Asia Pacific / Social Issues

Indigenous Taiwanese, seeking rights to ancestral lands, set up camp in Taipei city park

by Rina Chandran

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Taipei’s Peace Memorial Park is an oasis of calm in the bustling city, home to morning walkers and lunchtime strollers — along with a camp of indigenous protesters demanding justice.

For several months, the small group has lived in tents in a corner of the park, with a makeshift kitchen and a cluster of painted rocks, photographs and posters tracing the history of Taiwan’s indigenous people and their fight for land rights.

They want the repeal of regulation, announced last year, that they say denies their right to ancestral land.

The guidelines are on the delineation of traditional territory and its return to indigenous people. But they are limited to state-owned land and do not include private land — which the group says denies them a sizable piece of territory.

“We have been betrayed by the government,” said Panai Kusui, an indigenous leader and singer. “We are the original inhabitants of this island, the collective custodians of all land before the concept of public land and private land. This regulation denies us what is rightfully ours.”

Taiwan’s indigenous people make up about 2 percent of its 23.5 million people, and they have long suffered marginalization that has left them poorer, less educated and with a higher percentage without jobs than their Chinese counterparts.

In an unprecedented move, newly elected President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 apologized to the indigenous people for “centuries of pain and mistreatment” and promised to improve their lives.

One step was to recognize their ancestral land. The government’s Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) in February 2017 declared 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) — about half of Taiwan’s total land area — to be traditional territory.

About 90 percent of this is public land that indigenous people can claim and to whose development they can consent, said Kolas Yotaka, a legislator with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party who belongs to the Amis tribe.

The remainder is privately owned and cannot be claimed.

“The legislation allows us to take back control of most of our ancestral land. It’s a big deal,” Kolas said during an interview in her office. “No one is disputing that we are the original owners of the land. But today, 98 percent of the population is non-indigenous, and we cannot go back to how it was 400 years ago.”

Taiwan’s first inhabitants are believed to be Austronesian tribes who hunted and farmed on the island thousands of years before Han settlers from mainland China arrived in the 17th century.

With the arrival of settlers, indigenous people faced violence and loss of land. Their marginalization continued at the hands of Japanese colonizers in the 19th century.

After the Kuomintang took control in 1945, indigenous people’s access to traditional lands was further limited as authorities built modern cities and high-speed rail lines and created national parks and tourist facilities.

The Indigenous Peoples’ Basic Law, passed in 2005, granted a wide range of rights to Taiwan’s tribal people.

But its implementation was stalled, said Panai, who was joined at the protest site last year by English singer Joss Stone on his tour of Taiwan.

“Indigenous leaders would like to see a return of all traditional territories,” said Scott Simon, co-chair in Taiwan studies at the University of Ottawa. “But any legislation is always subject to negotiation and compromise.”

Tsai has acknowledged past failures to implement the Indigenous Peoples law and has promised a justice commission, as well as better education, health care and economic opportunities.

The CIP has asked the nearly 750 indigenous communities in Taiwan to apply for recognition of their traditional territory under the 2017 legislation. More than 250 have already submitted claims, said Kolas.

“There are divisions even between the indigenous people over the legislation, but a majority have welcomed it,” she said. “We’ve been neglected for so long — we are losing our language, our tradition. But at least there is now a process for us to define our land and get it back.”

Indigenous land rights are contentious the world over.

In poorer countries in Asia and Latin America, tribal people lack property rights and face violence from state officials, miners and loggers eyeing their land.

In wealthy nations such as Australia and Canada, indigenous people are negotiating with governments for a greater say over land and resources.

In Taiwan, which China claims as its sacred territory, focusing on indigenous people may also be a way to establish a cultural identity that is different from China’s, analysts say.

But the challenge is exacerbated by the island’s small size: just over 36,000 sq. km (14,000 sq. miles).

Kolas has drafted the Indigenous Land and Seabed Act, which comprehensively defines land and sea rights. It passed its first reading on May 25.

“We need jobs, we need opportunities to improve our economic status,” she said.

“If we kick out the hotel or the mining company without negotiating for better terms, what’s the option? We have to demand more rights, but we have to do it smartly,” she said.

But activists say they must have rights over all traditional territory to ensure “environmentally friendly and culturally sensitive” developments that also create opportunities for them.

“The deterioration of our culture and economic status are tied to the loss of our land. We will not stop protesting until the regulation is repealed,” said Panai.