiwan for eight years. When Chen saw how the amount of garbage was multiplying in Magong following the development of tourism, he encouraged local Tzu Chi volunteers to recycle resources and help protect the environment. Thus the recycling program was started in Magong.

Xu Jin-feng recalled how she came to join the program. Eight years ago, her husband had just passed away. Tzu Chi volunteer Xu Wang-shi saw how depressed she was and invited her to join in the recycling effort. Xu and another volunteer, Weng Xiu-zhen, would patrol the streets of Magong by motorbike, and when they saw any plastic bottles or aluminum cans at the side of the road, they would pull over and pick them up. They also rummaged in roadside garbage cans for recyclable resources. "At first, we felt embarrassed about doing that. We'd wait until no one was around before we sorted through the cans and ferreted out the recyclables."

As time went by, more and more recycling points were set up in Magong and more volunteers joined in to help. With the recycling effort gathering steam, the Magong Recycling Station was established and went into operation last year. Today, trucks make daily trips to hospitals, stores, and other places to collect recyclable garbage. With the help of volunteers like Xu Jin-feng and Weng Xiu-zhen, the recycling scene in Penghu has come to be full of life and vigor.

An old veteran in the market
At 10:00 a.m., the Beichen Market in Magong is bustling with people. People's voices mingle with car noises, the smell of fish mixes with the aroma of food, vendors hawk their goods, vegetables of different colors lie enticingly in different stalls, housewives weave in and out of the crowds looking for the items on their grocery lists--what a lively spectacle!

Wearing a smile, Xue Pei-qi pushes a cart loaded with cardboard into this scene. Although he is already 78 years old, his steps are firm and steady. He comes to the market every morning to gather recyclable resources. One can often see him slitting open cardboard boxes and loading heavy piles of cardboard onto his cart. When vendors bring him empty bottles, cartons or cans, he always folds his palms and says "Thank you" politely to express his gratitude.

Xue used to be a vendor in the Beichen Market after he retired from the military with the rank of major. For more than 30 years he sold vegetables in the market to support his family. After his children had all grown up, he began thinking about retiring and leading a carefree life. Just then his wife, Zhang Feng-yu, introduced him to Tzu Chi's environmental protection work, and he consequently became a recycling volunteer. "My wife and I were already in the habit of collecting recyclables when we sold vegetables in the market. So when people invited us to engage in recycling four years ago, we agreed without any hesitation."

But where should they start? In Xue's opinion, the market was the best place. "Because I sold vegetables, I knew when the ships from Taiwan came in and when their cargo was unloaded. The cardboard boxes containing the cargo would just be thrown away if we didn't collect them and put them to good use. So I thought of starting by gathering those." However, it is not an easy task to put cardboard boxes in order. "As you can see, some of the boxes are very dirty and some are wet and as soft as pulp. Besides, there are always so many of them. It takes a lot of time, energy, and patience to sort them out."

Even so, he always single-handedly sorts out all the recyclables with no need of help from others. He can work for three to four hours nonstop.

A modest attitude
We followed Xue as he wove his way through the market. After stopping at a vegetable stall to collect some boxes from a peddler, he slit them open, flattened them, and put them on his cart. A young woman selling sunglasses at a nearby stall walked toward Xue to give him a hand. "He works so hard. I've been doing business here for several months, and I see him collecting resources here every day."

Xue proceeded farther into the market, gathering empty jars, string, and other recyclables along the way. An elderly woman passing by greeted him. A middle-aged vendor gave him a thumbs-up, saying, "Nice job. You're good." Smiling shyly back, Xue kept pushing his cart, which was getting heavier as the morning went by. Almost everyone in the market knew him and praised him highly. It must have had to do with his admirable work attitude, which he had acquired while he was in the army.

Xue recollected that he was stationed on the island of Kinmen when the famous artillery duel broke out on August 23, 1958. (The barrage lasted 44 straight days, during which the Chinese Communists fired more than 474,000 shells at Kinmen.) The troops under Xue's command were responsible for moving artillery shells. His soldiers carried one shell at a time, making slow headway. Seeing this, Xue began carrying two artillery shells at a time, hoping to speed up the work. When the soldiers saw him do that, they followed suit and began to move two shells at a time. "What should have taken four hours to finish was done in less than three hours. It demonstrated how important it is to lead by setting a good example ourselves first."

He applied his work attitude in the army to his recycling work at the market. "At the start, when I asked the vendors for recyclables, they refused to give them to me. It was not until they saw how hard I worked that they began to give me recyclable items. In the end, they even helped me on their own initiative."

