• Indigenous peoples in Taiwan

    Indigenous peoples in Taiwan

Indigenous World 2019: Taiwan

The officially-recognized indigenous population of Taiwan numbers 565,043 people (2018), or 2.39% of the total population. Fourteen distinct indigenous peoples are officially recognized.

In addition, there are at least nine Ping Pu (“plains or lowland”) indigenous peoples who are denied official recognition. Most of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples originally lived in the central mountains, on the east coast and in the south. However, nearly half of the indigenous population has migrated to live in urban areas.

The main challenges facing indigenous peoples in Taiwan continue to be rapidly disappearing cultures and languages, low social status and very little political or economic influence. The Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) is the state agency responsible for indigenous peoples. A number of national laws protect their rights, including the Constitutional Amendments (2000) on indigenous representation in the Legislative Assembly, protection of language and culture and political participation; the Indigenous Peoples’ Basic Act (2005), the Education Act for Indigenous Peoples (2004), the Status Act for Indigenous Peoples (2001), the Regulations regarding Recognition of Indigenous Peoples (2002) and the Name Act (2003), which allows indigenous peoples to register their original names in Chinese characters and to annotate them in Romanized script. Unfortunately, serious discrepancies and contradictions in the legislation, coupled with only partial implementation of laws guaranteeing the rights of indigenous peoples, have stymied progress towards self-governance.

Since Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations it has not been able to vote on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, nor to consider ratifying ILO Convention 169.

Endangered indigenous language teaching

The Government of Taiwan launched a program for the “Revitalization of Endangered Indigenous Languages” in April 2018, which is administered by the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) in collaboration with seven universities located across Taiwan. With initial CIP funding of NT$30 million (around one million USD) for 2018, it provides financial and educational resources, and other assistance to take the language classes to regional indigenous populations.1 Classes will be opened in the ten listed Indigenous Peoples areas. CIP Minister Icyang Parod said that, for Taiwan’s main indigenous tribes, most people aged 60 or over are still able to speak their language of origin well but proficiency among people aged 40-60 had deteriorated, and the proficiency of people under 40 was very worrying.2 The national program was therefore set up to specifically save ten of Taiwan’s indigenous languages that are deemed endangered and at risk of dying out due to the dwindling population of elders and mother-tongue speakers. The ten languages identified  are  Thao,  Puyuma,  Sakizaya, Kavalan, Saisiyat, Kanakanvu and Hla’alua, along with three sub-branches of the Rukai language (whose people inhabit the high mountains in southern Taiwan): Mantauran-Rukai, Maga-Rukai, and Tona-Rukai.

The program institutes a “mentoring system” that is meant to ensure one-to-one tutoring with a certified teacher. The program is intended to be immersive and provide full-time work, with the program starting in seven universities in July (including National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Taipei City, National Dong Hwa University, in Hualien County and National Chi Nan University, in Puli, Nantou County). Most of the teachers selected are mother-tongue speakers who are of an advanced age although some are certified teachers or indigenous language specialists. Teachers receive a monthly salary for their work, while CIP also provides financial incentives to learn by also paying a monthly salary to students signed up to the program. Officials hope to ensure the success of the program through the “mentoring system” and full-time program, ideally pairing an elderly speaker with a student of younger age from the community. In this way, when they complete the program, the student can become a “seed teacher” in the future meaning that the teaching of indigenous language can become his or her main career thus preserving the language and passing it on to the new generation in their own area. Funding has thus far been guaranteed for two years.

Activists and linguistic experts agree that the project is essential to rescuing the ten IP languages, but they are seriously concerned that the program ignores the Pingpu peoples and their three Pingpu languages Pazeh, Kaxabu, and Siraya. These are considered the most critically endangered and are at risk of extinction within a decade.3 

