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Hawk or dove? Birdwatching world's feathers ruffled over Taiwan independence


Birdwatchers around the world may have to decide whether they are hawks or doves when it comes to the thorny issue of Taiwan independence.

Long-running geopolitical tensions spilled into the conservation world this month after UK-based NGO BirdLife International severed ties with a Taiwanese group, after it refused to sign a declaration it would not advocate for independence – something the apolitical group maintains it never does anyway.

In response, Taiwan’s group announced on Friday it was changing its name from Chinese Wild Bird Federation (CWBF) to Taiwan Wild Bird Federation (TWBF) and issued a plea to remember that “birds do not know borders”.

“We are conservationists, not political actors. In fact, it was BirdLife who asked us to take a political stance by insisting we sign an overtly political declaration and by describing us as a ‘risk’, without ever clearly defining what that risk was,” CWBF said.

With no resolution and the conservation community still in a flap, TWBF also took the drastic step of releasing internal correspondence with BirdLife to support its claims.

The saga came to light earlier this month, when BirdLife International revoked the partner status of CWBF, Taiwan’s largest bird conservation organisation, for refusing to sign documents promising not to promote Taiwanese independence, and to remove from its name and stationery references to “Republic of China” – the official title of Taiwan.

Although the Chinese Communist party has never governed Taiwan, it maintains Taiwan is a part of China and has never ruled out taking it by force. Beijing has put increasing pressure not just on the island, but on any country or organisation – no matter how small – which appeared to support Taiwanese sovereignty.

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Letters dating back to December 2019 and published on Friday show BirdLife insisting CWBF must change its name and sign the pledge, as BirdLife was committed to “United Nations protocols on countries and territories”. BirdLife’s chief executive said that by associating with CWBF it was “effectively and implicitly contravening the UN position by aligning itself to a political position that does not support our charitable purposes”.

CWBF said it had been “staunchly apolitical” as a Birdlife International partner, and since 1996 had changed its name three times and stepped back from international events to accommodate Birdlife’s concerns. It said conservation was “beyond politics”, and suggested their time was better spent protecting the black-faced spoonbill.

Unmoved, Birdlife reiterated its demands with deadlines, and declared it wouldn’t participate or have its brand associated with any even organised or funded by the Taiwanese government.

“We are saddened that it has become necessary to release this correspondence,” CWBF spokesman Scott Pursner told the Guardian.

“However, it was the only way to address the false allegations raised as the reason behind our removal. The letters show that we always negotiated in good faith, even offering to discuss the name change, but that wasn’t enough.”

Birdlife International has been contacted for comment.



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