By Glenn Smith
In Taiwan, 'Oppose Meiliwan' has been the battle cry of a wide-ranging coalition of eco-activists, Indigenous rights groups and everyday citizens for more than a decade. Meiliwan, which means 'beautiful bay', comes from the Chinese name for the Miramar Resort Village, a five-star beachside property development at the tiny seaside hamlet of Shanyuan (杉原) ten miles north of Taitung City.
In 2004, Taitung County awarded a 50-year BOT contract to Miramar Hotel Co (builder: Durban Group) for the project. Ever since, it has been a cause celeb – pro and con – for tourism boosters and their opponents.
One person who has stood at the front line of this battle is Sinsing (Lin Shu-Ling, 林淑玲), a 37-year old resident of Shanyuan. Sinsing is an accidental activist. She is also a member of the 'Amis tribe, the largest group of Taiwan's Indigenous peoples, and in her language her village at Shanyuan is known as Fudafudak. A decade ago, her family received an eviction notice advising them to tear down their house and leave. That is all it said: no explanation was offered. Later, she learned of the plans for the Miramar Resort Village, and how her family's home of eighty years sat on a parcel of land destined to become luxury villas included in the six-hectare resort complex.
But on October 28, as one of 14 plaintiffs in a case against Taitung County, Sinsing won a ruling by the Kaohsiung High Administrative Court to revoke the environmental impact assessment (EIA) that allowed the developers to work on the site.
Last year's ruling in Sinsing's favor was the latest of many court victories that have temporarily halted construction at the site. Yet, by then, the Miramar Resort Village's hotel proper stood nearly complete at the water's edge, because, inexplicably, after a decade of orders to desist issued by the courts, Taitung County's pro-tourism development authorities had continued to grant construction permits to the developers.
Is the battle over? No one knows for sure.
But for Sinsing and other activists in her village it has been a transformative experience. Her journey as an Indigenous activist brought her into contact with like-minded individuals around the island. With members of her tribe, she would demonstrate outside the Presidential Office on Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei. She would hold a news conference with the Taitung Tribal Alliance outside the national government's Control Yuan. She would be present when a coalition of Indigenous activists held a flash mob protest disrupting the eighth anniversary of the developer's landmark Miramar Entertainment Park in Taipei.
For Cultural Survival, contributor Glenn Smith visited Sinsing at her home in Shanyuan. Below is an edited transcript of that interview.
Q: Your successful lawsuit is the latest to bring the Miramar Resort Village project to yet another halt. When did you get involved in the 'Oppose Meiliwan' movement?
A: I started out as a victim. Today I'm in the media spotlight because of the lawsuit. I wouldn't dare say that I am a leader. A local resident had to sign the court papers as plaintiff, so I signed my name. I got pushed out front, and I've gotten used to it.
The world outside our village needed to know what was happening here. We wanted everyone to know that this place is ours and we will vigorously defend it. We had to learn everything possible about this development project and get moving and protest.
What is important is that this has been a long fight. The effort to prevent the construction of the Miramar Resort Village has gone through many stages, and at every turn new groups of protesters appeared, and somehow managed to work together.
There was the Environmental Protection Agency, and grassroots environmentalists. There were Indigenous activists; for example, the people connected to the Return Our Land movement. To Indigenous people, land rights are a major issue. Then there were everyday citizens concerned about the future of Taiwan's East Coast.
The environmentalists were the first to act. The Taitung Environmental Protection Union was outraged that Taitung County officials had allowed the developer to begin construction of the resort without first conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA).
Regulations require an EIA for projects of one hectare (公顷; 10,000 sq. meters) or more. To evade this regulation, the six-hectare project, which was to include the hotel, villas and a mansion, was divided into smaller parcels.
The hotel, for example, is on a plot of 0.9 hectares. Even worse, to environmentalists, the project sits on an environmentally sensitive slope facing the sea. Many times the court ordered a stop to project, but the developers kept on building anyway.
Now the hotel is nearly complete. The trees and natural vegetation have been bulldozed, and the stream running down to the beach was diverted. The original habitat has been destroyed and cannot be restored. In my view, this is an illegal hotel and it should be torn down.
Q: Is it possible that the Miramar Resort Village will be given another green light for the hotel?
A: Again, the court says it is an illegal structure. But we don't know if Taitung County or the developer will find some way to get around that.
Q: You've been interviewed by both the Chinese- and English-language press here in Taiwan. I've seen you quoted in stories covering protests in Taipei up north and at other locations around the island. How did you learn the craft of dissent?
A: Here, in the village, we didn't know anything about protesting. Let's say we wanted to hold a meeting. That sounds simple, but how do you actually do it?
