Report to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations

Our Experience of the Incursion of Cement Companies onto the Land of the Taroko People, Hwalien, Taiwan

by Igung Shiban (Tien Chun-Chou)

July 25, 1997

My name on my passport is Tien Chun-Chou, but in my own language, Taroko, my name is Igung Shiban. Also, the "Republic of China" on my passport just means Taiwan; it is not part of the Peoples Republic of China. The Taroko Tribe is one of the dozen tribes of Austronesian peoples that lived in Taiwan long before the arrival of Han(Chinese) peoples from South China . The Taroko Tribe lives around Taiwan's famous scenic area, Taroko Gorge, near Hwalien on the central east coast.

The self-identified indigenous people of Taiwan are now only about two percent of the population of Taiwan, and they are mostly concentrated on the east coast and in the mountain areas. The indigenous people have only recently won the right to put their native names on their identity cards, rather than Chinese names. But indigenous people assimilated in previous generations are probably a large part of the ancestry of all the people in Taiwan.

In the traditional customs of the Taroko, their land is owned jointly by the residents of the village; and the mountains, forests, and streams of each village are separated from those possessed by other villages by the natural features of the landscape. If the land of the tribe suffers incursion by other tribes, the only solution is warfare. To the indigenous people, land is not just the means of livelihood, it is also the meaning of life, and source of history, culture, oral traditions, religious beliefs, rituals, and the solidarity of the group.

But since a hundred years ago the Taroko people have progressively and substantially lost control of their land due to military and economic incursion of invaders of an alien ethnic group who have come from across the ocean-the Han. Now a hundred years later, the Taroko people have again taken up their spears; now the enemy is the cement companies that have stripped the skin from Hwalien's pristine mountains and showered cement dust on its tropical forests. Want we want is "Return Our Land!".

The Taroko people of Hsiulin Township, Hwalien County, till now cannot figure out why they cannot get their land back after renting it to Asia Cement Corporation nearly twenty years ago. So we organized the Return Our Land Self-Help Association. We made petitions to the county government and brought suit in court.

The Self-Help Association found that after Asia Cement rented the usage rights of the Taroko people's reservation land, the original owners received very little of the promised rental or compensation for displaced crops. And when we wanted to return to use and plant on our land after the end of the rental period, we found that our use rights had mysteriously disappeared. The reason for this was traced to falsification of documents by Asia Cement in connivance with the township government office--documents relinquishing land use rights of the original owners, and returning it to the government to rent out. So we are in the process of accusing them of the forgery in court. Fortunately, two years ago an elected official of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Control Yuan member Chiang Peng-chien, accepted our petition and launched an investigation.

The establishment of mining operations on the reserved land of the indigenous people has again and again caused the loss of the land and the dispersal of the village residents. Originally the government established indigenous reservations for the sake of preventing the indigenous people from being cheated by the majority Han. So it was decreed that non-indigenous people could not buy and sell the reserved land. But the government has in fact used this system to deprive the indigenous people of control over their own land.

When in 1973 Asia Cement wanted to establish its mining operation, it could only rent, not buy, the land. When we look back at the documents of the original transactions, we find that the local officials warmly welcomed the intentions of Asia Cement. The township government office repeatedly emphasized that Asia Cement was merely renting the indigenous people's land, but that this would give them employment opportunities, prevent the out-migration of young people, and bring in outside money and thus spread prosperity.

How did the lives of the Taroko people change? In the past the indigenous people lived a self-sufficient life. After they rented their land to Asia Cement, the youth increasingly went far afield to find employment, to Taipei and Taichung, to serve as transport labor and construction workers. But many of the older people kept thinking of getting their land back from Asia Cement--"We want our land, not money. The land is the heritage from our ancestors that provides our survival; it cannot just be exchanged for money."

