Trans-Disciplinary Science Communications(8):When Uncle Stone Meets Taipei Frog —A Case Study of the Taipei Frog Conservation Project

Author|蔡明燁 (Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley)
Research Fellow
Institute of Communications Studies
University of Leeds

• The Chinese version of this article and podcast can be accessed here: http://case.ntu.edu.tw/shs/?p=9950

Background to this article and podcast

The Taipei Frog Conservation Project Part I

The Taipei Frog Conservation Project Part II

When I accepted the invitation to write a “Trans-Disciplinary Science Communications” column for the Society-Humanity-Science (SHS) Program website in late 2011, I took the assignment seriously.My intentions are three-fold: (1) The column offers me a strong motivation to pursue actively the meaning of “Trans-Disciplinarity”. (2) I aim to survey as widely as possible — from the past and the present and from different countries — examples of what effective “Science Communications” may achieve in different social and cultural contexts; and (3) I also use the column as a platform to try and experiment innovative methods of “Trans-Disciplinary Communications”. Therefore I began producing podcasts to complement my articles.

I have learned two vital lessons from writing the column and producing related podcasts, namely the nature of the medium and the importance of targeted audiences. Firstly, podcasts, as audio platforms, are very different from written texts. If I simply read my article out loud and record it as a podcast, it seems to minimize the effect of podcast as a medium. Hence ideally the design of the article and the podcast should be an integrated but independent process. Their contents may be relevant and complementary to each other, but at the same time they should be a complete product in their own right. Secondly, my column is mainly written in Complex Chinese characters as the targeted audience are the Chinese communities (especially the communities in Taiwan). Nevertheless the ultimate goal of the SHS Program — the promotion and implementation of Trans-Disciplinary Education (TDE) — and many case studies I have encountered embody a quality of universality. I believe that not only the SHS Program will benefit from international outreach, but also the international communities will benefit from the discoveries of the SHS Program as new perspectives can often trigger deeper reflection and inspire further creativity.

Taipei Frog.(Photo credit﹕VeloBusDriver@Flickr)

I came across the Taipei Frog Conservation Project in summer 2011 when I conducted a series of interviews with Public Television Service and the Government Information Office regarding science communications in Taiwan. The empirical experience of the Project offers me an invaluable insight on the application of Network Theory. It demonstrates that economic development does not necessarily stand in opposition to environmental protection. The Taipei Frog Conservation Project did not enjoy a smooth start in 1999. However when the agents involved were able to recognise mutual connections and to establish a network that includes different interest groups with a common goal, a much more desired outcome finally began to be produced in 2004.

As one of the most successful “Trans-Disciplinary Science Communications” case studies available in Taiwan today, the Taipei Frog Conservation Project deserves wider discussion and a closer analysis from a variety of disciplines. Moreover, long-term observation of the progress of the Project should be maintained as circumstances may continue to change and the agents will need to adapt to new conditions.

Taipei Frog

American naturalists first discovered Taipei Frog (Rana taipehensis) in the rural area of Taipei in 1908. The same species can also be found in Southeast Asia, Southern mainland China and South Asia. Taipei Frog is one of the smallest frogs in the world. Its slender, greenish brown body is only 3-4 centimetres long. On the sides of its body are two black and white stripes. Its long limbs allow it to jump a good distance. Its insect-like chirp is so weak that it is easily obscured by the croak of other frogs.

Around 30 years ago, Taipei Frog was very commonly seen in wetlands and paddy fields in western Taiwan from the north to the south. During the daytime, they usually hide among the brushes by clean ponds or among the roots of plants. However the frogs are sensitive to environmental change. Pesticides, land development and road construction have all threatened their survival. By the end of the 20th century, the number of Taipei frogs has dramatically reduced to the brink of extinction. There are now only four habitats left in Taiwan: Sanzhi and Longtan in the north, as well as Guantian and Neipu in the south.

In Sanzhi, Taipei Frog’s habitat is a lotus farm. The farmer, Mr Yang Wen-shi, known as Uncle Stone, is over 80 years-old. He is hard-working and stubborn. He gets up at 4 or 5 o’clock each morning to take care of his field (altogether around one hectare) and he doesn’t get to rest until about 10 o’clock at night.

The researchers in Taipei Zoo discovered Taipei Frog in Uncle Stone’s lotus farm in 1999. They were shocked by the results of a survey found that the number of Taipei frogs became less than 50 in 2000. Thus the Leader of Animal Section of Taipei Zoo, Mr Lin Hua-ching, contacted the Council of Agriculture of the Executive Yuan and initiated the Taipei Frog Conservation Project.

