This two-part post investigates Taipei’s abolitionist ecologies through the lens of indigenous land rights. Till today, its continued contestations reveal deep-seated racial antagonism that hinder efforts to reinstate justice for the indigenous community.
In 2017, Taiwan’s government passed a legislation that mandated the return of traditional land to its indigenous people (known colloquially as yuanzhumin). Considering Taiwan’s colonialist history, this is a significant historic move. However, does having laws that reinstate indigenous land rights truly ensure justice? 2 recent protests in Taipei suggest otherwise:
The 1st protest is held at Ketagalan boulevard, an arterial road named after the indigenous clan that historically resided around Taipei. “Not enough!” proclaimed the infuriated yuanzhumin protestors. Their anger was directed at the legislation’s insufficiency and stemmed from feelings of betrayal – in 2016, Taiwan’s Tsai administration had vowed to ‘undo the wrongs’ of 4 centuries of colonial oppression by granting yuanzhumin greater cultural authority, among which reinstating land rights was one such promise. The 2017 legislation, however, mandated the return of privately-owned lands but not publicly owned ones. Hence, while the law effectively increased yuanzhumin land ownership from 0 to 800,000 hectares, it fell short of the 1.8 million hectares the yuanzhumin initially demanded.
Fig.1: Yuanzhumin demonstrators protesting the 2017 legislation at Ketagalan Boulevard, demanding the government to follow through on their previous promise to reinstate the rights of yuanzhumin. Starting in 2017, this indigenous occupation have impressively lasted till 2019, despite multiple dismantling of their encampment by the police.
Conversely, the 2nd protest is held by Taipei’s ethnic majority – the Han-Chinese farmers under the Taiwan Association for the Rights of Non-Aboriginal Residents in Mountain Indigenous Townships (TARNAMIT). “Too much!” rebuked the TARNAMIT farmers. These Han-Chinese retorted that the 2017 legislation would force them off their farmlands, which they now ‘rightfully own’ after occupying them for several generations. Parrying the yuanzhumin’s claims to racial justice, the TARNAMIT countered that restoring indigenous land rights is – interestingly so – racially unjust:
Fig.2: Arriving in Taipei from 27 buses across Taiwan, the TARNAMIT farmers too protested the 2017 legislation. Citing disruptions to their livelihoods, they called for the legislation’s repeal. The picture above shows a TARNAMIT demonstrator holding up a placard that ironically reads ‘racial equality’
Histories of Losing Ground
In a sense, these opposing imaginaries of equitable land access are a microcosm of Taiwan’s racial history. As with other western colonial states (e.g. Canada/Australia), Taiwan’s history of settler colonialism involved an exogenous population (Han-Chinese) displacing its indigenous yuanzhumin.
Although yuanzhumin land dispossession spanned across centuries under different colonial masters, it was accelerated during Taiwan’s industrialisation in the late 1900s under the Chinese Kuomintang government. Indigenous lands – desired for their natural resources or dumping of industrial waste – are often victims of capitalist expansion since ‘their remote location and political-economic weakness make them ideal candidates for the ‘least resistance path’’ (Chi, 2001:136).
Fig.3 A classic example of environmental injustice: the Lanyu nuclear waste facility was constructed in 1980 on Taiwan’s Orchid Island, without consulting its indigenous yuanzhumin. Despite Taipei’s economic success, the cost of industrialization has often been disproportionately borne by indigenous yuanzhumin in other parts of Taiwan.
Robbed of their ancestral lands, yuanzhumin often take up menial labour/demeaning jobs in cities that lock them into entrenched poverty cycles, producing distinct economic inequalities that are still widely felt: today, the yuanzhumin’s average monthly income (24,000 NTD) is only 2/3 of the average Han-Chinese (35,600 NTD); their unemployment rate (9.24%) is also markedly higher than the general population (3.89%) (Simon, 2013). Fundamentally, yuanzhumin marginalization – vis-à-vis Taiwan’s ‘economic miracle’ (see: previous post) – embodies the classic adage of ‘accumulation by dispossession’.
