Tears of Little Liuqiu

Vase Rock is a natural landmark on the islet of Little Liuqiu. The islet and its local ecology remained pristine for as long as anyone could remember—until hordes of tourists started coming.

Prosperity vs. Pollution

The islet of Little Liuqiu lies just eight nautical miles (9.3 miles)—or a 30-minute boat ride—from the southwestern coast of Taiwan. It is tiny, with an area of only 6.8 square kilometers (2.6 square miles) and a population of 12,000 people. The ocean that surrounds this coral reef isle is warmer than anywhere else around Taiwan. The warm water, never dropping below 25° Celsius (77° Fahrenheit), has enriched the area’s oceanic ecology.

Little Liuqiu has become a vacationers’ paradise in recent years. The government has been promoting tourism for the islet, which became part of the Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area in 2000. As a result, tourists have poured in: 400,000 visits in 2016 alone. That is about 7,700 visitors per week.

Commerce has always followed people. Local residents have built up lodging, transportation, food service, and all other manner of services designed to accommodate the influx of tourists. Many B&Bs have sprung up—from five establishments years ago to several hundred today—and jobs have become more available. Many young people from Little Liuqiu have given up their careers on the main island of Taiwan and moved back to the islet to work.

While tourism has brought prosperity to Little Liuqiu, it has also brought another unwelcome guest: pollution. Garbage, air pollution from vehicles, noise, and wastewater have become issues that the isle must deal with now.


A Small But Determined Group

Tourists from Taiwan and beyond board boats at Donggang, Pingtung County, southwestern Taiwan, for a ride to the fishing port at Baishawei on Little Liuqiu. From there, they disperse to their various destinations around the islet.

The multitudes of sightseers invariably create and leave behind a large amount of garbage. A small group of local people have been quietly and routinely picking up after them. They collect recyclable garbage, sort it out, and then have it shipped to Donggang for further processing. They are Tzu Chi recycling volunteers.

Compared to the large number of tourists leaving behind so much garbage, the Tzu Chi group is very small, just a couple of dozen people. Nevertheless, they have been a welcome force that has assisted municipal workers to keep their communities cleaner. They have been at it for 20 years now.

These volunteers have front row seats to view the impact that the booming tourism business has on the local environment. They see firsthand the magnitude of the garbage problem and the reality that, despite their best efforts, they can never pick up garbage as fast as the tourists can throw it away.

This realization, far from discouraging them, has strengthened their resolve to work harder and stay the course.


A Mountain to Move

Little Liuqiu used to have a garbage incinerator, but that facility was shuttered more than a decade ago. There was not enough garbage to keep it busy, it was too costly to pay a staff to keep the machinery running, and the humid, salty air corroded the equipment.

Even though the incinerator is out of commission, the rate at which garbage is generated has never ceased or decreased. On the contrary, it has only sped up with the influx of vacationers. The government has to spend about ten million Taiwanese dollars (US$330,000) a year to ship the island’s garbage to Pingtung County to have it incinerated at a facility in the town of Kanding.

A large tract of land, home to all kinds of garbage, now sits not far from the old incinerator in Little Liuqiu. The site used to be a swamp, but unceasing dumping of garbage has created a mountain of trash there. The site was intended for discarded building materials, large pieces of furniture, boats, and so on, but since there is little oversight of the area, many people go there and dump all kinds of garbage.

Volunteer Li Hong Jin-shan (李洪金善), in her 60s, visits this dump every day. She braves the foul odor and extracts, one piece at a time, useful things from the piles of rubbish.

Her efforts notwithstanding, over the last 20 years the mountain has not seemed to be getting any smaller. She knows that she will probably not live to see the day when, if ever, this site is restored to a swamp. At the pace that things are going—the incoming speed of new garbage in relation to the outgoing speed of extracted recyclables—she will probably never be able to shrink the piles, much less eliminate them. Still, she keeps at it. What keeps her coming back day after day is that she loathes the thought of leaving such an ugly site to future generations. The mountain of garbage is not only ugly but abhorrently stinky.

She has never been able to make sense of the wastefulness that abounds in modern consumerism. But still she will be here again tomorrow to move the mountain.


Guarding His Hometown

Chen Shou-shan (陳壽山) has been engaged in recycling for 20 years and has been instrumental in maintaining the Tzu Chi recycling effort on Little Liuqiu. Once a fisherman, Chen now devotes himself to the preservation of the ocean and the island.

One day we tagged along as he drove his truck to pick up recyclables at locations on a route. He had purchased it himself out of his own pocket for the purpose of collecting recyclables.