But we learned as we participated in meetings and events held by the environmentalists. We watched how they organized things. Then artists from Taitung City joined this cause. From them, we learned how make banners and use words and images to communicate our message. There were artists whose work advocated the protection of the East Coast, and they held exhibitions in Taipei and Kaohsiung. We would participate, and naturally the discussion led back to the Miramar Resort Village. We learned how to give speeches and hold talks at schools and social organizations.
Then came talking to the press. Ironically, even in the early phase of the Oppose Meiliwan movement, back when outside environmental groups were the ones who were getting the message out, the media would come to us. Reporters came to interview us and record our views.
We started holding press conferences. That required a press release, and I would be one of the people involved in that. The phone would start ringing – something my mother didn't want to deal with -- so others got involved as well. Beforehand we would work on our message and decide how we'd answer questions when interviewed by the media.
Q: On a personal level, what have you learned from your decade-long battle to protect your village at Shanyuan?
A: In 2004, I was working at the government-run concession where the 'Meiliwan' hotel now stands. The government had taken the land from us in 1987 and built a public beach. So 'Meiliwan' isn't a first for us. Back then, I didn't think about issues concerning land rights or our tribe or our culture. But now the issue of 'identity' is important to me. I've discovered a lot about myself, my people – the 'Amis – and our connection to our land.
Q: Did residents of Shanyuan coordinate their protest through a central organization?
A: No, we were like a swarm of bees. Everyone – and here I'm including outside supporters – would go out and find places to give talks or to sell our protest gear, for example, the hand towels emblazoned with the characters 反美麗灣 (Oppose Meiliwan) used by activists as bandannas or signs.
There was a natural division of labor among us. The artists were good at creating handicrafts, so that is what they did. If an event required music, musicians joined us and we used their names to promote it.
Everyone did what they do best. But there was always lots and lots of discussion among us, and everything was by mutual consent.
Q: The Miramar Resort Village – the hotel proper, that is -- has already been nearly completed on part of the six hectares included in the development plans and this hotel would be open today if not for your lawsuit. How many people from your village would have been evicted if the entire Miramar Resort Village had been completed?
A: Our tribal village is small, and there are only two dozen households scattered along the beach and hills here. The entire tribe would not have been evicted, and just some of us would have had to leave. We weren't being relocated as a group. We would have been scattered about.
Q: Did Taitung County or the Central Government make provisions – new residences or financial compensation – for those who were being forced to leave?
A: No, absolutely nothing. A few of the tribal household simply received eviction notices.
Q: Was there any indication of legal action if some decided to resist and stay on their land?
A: No, there was no mention of that. We wondered what would happen to some of the elders if they were forced to tear down their houses and leave. Where would they go and live? Would the government give them any support?
The eviction notices appeared out of nowhere. We didn't even know who was behind them, and only later did we learn of the plans for the hotel. To authorities, it was like, 'Ah, only a few households are being evicted, and some people will lose their vegetable gardens.' It was as if none of us had been living here for generations. It was as if a new colonial power had descended upon us and come to rule us.
Q: Some say that the construction of the Miramar Resort Village highlights a long-standing problem – the lack of clarity over aboriginal land rights in Taiwan.
A: Look at our house – it is a single-story high and covered in tin sheeting. We could fix it up and make it nice. But we don't because the government says this land is not yours and it belongs to the country.
But for this hotel, anything is possible. It is seven stories high and has a multi-level basement. How could the government allow such a massive structure to be built right on slope land facing the beach? It is right on aboriginal land.
If we Indigenous people want to improve our homes, it is not permitted. Our government's land policy is strictly for the benefit of the wealthy, and is of no use to local people like us.
To me, it seems that we, the people who live here, have no basic human rights. Our concern is: How can we preserve our way of life? Now with this hotel here, what is going to happen? The government isn't concerned about this at all.
Q: There still is a possibility that the builders of the Miramar Resort Village will appeal your victory in the court, and that the hotel will open someday. After all, Taitung County has a powerful pro-development administration.
A: How can we trust these people? The developers did everything they could to evade regulations. The hotel was built without getting a prior environmental impact assessment (EIA). Despite this, Taitung County allowed them to apply and re-apply... not once, not twice, but three, four, five times, and each time they failed. Then there was a sixth and seventh time before the developers were finally given a conditional EIA. By then, the hotel was nearly complete, as construction had continued the whole while. Everything was done completely backwards.
Q: Jobs, jobs, jobs.... the pro-development lobby always talks about jobs. And jobs are a crucial issue for Indigenous communities hoping to curtail the exodus to the cities of young people from their villages.
A: They tell us that with the hotel here, we no longer need to rely on the natural resources of our stretch of shoreline for our livelihood and that we will all have jobs.
But what kind of jobs will we have? Sweeping and cleaning, most likely. The young people who have stayed in the village do not have college degrees. They won't be offered management positions.