Fig.4: A video highlighting Taiwan’s ‘accumulation by dispossession’, detailing the marginalization of indigenous communities under capitalist developments:
[1.31 – 3.45] 2 personal stories of indigenous yuanzhumin and the decimation of their home due to a cement company’s encroachment onto their lands.
[10:09 – 10:32] A yuanzhumin narrating the cultural importance of restoring their land rights, after having endured long histories of colonialism.
Whose Rights, On What Grounds?
Relating back to Taipei’s protests, it is easy to sympathize with the yuanzhumin’s anger – after all, given the longue durée of oppressive racial politics, the government’s lackluster response demeaned previous lofty promises to ‘undo the wrongs’ of history:
“The success of one ethnic people can be built on the suffering of another…in the process of modern state-building, indigenous peoples lost the right to steer their own course and govern their own affairs. The fabric of traditional societies was torn apart, and the collective rights of peoples were not recognized. For this, I apologize to the indigenous peoples on behalf of the government”
“To all of our indigenous friends here and watching on TV and online: I invite you to stand witness. I invite you not to endorse, but to oversee. Please keep pressure on the government and right its course where necessary, so that it will realize its commitments and right historical wrongs.”
Fig.5: Excerpts of president Tsai Ying Wen’s 2016 apology to the yuanzhumin of Taiwan. In this apology, she also promised various government initiatives to restore indigenous autonomy – among which included reinstating land rights, reviewing conservation laws and promoting indigenous language.
And yet, dissident voices by TARNAMIT farmers highlight the complexities surrounding environmental justice. While TARNAMIT’s call for ‘racial equality’ (fig.2) is ironically a step backwards for racial equality, the transference of land ownership does indeed implicate their current livelihoods. Crucially, it is clear that a harmonious resolution is not attainable via a simple ‘backpay’ of land rights to the yuanzhumin. Over the intervening years, ‘who gains’ and ‘who pays’ can no longer be delineated along the axis of race alone, especially when these actors and their agencies have since evolved.
A UPE framework has elucidated the mélange of actors that have inscribed their presence within Taiwan’s landscape at different junctures – the past and present communities of yuanzhumin, Han-Chinese and Taiwan governments. Consequently, since ‘land’ embodies a bricolage of cultural relations, legislations that confine it to a sub-group (be it TARNAMIT or yuanzhumin) thus escalates the very racial tensions that it aim to resolve. Moving forward, I borrow Hale’s (2002) call for a ‘language of solidarity’– to advance binary policies where ‘winner-takes-all’ – towards imagining spaces for co-prosperity. For Taipei, this might entail consultative dialogues on (re)partitioning land plots in meaningful ways that retain current TARNAMIT agricultural capacities yet accommodate the reintroduction of yuanzhumin.
This is no easy task, as Hale himself admits this ‘language of solidarity’ to be utopian and vague. Nonetheless, such utopian visions may serve as a start to gravitate away from the abrasive language of differences/discrimination typically surrounding discourse of indigenous rights. After all, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
Chi, Chun-chieh (2001) “Capitalist Expansion and Indigenous Land Rights. Emerging environmental Justice Issues in Taiwan”, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 2,2, 135-153.
Correia, J. E. (2017) “Life in the Gap: Indigeneity, Dispossession, and Land Rights in the Paraguayan Chaco”, Thesis Submission for Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Geography, University of Colorado
Hale, C. R. (2002) “Does Multiculturalism Menace? Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala”, Journal of Latin American Studies, 34, 3, 485-524. hale
Simon, S. (2013) “Scarred landscapes and tattoed faces: poverty, identity and land conflict in a Taiwanese indigenous community”, in Eversole, R., J. A. McNeish and A. D. Cimadamore (eds) Indigenous Peoples and Poverty: An International Perspective, Zed Books Ltd, London: Zed Books Ltd.