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In the Name of Progress

In 1990, 30 houses in Tungmen Village of Hsiulin Township, Hualien County, disappeared under an avalanche of mud and gravel. On the slopes above the village, marble boulders had been mined to sell for landscape decoration, and much of the natural vegetation had been replaced by cultivated betel nut palm. At least a dozen lives were extinguished in those few moments—lives of the Tayal (Atayal) tribe of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.

This was the first dramatic indicator of accelerating erosion and flooding in eastern Taiwan; many other landslides and floods have occurred since. Decades of legal and illegal forest cutting, expanding beetlenut and tea cultivation on steep mountain slopes, and careless cutting into the mountain face for roads and vast excavations of limestone have all taken their toll. East Taiwan is already marked with huge cement factories at every limestone outcropping, and more expansion is underway.

For the 400 people of Santsan Village in Hsiulin Township, environmental degradation is no abstract matter. They fear that the limestone excavation pit on top of the peak just north of them is a sword hanging over their heads. Following the typhoons of 1997 they observed an ominous increase in the tumble of boulders and debris down the steep gully that climbs halfway up the peak. They say that their elders have lived in the jagged mountains of Taroko all their lives, and they know the signs of danger.

On February 13, 1998, more than 40 residents of Santsan marched to the Hwalien County Assembly to demand (not for the first time) that the mining operation be stopped. They were not surprised to be met by a police barricade and a flutter of reporters. They emphasized that they were reasonable and nonviolent, presented a petition, and withdrew back to their pickup trucks in the parking lot where they reflected on their chances for success.

After a demonstration two days before, a full convoy of government officials--forestry management, mining bureau officials, Taroko National Park officials, and local representatives--made the trip up the peak to view the excavation. They insisted that it had been legally approved, and that it shouldn’t pose a danger. And they claimed that further mining had already been stopped as a precaution. The villagers had none of it. They knew that excavation had ceased only in the last few days, not two months past, as the officials claimed. They knew, also, that the local elected representatives were frequent drinking companions of mining company officials and were almost certainly paid off to approve the previous two years of mining. They had no doubt that the company would delay to avoid publicity, and then renew operations later. And they suspected that the company’s requests for arbitration were nothing more than an attempt to buy off their leaders.

This occasion was not the villagers’ first experience with protest. In 1989 a company called Lidong Mining began digging iron ore from an exposed face of dark rock along the north branch of Santsan Creek, and the company built an ore-crushing plant at the side of the narrow streambed. Because the gorge is so deep and steep, the streambed became the only access road for trucks coming to load the ore. Not long after mining began, Santsan villagers became concerned about the amount of rock the mining operation left in the gorge, and about the increasing slippage of shattered cliffs above it. On September 2, 1994, the villagers gathered at the Lidong site to protest. According to media reports, mining bureau officials visited the site and pronounced the operation safe, but Taroko National Park’s management office claimed that it had never agreed to the operation, and Lidong ceased operations soon after.

In the following two years, shattered rock continued to slide into the gorge, and several typhoons filled the lower portion (from the mining site down) with debris to a depth of 10 meters, burying some farmland and wooden houses. The concrete shells of the ore-processing plant now look like tossed matchboxes, and the stream itself disappears into the gravel. The steep gully to the north of the village has since been shaped and reinforced in its lower stretches with concrete dikes and rows of concrete wave-breakers, no doubt at considerable expense for Hualien County. But the Santsan villagers remain skeptical that this measure is more than a palliative--like the levee built on the west side of the village, it isn’t likely to withstand a typhoon.

When villagers trespassed into the limestone mining area in 1997 to investigate land erosion, they found that the subcontractor had dug out a pit nearly 200 meters wide and 50 deep. If the pit filled with rainwater, they feared, the soft soil of its outer edge would likely collapse and send thousands of tons hurtling down the precipitous slope, into the streambed, and perhaps as far as their homes and the primary school. The Environmental Protection Administration asked Professor Li Sze-gun of the department of geography at Hualien’s Teachers College to evaluate the mining project, without visiting the site. From what he knew of the area and its designation as a national park, he opposed the mining, but he reported that his opinion and environmental concerns in general could not overrule industrial planners.

The mining companies take no responsibility for long term damage to this "aborigine protected land." They hide under a multitude of subcontractors and holding companies. And government agencies show little regard for more than the narrowest definitions of legal procedure and immediate financial liability. Officials are permitted to chalk up to acts of nature such disasters as the landslide at Tungmen Village, and provide for resettlement of the refugees merely as a welfare measure. Given the continuing rush to further exploit the east coast, future tragedies are undoubtedly in the making. To date, the mining continues at the pit above Santsan, and selective payments from the mine operators have turned the indigenous landowners there against each other.

Linda Gail Arrigo has been involved in human rights and social issues in Taiwan since the 1970s. A sociologist, she is currently International Affairs Officer for Green Party Taiwan.

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