Initially the experts took a rather simplistic approach. They tried to persuade Uncle Stone, who was 76 years-old at the time, to stop using pesticides in his lotus field by offering him a subsidy. But by then Uncle Stone had already accumulated 20 some years of farming experiences and it was the first time that he ever heard of the term, Taipei Frog. He was not convinced by the experts’ recommendation at all. Others also suggested Mr Lin that he either rent the lotus farm from Uncle Stone or move the Taipei frogs to Taipei Zoo in order to ensure the smooth operation of the Conservation Project.

Fortunately Mr Lin decided to try a new approach. He recognised that there have been too many incidents in Taiwan where environmental interests clash with economic interests. When such contradiction occurs, it usually ends in government compensation or violent confrontation. People rarely learn anything positive throughout the process or feel encouraged by the consequences produced. Mr Lin is eager to search for a different and more inspiring paradigm.

A New Paradigm

Mr Lin found the Tse-hsin Organic Agricultural Foundation (TOAF) through the existing network of the Council of Agriculture. TOAF, a Buddhist organization, specializes in communicating with farmers and in the promotion of organic farming. Their counsellor, Mr Li Feng-chi, discovered that there was a huge gap between Uncle Stone’s recognition and Taipei Zoo’s expectation. He began visiting Uncle Stone regularly in order to bridge the gap between the two. Uncle Stone was unwilling to talk to Mr Li at first, but as time passed and the friendship was gradually established, Uncle Stone told Mr Li that he was aware of the harm caused by pesticides, including the ill effect to his own health. However if he did not have the pest damage under control, he would be unable to make a living.

Li Feng-chi reported their conversation to TOAF. The Foundation proposed to Uncle Stone: Although his farming methods did not qualify his lotuses as “organic produce” at the time, the Foundation would allow these lotus blossoms to be sold in one of their organic supermarkets as long as Uncle Stone stopped spraying pesticides immediately. Uncle Stone agreed to try. He delivered 60 bunches of his lotus blossoms to a supermarket assigned by TOAF one day in October 2002. He was amazed by both the price and the popularity of organic produce, and was even more surprised by the fact that all of his lotuses were sold out by the time he finished the tour of the supermarket. Uncle Stone finally became committed to organic farming in 2003.

Nevertheless, as soon as Uncle Stone stopped using pesticides, all of his plants turned yellow in the very first year. The Eoophyla moth ate so many of the lotus leaves that the situation was devastating. Everyone worked hard to try and solve the problem for Uncle Stone. Experimenting with various options, Mr Lin Hua-ching of Taipei Zoo eventually decided to use a particular type of microbe to control the damage caused by Eoophyla. On the other hand, Eoophyla is one of the Taipei frogs’ favourite foods, and so the conservationists do not want to completely destroy the moths either. They tried to limit the damage to an acceptable degree and then wait for the natural enemies to reach a balance. It took time but patience was rewarded with a much healthier ecology.

In addition, Uncle Stone stopped using weed killer, and so the weeds had to be pulled out by hand. Taipei Zoo organised educational events about the Taipei Frog Conservation Project in a local school, Heng-shan Primary School, in 2001. School teacher Mr Wu Jing-quan sometimes works alone and sometimes takes students with him to help Uncle Stone to pull out weeds. Taipei Zoo and TOAF also mobilize their volunteers from time to time to help clear the weeds from Uncle Stone’s lotus farm.

Network Theory in Practice

Network Theory suggests that human society is structured by a series of social and technological networks. Sociologist Bruno Latour (1987: 180) pointed out:

The word network indicates that resources are concentrated in a few places — the knots and the nodes — which are connected with other another — the links and the mesh: these connections transform the scattered resources into a net that may seem to extend everywhere. Telephone lines, for instance, are minute and fragile, so minute that they are invisible on a map and so fragile that each may be easily cut; nevertheless, the telephone network ‘covers’ the whole world. The notion of network will help us to reconcile the two contradictory aspects of technoscience and to understand how so few people may seem to cover the world.

When we analyse the progress of the Taipei Frog Conservation Project through the application of Network Theory, we realise that when the conservationists first met Uncle Stone, there was little interaction among the agents — the researchers, the farmer and Taipei Frog. Between 2000 and 2002, the one way, didactic process of communication based on a strategy of providing financial subsidies to Uncle Stone achieved little success. Research showed that there were only 20 more Taipei frogs in 2002 than in 2000.

However when Mr Lin Hua-ching changed his tactics and reached out from his comfort zone to draw on different expertise and experiences from a variety of social groups, different actors and resources began to form a more solid network. Gradually, this network defined a common goal, namely the harmonious co-existence between humans and the environment. Uncle Stone and Taipei Frog were removed from their previous binary position to form a symbiotic relationship within the new network.