Our tribe has other young people like myself, and many have left to seek work elsewhere. But a minority have stayed and still live off the land in the traditional way.
My grandmother, Miarde, lived this life as well, and she still does. When she was young, she worked the land. Now she is old and she raises chickens and grows aitsao [艾草 Artemisia argyi, the Chinese mugwort] and dries it in the sun. She also rolls tobacco, and she can sell it for cash. She lives a healthy life, and she is quite proud. She has her own money. She doesn't do foolish things. There is a dignity to her life in our village.
But if the hotel opens for business, we don't even know if we will be allowed on what was once our beach. Will my older brother or father or uncles or mother be allowed to walk along the beach to visit neighbors on the other side?
Then, too, what effect will this hotel and the tourists it will bring have on the local ecosystem? The hotel will be a big impact, and we worry about this. It will destroy our old way of life. We consider ourselves – our tribe – and nature to be one and the same.
Q: What other impacts has the Miramar Resort Hotel had on your culture?
A: Here there's a lot that can be said. The 'Amis have an oceanic culture that goes back hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Take, for example, our ocean worship festival (海祭 in Chinese; Palaylay in 'Amis). Every July our young men return to our village and go down to the beach and study the waters and the animals that live in it, and learn the names of the rocks along the shore and reef. Some traditional names tell where food is to be found. How can this custom survive if we lose access to the beach?
Then there is the male age-grade system. In 'Amis culture, males belong to age-grade groups. When young boys are initiated, their age-grade cohort is given a name by the elders, and this name follows them for life. Along the coast here, the tradition is for the cohort name to commemorate an important event. For example, looking far back, when electricity came to our villages, Latingki, which means 'electricity', was a commonly used name. Or later when the Chunghua Bridge was built, boys initiated in that era were given the cohort name, Lachungchiao, which means, 'Chunghua Bridge'.
So logically, while the Miramar Resort Village was under construction here, the young boys here would have been named Lameiliwan. In our village, we actually debated whether to use that name! But it is a terrible name. The Miramar Resort Hotel was developed without regard for the law. This is not how it is supposed to be. A name like this would hurt them.
Q: But 'Meiliwan' is what everyone calls this place now. The official name is, Shanyuan, and that is what it says on the Chinese map. But if you ask for directions and say Meiliwan, people will point you in this direction.
A: But the real name, in 'Amis, is Fudafudak. It is a name that comes down from our ancestors, and it reveals how they felt about this place. Fudafudak has many meanings. Some elders say it is that sparkling look of the sun shining on the sea. Others say it describes the glimmer of the sand on the beach, or the sight of sand drifting along the shore as it is blown by the northwesterly winds.
Fudafudak invokes positive meanings. Now, after all the publicity this hotel has received, everyone calls our village Meiliwan. The Chinese named is Shanyuan, and our tribe calls it Fudafudak. But outsiders think it is called Meiliwan.
Q: Earlier you said that only a few of Shanyuan's residents were to be evicted due to the construction of the hotel. How did the protest become a nationwide cause celeb? How is it that so many outsiders have joined ranks with the protesters?
A: Well, one reason might be that we've protested here for so long, and the government doesn't seem to see or hear us. It is as if we don't even exist. Our courts say the hotel project is an illegal development, but the government acts as though it is legal. To everyday people, that is unfair.
Taitung County is promoting tourism, and claims that tourism will make everyone's lives better. Then everyone finds out that our village, Shanyuan, is not the only place where this is happening. Developers have drawn up plans for resorts all along the East Coast. North of us in Dulan (都蘭), out on the point there, a major resort was planned. Farther north at Sanhsientai ( 三仙台), there was yet another. Then the same at Kangkou (港口). That was going to be a water-world type recreation facility. Boom, boom, boom... all up the east coast.
It is incredible. On the hills above our village alone, there were plans for five or six hotels all within half a kilometer of here. Our people ask, 'Why do they have to build here?' But the answer is obvious: these hotels are intended for Chinese tourists to stay in. That is when people in our village began to see how much our lives were going to change. We would be invaded by tourists.
To us, and to the outsiders who have joined our protest, our thinking is that if the developers can get away with building an illegal hotel complex here in Fudafudak, then the same will happen along the entire East Coast. We feel that rescuing Fudafudak from developers is the same as rescuing the entire East Coast.
This coast is not just for us local people, it is for everyone. People from all over Taiwan come her to vacation and enjoy the beauty of nature... the mountains, the forests, the beaches. If the developers' plans come to fruition, all of this will be lost.
What I ask myself is this: If we let this illegally developed hotel be built, what are we going to tell our sons and daughters? Will we tell them that we let it be built so that we could all make a little money? That is not the way to teach children.