Looking out the window as he drove, he told us some of the difficulties that he and his fellow volunteers have encountered in recent years. In the past, they had been successful in engaging local residents to help with recycling. Working together, they had been able to effectively tackle the recyclable garbage on the island. But as tourism became big business, the influx of visitors threw that recycling equation out of balance. Many local residents have gone into business to cater to the needs of the tourists. They have gone into lodging, food, leisure, or entertainment services. Whatever their business, their new endeavors have effectively taken them out of recycling work, and at the same time hordes of tourists have kept adding a lot of new garbage. The increase in tourism has been a double whammy for the recycling volunteers—fewer people handling a lot more garbage.

It is easy to understand the heavy burden that Chen has had to shoulder, but he has not wavered. He just keeps doing the best he can. He knows that when he gives up on recycling, he also gives up on guarding his own hometown.


Let’s All Do Our Duty

Some recyclable garbage on Little Liuqiu is collected by volunteers who go around the streets looking for it, but mostly volunteers rely on local residents and businesses, such as B&B’s and shops, to give them their recyclable things. Volunteers visit fixed locations to pick up recyclables when they have accumulated to a certain amount. Then they deliver them to a central location for further sorting and shipping back to Taiwan.

For eight years, that central location was a recycling station on a tract of land that the owner let Tzu Chi use free of charge. But the recycling station had to be closed down in 2015 when the owner took the land back. Since that time, collected recyclables have been stored in the garage and open vacant space at Chen’s home. This constitutes yet another challenge for the volunteers as they struggle to keep doing what is good for the environment.

It is going to take more than the small number of volunteers to protect the environment of Little Liuqiu. If local residents and tourists alike could alter their behavior, it would go a long way toward reducing the garbage. For example, they could cut down on the consumption of bottled water and avoid using disposable eating utensils as much as they can.

Only when as many people as possible get involved can environmental protection activities make a meaningful dent.



The recyclables that the volunteers collect and sort out are put into large bulk bags, which are later loaded onto a boat to ship back to Taiwan. A new bulk bag costs about two American dollars. Since the volunteers need these bags on a long-term basis, the cost can add up, so they have always tried to avoid this expenditure if they can. Instead, Chen scavenges for discarded big bags to use. Often the ones he finds are tattered and dirty, but he is quite all right with that. He simply washes them and mends them like a tailor.

Chen, a former fisherman, showed us some nylon threads that are commonly used in making or mending fishing nets. He seeks out fishermen who are willing to give him the nylon threads that they no longer want. Then he uses the threads to mend the tears or gaping openings in the big bags that he has scavenged. With just a few stitches, a tattered bag becomes good enough for the job at hand: to securely hold recyclable items inside. It may not be pretty, but the outward appearance of the final product is not a concern in the grand scheme of things.

The volunteers indeed live out the true meaning of “reuse.”


The Beauty and Sorrow
of Little Liuqiu

All recycling volunteers are Little Liuqiu natives. They were born there and grew up there. They all knew their islet when it was still pristine, and they realize the sad extent of pollution now. They love this place, and they hope that their efforts may somehow slow the speed of the degradation.

They point out that in recent years they have collected recyclable garbage thrown out mainly by two groups of people. The first group are the tourists. They discard the most garbage, of which PET water and beverage bottles are the undisputed volume leader. The second group, B&B owners, throw out mostly empty containers of detergent, bleach, and other cleaning agents.

To the volunteers, those containers of chemicals, though already empty, may as well be full of unseen terrors. For each such empty container reclaimed by the volunteers, a whole bottle of chemicals has been discharged into the environment. There is no sewage treatment system on Little Liuqiu, so if the current situation continues, the beloved ocean will one day cease to be beautiful.


A Bodhisattva Boat

After having been sorted out and placed into big bags, the recyclables are ready to be shipped back by boat to Donggang. Usually it takes about a month for the volunteers to accumulate enough for one trip.

On the day before each shipment, volunteers truck in the bulk bags of recyclable articles to the pier at Dafu Port. Then they load the bags onto a boat there so the recyclables can be shipped to Donggang the next morning. They have always used the same boat, the Gongcheng, which has served the volunteers on Little Liuqiu for nearly 20 years.

Owner and Captain Huang Di-fang (黃地芳) offered this ferry service to Tzu Chi free of charge. He retired about a decade ago, and his son has continued to provide that free service. A trip between Dafu and Donggang costs about US$300. If not for the generosity of the two captains, the shipment costs would be a large burden for the volunteers. “We wouldn’t know how to carry on our recycling effort if we didn’t have their free service,” they said gratefully.

Good-hearted people like the Huangs have constituted a different but impressive part of the beauty of Little Liuqiu.

Summer 2017