The Underside of a Miracle: Industrialization, Land, and Taiwan's Indigenous Peoples

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Taiwan’s rapid economic development of the 1970s and 1980s inspired an entire development discourse on the "Taiwanese miracle." It was hoped that other developing countries, from Mauritius to Bolivia, could learn from development policies of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) on Taiwan and bring prosperity to their own peoples. Such studies overlooked three important facts: 1) that rapid development was made possible largely by an oppressive regime of martial law that quelled worker unrest; 2) that development had immense social and economic costs; and 3) that those costs have been disproportionately borne by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Since martial law was lifted in 1987, indigenous peoples have been able to start lobbying for better enforcement of their land and labor rights. (Allio, 1998) Since then, their struggles have been on the vanguard of Taiwan’s social movements.

Taiwan’s Colonial Heritage

Indigenous peoples have been the main losers during all periods of the colonization of Taiwan. The first generations of Chinese settlers on Taiwan transformed the west coast into fertile rice fields, but only because they wrested control of the land away from plains Aborigines. Japanese colonial administrators were able to build power grids and industrialize the island, but only because they built dams and flooded lands belonging to the mountain-dwelling Tayal and Rukai tribes. And the KMT was able to construct highways and factories only by carving cement out of land belonging to the Taroko and other tribes. The Taroko have lost their land to "development" and now they struggle to get it back.

The Taroko people, who currently number around 28,000, live along the mountainous coastline north of Hualien in eastern Taiwan. They were once a hunting and gathering people, and ruled over vast hunting lands. The lush vegetation of Taiwan’s semi-tropical forests soon attracted the attentions of imperialist Japan. From 1895 to 1945, when Japan ruled the island, the state designated much of it as state-owned forest, built up a timber industry, and forcibly relocated the Taroko to the foothills of the mountains. Many of the hiking trails in what is now the Taroko National Park were originally hewed into the rock walls of the gorge by the Japanese in order to move artillery into the mountains and defeat the "fierce" Taroko people.

For indigenous peoples, Taiwan’s transfer to Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China in 1945 was just a change from one colonial regime to another. (Chiu, 1999) In some respects, Chinese rule was worse than Japanese administration. Older Taroko people remember that even Japanese police officers learned the Taroko language in order to communicate with local people. The KMT, on the other hand, forced them to assimilate and conduct their lives in Mandarin. Ironically, the most significant space for the preservation of their language has been the Presbyterian and Catholic churches (see Michael Stainton’s article in this issue).

Older Taroko people also relate how their families were first relocated from the mountains to the foothills by the Japanese, and then from the foothills to the base of the mountains by the KMT. The forested mountains are now designated as the Taroko Gorge National Park, and it is illegal for Taroko people to hunt or fish in their traditional territory. They are now forced to live on narrow strips of land between the mountains and the sea, amidst cement quarries, cement factories, railroad tracks, and industrial parks.

Aboriginal Reserve Land

In 1968, the KMT government began legal registration of Aboriginal land in Taiwan as Aboriginal Reserve Land. Although indigenous people had lived on Taiwan for 6,000 years before the first Chinese settlers arrived, Aboriginal families received only cultivation rights under the new legal system. Usage rights on the land, moreover, were granted only on the condition that crops be planted for 10 years. The stipulation effectively forced assimilation on Aboriginal people, as it made them abandon their traditional mix of hunting, gathering, and slash-and-burn agriculture. It required that they instead adopt Chinese customs of settled agriculture, presumably for the growth of cash crops. The law stipulated that land could not be sold or rented to Chinese people--it either had to be cultivated or ceded to the government as state property.

