Chern Jenn-chuan, deputy CEO of the Post-Morakot Disaster Reconstruction Council of the central government, bears the heavy burden of responsibility for reconstruction. Without fanfare, he travels back and forth to the front lines of reconstruction, and even on his days off will privately visit areas where there are disputes or controversies in order to build a relationship of mutual understanding with disaster victims. Below is a summary of Chern's responses to questions raised by this reporter about problems seen while visiting the disaster areas.
Q: Would you first please explain the main projects in Aboriginal areas, and what has been accomplished over the past year?
A: Aboriginal villages or households needing to be relocated account for over 14,000 individuals, or three-fourths of all the Morakot disaster victims needing relocation. Reconstruction of their communities is not limited to the "hardware" of putting up houses, there must also be ethnic and cultural reconstruction, plus the task of creating job opportunities and promoting local industries. The situation is very complex.
In order to provide assistance and housing, the government first had to designate the disaster areas, and decide who qualified as a disaster victim. Under the Special Act on Reconstruction Following the Typhoon Morakot Disaster, experts were first to designate so-called "restricted areas" where people used to live but which are now deemed unsafe. However, before financial aid or new permanent housing could be provided, under the Act all the residents of such an area would have to agree to the designation [in the interests of community consensus]. But it was discovered that with this provision in place, it was virtually impossible to get 100% consensus among local residents [because not all residents wanted to leave the zones]. This became a huge obstacle to getting victims resettled.
To avoid creating disharmony, it was decided to respect the will of each individual resident. [However, because the original law still required collective consensus,] in the subordinate regulations under the Act, a loophole was added allowing an area be designated a "high-risk area" instead. This designation requires only a government administrative procedure: evaluation by experts and review and approval by the government. People from areas so designated who had lived in their own houses and had their legal domicile there, and now wanted to relocate, would still be allowed to apply for permanent housing in the lowlands, though they could not receive all the benefits that residents of "restricted areas" would. [Meanwhile, those who didn't want to leave their mountain homes would not be forbidden to move back to these "high-risk areas."]
Even so, each individual victim had their own ideas about whether to relocate or not. People wrestled with this problem for a long time, from last September all the way through to this February, when things were, for the most part, settled.
From the government's point of view, the problem of permanent housing could not be put off, because land had to be sought and houses built. Once the next typhoon season comes, anyone living in the mountains will again have to face the risk of landslides and floods, so we are in a race against time. This makes the situation markedly different from reconstruction after the 921 earthquake [of September 21, 1999].
The government has already decided upon 29 locations for housing reconstruction and approved 2339 permanent homes. Within half a year of the disaster more than 500 households had been moved into permanent housing, and now, a year later permanent housing is ready for 70% of disaster victims.
Q: But it seems that there are still people who do not agree with the policy of directly moving victims into permanent housing.
A: During reconstruction after the 921 earthquake, because of the emergency situation, a lot of temporary prefab housing was put up on land that was not zoned for construction. Later when it came time to rezone the land to make the buildings legal, the problem of land purchase by the government from the owners became very sticky. After a certain period of time, moreover, the housing deteriorated and there were numerous environmental, public health, and structural safety problems. Having learned from the example of 921, after Morakot we made permanent housing the main axis of policy from the start. Fortunately, based on the Morakot Special Act, we were able to simplify land acquisition and permits for housing construction.
Importantly, NGOs took the lead in actual rebuilding. Indeed, it was only because society provided huge resources to NGOs after the typhoon-NT$4.6 billion to Tsu Chi, NT$3.8 billion to the ROC Red Cross, and NT$1.3 billion to World Vision-that it was possible to build so much permanent housing quickly and provide these homes to disaster victims free of charge. If the reconstruction had been done by the government, as it was after 921, because of the Government Assets Law it would have been impossible to give the homes outright to the disaster victims.
Although many experts suggested that the disaster victims be given time to recover before making a decision on where to live permanently, and therefore advised that we build medium-term shelters instead, this was not practical, because, first the special budget for Morakot reconstruction has a time limit of three years, and anyway there wasn't enough money to first build medium-term shelters, then three years later tear them down as required by law and try to find sites to build permanent communities. Recently the three NGOs mentioned above announced that their donated funds had just about run out; if back at the time of the disaster that money had been used to build medium-term shelters, only about half as much permanent housing could have been built.
In the last few months more and more people have moved into permanent housing, so the policy is working out after all.
Q: For Aborigines who move to the lowlands, whether or not they can build stable long-term lives will depend mainly on jobs. What does the government have in mind?
A: For every disaster area, the government has not only laid out a plan for developing new industries such as organic farming, it has also created an integrated route for visitors to see the disaster areas and the progress of reconstruction, providing opportunities for commerce and local businesses that lie along the route. In Kaohsiung County for example, the itinerary begins at the town of Qishan in the south, then follows Provincial Highway 21 northward to Great Love Village, then goes to Yonglin Organic Farm, over the recently reopened Jiaxian Bridge, and finally on to the newly created cultural park and memorial in Xiaolin Village. Along this route you can see the tremendous changes in the environment wrought by the typhoon as well as concrete results of reconstruction efforts. The routes will spark economic activity in the reconstruction zones through six major new industries-including tourism, culture, high-end agriculture, and so on.
We have found that we need to reevaluate funding priorities because, out of the NT$11.4 billion that was budgeted for local industries, over NT$9 billion has been used for compensating farmers for losses suffered in the typhoon, while too little has been invested in generating new economic activity. Without funding for the latter, it will be very hard for the new communities to thrive. If these people who have already faced the trauma of relocating to the lowlands have problems getting good jobs and making a living, inevitably they will want to go back to their old homes in the mountains [which remain highly vulnerable to disasters].
Q: What ideas does the government have for revitalizing industries in the mountain areas?
A: Funding is already inadequate for developing local industries in the lowlands, so the same applies to mountain areas. However, the Council for Indigenous Peoples and the Council of Agriculture have always had budgets for mountain-area economic development, and we are now figuring out how best to use this money. For example, if the CIP's "one special local industry per township" project could be refocused to the disaster areas, then we will have a synergy effect.
In addition, we have to maintain communications as much as possible. We are doing our best to keep roads open so that farm products can be brought down from the mountains. And some private actors are providing facilities for processing mountain products. But looking at the long term, inevitably the main direction for the future will be assisting disadvantaged mountain residents to move to the lowlands.