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Protesters dig in against Taiwan mining rules

Aborigines and environmentalists attack Asia Cement rights extension

Protesters fill a Taiwan street in June. (Photo by Citizens of the Earth Taiwan)

TAIPEI -- Outside a metro station in Taiwan's capital, musician Nabu Husungan Istanda sits shirtless in his wheelchair, smoking a cigarette while chewing betel nut. The evening traffic zips by, while young Taiwanese of both indigenous and Chinese ancestry laugh and dance arm-in-arm in a circle next to a protest site they are occupying.

Aboriginal Taiwanese and environmental activists have found themselves opposed on other issues, including development and hunting rights, but are fighting together against a mine producing materials for cement in Taroko Gorge, one of the country's most famous scenic areas.

"We didn't know any of these young people before, now we're working together," said Nabu, an ethnic Bunun. "We've become friends."

Nabu Husungan Istanda sits at a Taipei metro station where he and others are protesting the government's new indigenous land rights policy.

The new friends were brought together by a 20-year extension of mining rights held by Asia Cement, one of the country's largest cement producers,

in Sincheng Township, Hualien County, at the mouth of Taroko National Park.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Taipei on June 25, marching from the Executive Yuan parliament building to the Presidential Office to protest the extension, which was given without public consultation. Asia Cement, a unit of the Far Eastern Group conglomerate, was not required to conduct an environmental impact assessment.

The size of the crowd was largely due to the death of documentary maker Chi Po-lin earlier in the month in a helicopter crash. Chi directed the award-winning 2013 film "Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above," in which he highlighted Taiwan's beautiful landscape, as well as its environmental degradation.

Chi was filming a sequel, and some of his final footage of the Sincheng Mine went viral, with many people citing it as proof that the mine had expanded. Asia Cement denies this charge, but a petition by Citizens of the Earth Taiwan aimed at revoking the company's mining rights in Sincheng has garnered more than 210,000 signatures.

Asia Cement's Sincheng Mine (photo by Munch)

"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, speaking about the extension. "And they've been mining for the past 60 years without ever having to conduct an environmental impact assessment."

The marchers, representing various environmental groups and indigenous peoples, said the Ministry of Economic Affairs had violated the act, which requires consultation with indigenous landowners. Indigenous Taiwanese account for only 2% of the population, but intermarriage over centuries has led to many Taiwanese having some aboriginal blood.

"Our request is actually rather small," Nabu said, under the watchful eye of police at the protest site. "The president needs to tell the country that indigenous lands are sacred traditional lands, and if you want to construct an airport, dispose of nuclear waste or build a big hotel, you need to discuss with us first," he said.

Before winning last year's election, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, whose grandmother came from the Paiwan tribe, had promised to apologize to the country's aboriginal peoples, which she did in August 2016. Nabu's wife, musician Panai Kusui, born to parents from the Amis and Puyuma tribes, was one of the performers at Tsai's inauguration the previous May.

Protest art

Panai and Nabu joined Amis documentary maker Mayaw Biho to occupy a stretch of pavement outside the Presidential Office on Feb. 23 in response to an announcement by the cabinet-level Council of Indigenous Peoples of new rules that excluded private land from designation as traditional indigenous territory, formerly limited to government-held public land. Nabu said the new rules made Tsai's apology ring hollow.

On their 100th day, during torrential rain, police evicted the protesters and confiscated a collection of protest art -- including aboriginal canoes -- that had grown steadily in size. The protest relocated around the corner, where a small portion of the art that was salvaged remains on display.

Aboriginal Taiwanese were the island's only inhabitants four centuries ago. Dutch and Spanish colonization paved the way for Chinese immigration, largely into the western coastal plain and the north, where most of Taiwan's cities now lie. Native occupants were pushed into the country's mountainous central and eastern regions.

Japanese colonization from 1895 created reservations on a fraction of that land, but population pressures worsened after the arrival of a second wave of Chinese after World War II.

Kolas Yotaka, a lawmaker of Amis background and a member of Tsai's ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said her ultimate goal is to legislate to provide indigenous peoples with more land of their own and to set up autonomous indigenous governments.

The Asia Cement rights extension "is the epitome of the abuse and harm done to indigenous people and our land," she said.

Starting in the 1970s, the government granted below-surface mineral rights without indigenous consent, and may have created false documents to show that it had such consent, Kolas said. "Not only is this a breach of the environment, but also of indigenous peoples' trust. As a result, indigenous environment, lives, economic condition and health all suffered negative impacts."

The Executive Yuan has frozen 42 mining license applications until the government revises its Mining Act, due to take place in the next legislative session, which begins in September. It appears likely that companies that already have mining rights, including Asia Cement, may be subjected to retroactive environmental impact assessments under future legislation.

Asia Cement's share price was down 16% at 26.45 New Taiwan dollars on July 21, compared with a recent high of NT$31.50 on April 5.

In mid-June, shortly after Chi's death, the company said it would reduce its mining operations in Sincheng by 40%. "If there's legislation that says we need to conduct an environmental impact assessment, then we'll do everything we can to cooperate," Asia Cement said.

The Sincheng mine straddles public and private land, with the majority on public land, the company added. The issue of the mine's borders with the National Park is complex. The mining rights predate the park, and the park's original borders had some overlap with the mine, until they were redrawn two years ago.

While Kolas aims to focus on securing public lands for indigenous peoples, Nabu said he is determined to continue his protest until private land can be designated as indigenous territory. Asked what he will do if these changes do not happen, Nabu solemnly nodded his head and pointed at the ground below his wheelchair, indicating that he is not going anywhere.

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