• The Truku people are engaged in a fight against the Asia Cement company over a controversial extension to mining rights on Indigenous land. (Wikipedia Commons)Source: Wikipedia Commons
Taiwan's Indigenous peoples are fighting to ensure their rights are protected as the government debates amendments to its mining laws
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26 Feb 2018 - 11:56 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2018 - 1:15 PM

Last year, the Taiwanese government granted a 20-year extension to one of the world's largest cement producers, Asia Cement. 

The controversial deal allows the company to continue to carry out its mining rights for a site reserved for the country's Indigenous peoples in the Xincheng Shan region. The extension to the nation's largest limestone quarry took effect in November and has since caused uproar with environmentalists, local residents and the Indigenous community. 

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Teyra Yudaw is from the Truku Peoples of central Taiwan.  

"When lands reserved for Indigenous peoples become lands reserved for corporate conglomerates, this is an ongoing violation of historical justice," he said. 

As a committee member of the Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee, Mr Yudaw said the Mining Act should respect the collective rights of Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples.

"The Asia Cement case will be a test of the government’s sincere intentions in convening this committee," he said. 

In November last year, thousands took to the streets of Taipei to protest the extension, which was given without public consultation and without the requirement of an environmental impact assessment (EIA). 

Protesters accused the Ministry of Economic Affairs of violated the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act, which requires consultation with Indigenous landowners. They're also calling for Asia Cement's mining rights to be revoked. 

"It's illegal, it goes against the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act, which is Taiwanese law," said Chen Ya-Jing, chief media liaison at Citizens of the Earth.

"And they've been mining for the past 60 years without ever having to conduct an environmental impact assessment," he told the Asian Review. 

A few weeks later, the government proposed a number of changes to the Mining Act to address the problematic regulatory framework which has allowed developers to sidestep laws surrounding EIAs and Indigenous rights for decades. 

The amendments include requirements of EIAs for mines larger than two hectares, banning private land to be mined before rights issues are settled, and consultation of Indigenous Peoples for new mines and extensions of existing mines. 

But Executive Yuan spokesperson Hsu Kuo-yung said that the varying aims of different government agencies must be taken into account when it comes to Article 21 rights. 

"This will affect the Indigenous Peoples Council as well. The implementation of Article 21 of the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law must be carefully considered. Otherwise, the implementation of Article 21 in practice could cause controversy," he said. 

Under Article 21 of the Indigenous Peoples Basics Act, "the government or any private entity shall obtain free and prior informed consent" of Indigenous peoples as well as share the benefits generated from "exploration, development, exploitation and utilization of natural resources and lands within Indigenous people’s regions."

The government's amendments have attracted a high level of attention, with environmental groups and legal experts harshly criticizing the draft changes ahead of the legislative debate.

Legal Aid Foundation Lawyer, Hsieh Meng-yu, says the government is trying to separate provisions.  

"The thinking behind it is to decouple the Mining Act with the right to informed consent in Article 21. What does it mean to decouple them? It means that I’ll do things my way while you do things yours," he said. 

"Even if [Indigenous peoples] don’t agree or approve, it’ll all be stuck in red tape while nothing changes what the Ministry of Economic Affairs does or decides. What kind of informed consent is this? In effect, this is nullification of Article 21." 

The Economics Committee was unable to reach a consensus last December on key provisions of the amendments, including conditions that justify the rejection of mining rights extensions, and whether informed consent of Indigenous peoples should be required. 

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A major point of contention between legislators and the Ministry of Economic Affairs was whether consultation and approval rights, specified by Article 21 of the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, should apply to the 202 existing mining sites across Taiwan.

Vice Minister for Economic Affairs, Wang Mei-hua, said there is uncertainty surrounding consultations. 

"To be frank, if there is large-scale implementation of Indigenous consultation and approval rights, how would the process work? How long will it take? We’ve never done it before, no one knows what the process would look like," she said. 

But Kawlo Iyun Pacidal, an Indigenous woman from the Amis Peoples and a Taiwanese politician, said informed consent must be obtained at every step of the process. 

"If these provisions don’t make it to the final bill, then it will be just like in the past. It doesn’t matter which party is in power, Indigenous rights are always cast aside," she said. 

The provisions of Indigenous peoples rights, particularly in relation to the consultation and approval rights of development, have long been questioned and challenged by government and corporations. 

In each controversy, Taiwan's Indigenous people's call for recognition of their rights under Article 21 of the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act. Now they are closely monitoring key provisions of the Mining Act amendments, in particular whether Article 21 rights will extend retroactively to existing mining sites.

They worry that one lapse in the mining issue may eventually bring down the rights they worked for. 

 - Story provided by our broadcast partners TITV