This dilemma of the Taroko people is the dilemma of all the indigenous people of Taiwan: Shimen Dam in Taoyuan County drowned the villages of the Taiyal. The military air base built into the mountain near Hwalien airport displaced the villages there. The Machia Dam in Taitung County forced the Lukai people out of their homes. The forced expropriation of indigenous reserved land by the government's Retired Servicemen's Association, Forestry Department, and National Parks Service, have each contributed their part to the loss the indigenous land and extinction of indigenous culture. If the campaign for return of land from Asia Cement were to succeed, it would be a crucial turning point. So we must persist in this campaign. This is not just our struggle; it is part of the hope for indigenous people throughout the world.

I myself entered this campaign by accident. Like many other Taiwan indigenous young women, I was trained as a nurse (midwife), and also worked as a beautician. In 1975 at the age of 32 I went to Japan for specialized beautician training. I met and married Mr. Maruyama there. We came back to Hwalien in April 1995 when my husband was recuperating from an illness. Two months later I happened to attend a negotiation meeting at which our Taroko people were demanding the return of our land. My father, deceased, was one of the original owners; almost all our land was gone. I found our people couldn't make the case for recovering the land because they had almost none of the documents.

I began the struggle to get the documents and find out what had happened to our land rights; that took almost a year. My husband, who can speak to the older indigenous people (educated before 1945) in Japanese and himself also speaks pretty good Mandarin Chinese, has helped me unselfishly and provided me the resources to dedicate myself to this matter. No one else in our village had the resources to pursue this legally. We have been physically attacked twice; my husband was burned on the leg. My husband and also an American who is married to a Taiwanese woman environmental activist in Hwalien were warned that they could be expelled from the country for political activities.

In getting the documents, we were all blessed by God that once the township head and the cement company representatives walked out of the negotiations in a huff, and the township head forgot his documents folders on the table. I picked them up. That was the first time we ever saw the forms supposedly signed by the original owners, documents relinquishing use of the land. After the original owners (about a hundred) looked them over, we found they were all forged, most with the same handwriting.

When we took the matter to court, the government said that even though the documents were a forgery with the connivance of the township government office, it was fifteen years ago and past the statute of limitations. Fortunately other social activists and National Legislator Bayan Dalur, an indigenous representative recently given a seat through the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), helped us to find a way to pursue the case. Without this help, the government agencies controlled by the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) would never have given us the documents.

A few months ago I decided to run for a small local post, township council representative, so that I could get documents more directly and investigate the operations of the township government. I was given the endorsement of the Hwalien DPP. As one of six elected representatives, I would benefit from the women's quota system, and could be elected with only a few votes. After I announced my candidacy, the KMT nominated my younger brother's wife as their candidate, thus splitting the loyalties of our large clan group. Also the cement company threw in their huge resources. People came to my election office at night and said they were being offered NT$3,000 (US$100) for their vote. The day before the vote on June 13, 1998, the price was as high as NT$10,000 (US$300). This is a lot of money for our people; many are unemployed because they have been displaced from their labor jobs by the import of foreign labor. I lost the election to my sister-in-law by about fifty votes.

This has been a disheartening experience, but it is not unusual. The indigenous people are closely controlled by the government and by the ruling party because everything they do on reservation land, even connecting water and electricity, must be approved by local government offices. Also, one of the few routes of advancement for indigenous people is through the police and the military. As for the work opportunities promised by the cement company--it was promised that one job would be given to each of the hundred-some families of the original owners--, about thirty people were given low-level jobs as heavy labor, drivers, and machine operators. This is only a few out of the thousands of employees of Asia Cement, and none of the high-paying jobs. I know of three of them who have died from lung ailments, and many others have breathing problems from inhaling cement dust. My brother who has cooperated with Asia Cement in the land struggle is a machine operator.

However, now that the facts of how our Taroko people were cheated out of their land by the cement companies are clearer, there is still hope for change. There are more young indigenous intellectuals being educated, and they are more critical.

We hope that the United Nations will show its concern for the fair treatment of the indigenous people of Taiwan. Since the government of Taiwan is so concerned about its international standing, this concern is likely to make a considerable difference in our situation. Especially in this case of the Taroko people getting their land back from Asia Cement, we have a clear legal case, but the courts seem to be delaying acting on it. We anticipate that your concern could help us push through this precedent in returning indigenous land to its rightful owners.