Xue is polite and modest, which accounts for his popularity at the market. A vendor once said to Weng Xiu-zhen, a senior Tzu Chi volunteer, "Does that elderly man who collects recyclables work for Tzu Chi? He's a really nice man, very humble and amiable."

Hearing the compliments, Xue remarked, "As the saying goes, the humble receive benefit while the conceited reap failure. When I was young and selling vegetables at the market, I used to fight with other vendors to win customers. But now I treat everyone politely and thank them sincerely for their help. No matter how difficult a person is, as long as you treat him or her with a polite, humble attitude, everything will turn out all right."

Donating time, energy, and land
When Xue first started collecting recyclable resources for Tzu Chi, there was no fixed recycling station to store the resources in. All the items collected were placed in the open, exposed to the elements. If they were not tightly tied up, the strong wind in Penghu could easily blow them all over the place.

"No recyclers wanted to purchase wet paper, so when the paper we collected got wet on rainy days, we had to spread it out and let it dry in the sun as soon as the weather cleared up. But the paper often got blown all over the place when it got windy, creating a great mess. And the local residents often complained to us about it." After doing recycling for some time, Xue knew that they had to find some way to solve the problem. "I talked to a senior Tzu Chi volunteer about the possibility of setting up a recycling station. I told her that all of us recycling volunteers worked very hard, but we didn't even have a place to rest. I hoped we could set up a recycling station.

But it took land and money to establish a recycling station, and it was especially difficult to obtain suitable land. After talking it over with his wife, Xue decided to donate a plot of ground located in the downtown area of Magong to Tzu Chi. With the money contributed by other Tzu Chi volunteers, the Magong Recycling Station was set up.

"Although our recycling station is not large, it meets our needs perfectly," said Xue. "We sort out recyclables on the first floor, and we use the second floor as a meeting room. Because the station is near the market where I work, it's convenient for me to transport what I collect at the market to the station. In the afternoons, Tzu Chi volunteers come to the station to help sort out garbage. With their help, I no longer have to work as hard as before."

A strong body
Xue finally finished his rounds in the market. With his cart brimming over with recyclables, his shirt all drenched in sweat, he strode in the direction of the recycling station. When he saw that the traffic light was about to change from green to red, he broke into a run and deftly pushed the cart, which weighed more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds), across the street. When he had arrived at the station, he pushed everything off the cart with one shove. Xue is nearly 80 years old, but his tremendous physical strength and energy certainly belie his age.

There is no lack of recycling volunteers in Tzu Chi who are as old as Xue, but very few can compete with him in physical strength. Xue himself contributes his ebullient vigor to his habit of regular exercise.

We went with Xue to his clean, bright dwelling. He took out a large album in which were pasted many photos and newspaper clippings that recorded his participation in different long-distance races. "This one shows me taking part in a 21-kilometer run; it took me two hours and 14 minutes to finish. In this photograph, I'm in a 10-kilometer race...." Every picture documented an unforgettable experience.

Every evening, Xue goes out to exercise. "We need to exercise regularly to keep fit. My good health is the reason I can keep on doing recycling." In addition to this work, Xue goes to an old folks' school, and he also does Chinese calligraphy as a hobby. He is full of passion for things. His curious and open heart nurtures his wisdom and keeps him forever full of vitality.

A change of heart
Xue recalled an episode that happened when he first started doing recycling.

Because he used to be a market vendor, he knew how to tie cardboard into neat bundles. He tended to make very large bundles because he was strong and did not find it difficult to move them. However, this was not the case for the other volunteers.

One day a piece of paper was pasted on a wall of a recycling point. It read, "Please make the bundles smaller. Thank you." When Xue saw the paper, he thought to himself, "Who cares about you? As long as it's convenient for me, I'll do things the way I like."

But another day, some volunteers came to the recycling point to take away the recyclables that had been sorted out and bundled up. It took two or even three of them to lift one bundle, which Xue could easily pick up single-handedly. "Seeing them moving the bundles with such difficulty, I began to feel bad about it. I thought to myself that the bundles I made were really too heavy. I shouldn't have been so stubborn and ignored that piece of paper." After that episode, he began to change his attitude.

By dedicating his retired life to environmental protection, Xue has learned to be a more modest and amiable person. "Master Cheng Yen teaches us not to lose our temper and to constantly reflect on ourselves. That has a great influence on me. I must do more and say less, so I can learn more." His silvery white hair seemed to be radiating the light of wisdom.

By Lai Yi-ling
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
Photographs by Yen Lin-zhao

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