Although Aboriginal Reserve Land was supposedly reserved for indigenous people, legal loopholes actually gave the Taiwanese government as well as Han Chinese individuals and corporations access to indigenous land. The government often "rented" indigenous land to outside commercial interests if indigenous people did not cultivate the land and sign "rental" agreements for the property in question. And indigenous people themselves often rented land to each other or outside Han Chinese. Han Chinese entrepreneurs were thus able to acquire space for villas, hotels, and factories on reserve land. The legacy of these problems remains. Indigenous people have no full legal ownership rights over the land, which means that they have no right to take out loans against it, a restriction that has prevented them from developing their own lands.

The policy of Aboriginal Reserve Land thus gave corporations adequate legal loopholes through which to seize Aboriginal land during a window of opportunity from 1968 to 1978. In 1973, the Taiwanese conglomerate Asia Cement applied to rent land from the Hsiulin Township Office and held its first consultative meeting with Taroko people. Township officials encouraged Taroko people to rent the land, saying it would give them employment opportunities, prevent out-migration of young people, and bring development to the community. The original landowners received compensation for displaced crops--a mere fraction of the land’s real estate value--and the promise that the land would be returned to them after 20 years.

Since Taiwan was under martial law from 1947 to 1987, there was no room for protest. The company did little to fulfill its promise of employing Taroko people. Although it had promised one job to each of the 100-some families ceding land, only 30 people actually got work doing low-level jobs as laborers, drivers, and machine operators. Many of them developed respiratory ailments from inhaling cement dust, and three have died of lung complications. By the 1990s, even those few dangerous jobs were being filled by migrant workers from Southeast Asia.

Fighting Back

Twenty years after the initial agreement, when some of the original owners tried to reclaim their land, they found that their property rights had mysteriously disappeared. Asia Cement claimed that the Taroko people had relinquished their rights to the property and that the company had the legal papers to prove it. They argued that the land was state property, and that they were renting it legally. But by this time, martial law had ended and the Taroko people were ready to fight back.

The Taroko were helped in their struggle by 58-year-old Igung Shiban. Shiban, trained as a midwife and beautician, had spent most of her adult life in Japan, but moved back to her Taroko community to vacation as her husband was recuperating from serious illness. When she came back home, she found that her father’s property rights had disappeared. With her help, the Taroko people organized the "Return Our Land Self-Help Association," sent petitions to the county government, and brought suit to court. (Shiban’s Japanese husband, Mr. Maruyama, has supported her financially and emotionally throughout her efforts. He has also helped her write legal documents.)

One lucky day for the Taroko people, township officials left a hearing in anger, leaving behind a stack of documents. As Igung Shiban looked through them, she found that they were filled with irregularities. Some were missing dates or official seals. Most suspicious of all, the signatures of many former owners who had supposedly given up their property rights were all written in the same handwriting. In nearly a year of research, she pulled the agreements, one by one, from the township office files and showed them to the signatories to confirm whether or not they had actually signed them. It turned out that most of the signatures on the agreements to relinquish land rights were forgeries.

Asia Cement resorted to intimidation to stop her research--Shiban and her husband were physically attacked twice, and her husband was burned on the leg—but they didn’t give up. Fortunately, local environmental activists and National Legislator Bayan Dalur, an indigenous representative given a seat through the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), helped them pursue the case by providing access to government documents.

In 1997, Igung Shiban herself ran for township council representative as a DPP candidate. The KMT, however, nominated her brother’s wife as their candidate to split the loyalties of her clan group. Asia Cement also threw their financial resources into the campaign, bribing Taroko people as much as NT$10,000 ($300) to vote for the KMT. In a community with high unemployment and low family incomes, the temptation was difficult to resist. Still, Shiban lost the election by only 50 votes, a result that revealed her strong support in the community. Asia Cement also tried to manufacture consent within the community through financial support of Taroko cultural activities. Most notably, they helped Igung Shiban’s younger brother Jimi Shiban (an Asia Cement employee) collect and exhibit photos of elderly Taroko people with facial tattoos. Their support for cultural preservation, although certainly important from an anthropological perspective, has further divided the Taroko people.