Ripple of Effects

Once the network is formed and begins functioning, a ripple of effects is gradually produced which are sometimes beyond what was originally anticipated. For example, from the perspective of conservation, the number of Taipei frogs reached 120 in 2003 in addition to 35 baby frogs. Taipei Zoo was able to build a Wetland Ecological Park in 2004 where a critical number of Taipei frogs, together with many other species can live and be observed by visitors through a transparent observation wall around the Park. Researchers also work with other farmers to build a pesticide-free habitat in wetlands by the Datun River in order to enlarge Taipei Frog’s living space.

From the perspective of agricultural development and community building, Uncle Stone now brands his organic lotus as “Taipei Frog Lotus”. Under TOAF’s successful campaign, “Buy Lotuses and Save the Taipei Frog”, these lotus blossoms are very popular with consumers. Uncle Stone also befriends many strangers when they visit his lotus farm in the hope that they may find Taipei frogs. Mr Li Feng-chi of TOAF says the event demonstrates that commerce and conservation do not necessarily stand in opposition; it is possible to care for farmers’ livelihoods and for the environment, and at the same time strengthen the vitality of a community.

From the perspective of individual growth, Uncle Stone is now a changed man. He is happier and healthier. He has gained intimate knowledge about Taipei Frog and has altered his view on farming methods, on the environment around him and on life in general. Mr Lin Hua-ching of Taipei Zoo believes that he is the major beneficiary throughout the process. He admitted that, at first, he saw and thought only about the Taipei Frog without seeing the people. However he learned a great deal from the interaction between Mr Li Feng-chi and Uncle Stone. He discovered that Mr Li cares for the environment and Uncle Stone at the same time. He realises that professional scientists may fail to see the people involved and the problems they face. He believes that it is important for conservationists to broaden their horizons. While they are dedicated to save endangered species, they must also consider how to solve human actor’s problems. Only then can sustainability be truly achieved.

From the perspective of Trans-Disciplinary Science Communications, Public Television Service made an award-winning TV documentary, Uncle Stone’s Lotus Farm (dir. Wang Ching-ling, 2004), recounting the story. The Government Information Office helped the production team to insert several versions of subtitles including Chinese, English, Japanese, Spanish, French and German so that the programme may be circulated more widely. Students from the Heng-shan Primary School also created a poem-reading performance based on the encounter between Uncle Stone and Taipei Frog. Their performance entered the Taipei Rotary Club’s annual event in 2004. Moreover, the Taipei Frog Conservation Project was selected as the representative case study of conservation in Asia in 2004 and is included in UNESCO’s reference file.

As Network theorist Dr Robin Brown has explained, a high performance team (e.g. the conservationists in Taipei Zoo) is usually constructed by a group of like-minded people who work well together. However in Network Theory terms, they are more inward than outward looking. The danger for such a team is when a wrong decision is made, the internal logic of the group will easily reinforce the mistake instead of rectifying it (e.g. the suggestion to rent Uncle Stone’s farm or to move Taipei Frog to Taipei Zoo). Yet if someone within the team is able to recognise what is absent from the group and is capable of making necessary linkages with external networks, the outlook of the group will be refreshed and its performance will be enhanced (e.g. Mr Lin’s new approach and the subsequent results).

From the case study of the Taipei Frog Conservation Project, we have learned of the importance of reflexive, interactive communications and the effectiveness of forging connections between different networks with common interest. In other words, SHS Program’s effort to facilitate Trans-Disciplinary Education and Communications may have significant potential for Taiwan’s future development.

Bibliography:

Robin Brown’s (Senior Lecturer, Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds) interview with the author, Leeds, 6 June 2012.
Cassie (1 June 2012), “Introduction to SHS Program”, SHS Website, https://shs.ntu.edu.tw/shs/?p=12359#comment-401.
Latour, Bruno (1987), Science in Action (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press).
Rawnsley, Ming-yeh T. (2011–2012), “Trans-Disciplinary Science Communications” column: https://shs.ntu.edu.tw/shs/?tag=%e8%94%a1%e6%98%8e%e7%87%81SHS Program Website:https://shs.ntu.edu.tw/shs/
Uncle Stone’s Lotus Farm (DVD), dir. Wang, Ching-ling, 2004, Public Television Service, Taiwan, http://web.pts.org.tw/php/html/island/list_view.php?ITSET=268&KIND=A.

蔡明燁老師的【穿領域科學傳播】系列及精彩專欄全紀錄
Prof. Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley’s Series and Column on ‘Cross-disciplinary Scientific Communication’

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