Igung Shiban has continued her struggle for her ancestral land in both the courts and in other venues. In 1998, she presented a report on Taroko land struggles to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. And she gained the support of some journalists; Taiwan’s "Super TV" even made a documentary film on the Taroko struggle. In August 2000, the Taroko people finally won cultivation rights in court, partly due to pressure on their behalf from Yohani Isqaqavut, chair of the Executive Yuan Council of Aboriginal Affairs. On September 4, 2000 the Taroko were able to enter their land for the first time in 27 years. They celebrated the event with a traditional ceremony in commemoration of their ancestors.

The struggle is not yet over. In March 2001, conflict broke out when Asia Cement sent foreign workers to prevent Taroko farmers from planting crops. A journalist was injured in the violence that ensued. Taroko people have planted crops several times since then, but Asia Cement responded by removing the young plants from the ground. The company is hoping that intimidation will prevent the Taroko people from cultivating the land, a precedent that will eventually be recognized as a legal abandonment of the property. Though the Taroko people continue to lobby for enforcement of the rights they earned in court, they lost an important ally during the 2001 elections when Bayan Dalur was defeated in his campaign for re-election to the national legislature.

Only the Tip of the Iceberg

The struggle for Taroko land rights is only the tip of the iceberg. Indigenous villages have been relocated without consent to build the Hualien airport. Both the Tayal tribe of Taoyuan County and the Rukai tribe of Taitung County have lost lands to dam construction. Throughout Taiwan, indigenous land has been expropriated by the Retired Servicemen’s Association, by the Forestry Department, and for the construction of national parks. Indigenous peoples have clearly suffered more than any other ethnic group on Taiwan from colonization and development.

Yet, the indigenous movement in Taiwan has seen important victories in the past decade. In 1996, a cabinet-level Council of Aboriginal Affairs (CAA) was formed to give indigenous people control of indigenous policies. In 2000, DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian, who had placed indigenous rights at the center of his platform, was elected president of the Republic of China. The indigenous musicians who played at the beginning of his inauguration program were a hopeful sign that his promises would be kept.

One of President Chen’s first moves was to name Yohani Isqaqavut, a Presbyterian minister and activist of the Bunun tribe, as the first indigenous activist chair of the Executive Yuan Council of Aboriginal Affairs (see Michael Stainton’s article in this issue). In 2001, the Basic Law on the Guarantee of Human Rights submitted to the Legislative Yuan included strong language to protect indigenous rights.

Fifty-six years after Japan left Taiwan, the decolonization of the island’s indigenous peoples may finally be possible. The experience of the Taroko people, however, shows that pro-indigenous policies and legal decisions are not sufficient. Indigenous rights rely on strong enforcement in order to prevent non-indigenous corporations and individuals from violating them. The Council of Aboriginal Affairs has begun studying the possibility of creating autonomous regions for indigenous peoples in several parts of Taiwan. Indigenous people must be vigilant to ensure that autonomous regions do not turn into a legal trap like the "Aboriginal Reserve Lands" of 1968.

Thanks to Linda Gail Arrigo and Chang Tai-ping for their critiques of the first draft.

Scott Simon is assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Ottawa. He lived in Taiwan for five years and conducted two research projects on economic development in Taiwan while affiliated with the Institute of Ethnology of Academia Sinica from 1996-98 and with the Institute of Sociology from 1999-2001. He visited the Taroko Gorge several times from 1996-2001, and taught part-time at the Graduate Institute for Ethnic Relations at nearby National Donghua University from 2000-2001.

References & further reading:

Allio, F. (1998). The Austronesian Peoples of Taiwan: Building a Political Platform for Themselves. China Perspectives 18, pp 52-60.

Chiu, F. Y.L. (1999). Nationalist Anthropology in Taiwan 1945-1996 - a Reflexive Survey. In Jan van Bremen and Akitoshi Shimizu (eds.) Anthropology and Colonialism in Asia and Oceania. Richmond, England: Curzon Press.

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