Two IP languages for Wiki

The Center for Aboriginal Studies at National Cheng Chi University (NCCU) of Taipei City has presented the results of its support to Taiwan’s incubator programs, which should join the worldwide “Wikimedia Indigenous Languages” project (WIL). In October 2018, researchers at the Center said that revitalization efforts and related preparatory work had borne fruit and they expected Taiwan’s Atayal and Sakizaya languages to be added to the WIL project in 2019. They should have their own Wikipedia pages and information listed in their respective writing systems.4 Work on Taiwan’s indigenous language editions of Wikipedia was started in 2014 by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education. The NCCU’s Center for Aboriginal Studies carried out the project, with assistance from Wikimedia Taiwan. The Center’s Professor Huang Chi-Ping said the incubator programs had been set in motion for all 16 of Taiwan’s officially-recognized indigenous groups but that Truku and Seediq had been combined, making it 15. The groundwork and preparation for Tayal and Sakizaya are ready for final review by Wikipedia’s language committee, to ensure fulfilment of the criteria and required conditions. When approved, they will become the first two Taiwanese indigenous languages to have their own Wikipedia platform. It has been a very difficult and slow process. The program requires input and engagement with nearly all speakers of each language. This has been a challenge because most of the older generations who can contribute are not well-versed in the use of computers and Internet technology. Nor are these groups often familiar with Wiki’s WIL incubator program. Professor Huang notes that, despite these challenges, Sakizaya speakers and editors have contributed over 3,300 entries and over one million words through the process.5

Many of those who participate have taken on the task as their life’s mission. They cherish the opportunity to preserve their mother tongue, and the younger generation has used the work to learn their native language, and to write up articles and digitally document it as a way of modernizing the language from the past oral tradition and preserving their indigenous culture. 

Politicians rebuff Pingpu IP recognition

Pingpu indigenous rights activists encountered major setbacks in 2018 when politicians in the Parliament and CIP continued to stall legal procedures regarding the recognition of Pingpu groups as “indigenous peoples” of Taiwan. Activists and local Pingpu organizations had expected the central government and legislators to finalize the process, and to approve the amendments to the existing law, the “Status Act for Indigenous Peoples” during the last year (Indigenous World 2018). They had hoped for a successful conclusion to their decades-long campaign to gain recognition as “Pingpu indigenous peoples”. Tied to this campaign was their hope for inclusion in the CIP, as equal members of Taiwan’s recognized IP groups. Pingpu activists and community leaders actively participated in the deliberations and hearings held in the legislature in April6 and May as they urged legislators to pass the amendments in 2018. They insisted on recognition as full-status indigenous peoples, with legal protection for their indigenous rights, while rejecting other options that offered only partial recognition, or to have IP status in name only but without any legal protection of their indigenous rights.

They were surprised that the process was derailed yet again, with two unexpected obstructions from politicians. The first statement came in June from the CIP, when officials announced that if IP recognition obtained approval in the legislature then Pingpu groups would still not receive full indigenous rights.7 The CIP said that in order to have indigenous rights, and to receive the range of welfare and educational support programs guaranteed under them, the decision would rely on each Pingpu peoples’ current level in their original language and culture. For those Pingpu peoples who have lost most or all of their language and culture, this means that they cannot have indigenous rights and are not eligible for CIP subsidies and support programs.

The second obstruction came from the legislature in November when opposition Kuomintang Party (Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)) dragged out and delayed the process through to the end of 2018. KMT’s Indigenous legislators said that they opposed the amendments due to concerns that, once granted the status, Pingpu peoples would take much-needed government funding for support programs and resources away from the 16 currently recognized IP groups.8 They also raised concerns about the “broad conditions” proposed regarding legal recognition of a person as belonging to a particular Pingpu community. They worried that Pingpu population numbers could be too large under these general definitions, which would dilute the indigenous rights and privileges of the current 16 IP groups.

As a result of these concerns, KMT’s indigenous legislators have stalled the passage of the amendments. The amendments are now bogged down in the legislature’s cross-party negotiation process, which is resulting in the exclusion of the Pingpu peoples from CIP and other government agencies. This prevents them from receiving IP status, and continues to deny their indigenous rights. The process is ongoing.

KMT politicians have said that they represent the majority opinion of the officially recognized IP groups and CIP officials. They assert that there is strong opposition to the idea of Pingpu peoples gaining  recognition and, as a result, exercising their indigenous rights. As a suggested solution, KMT offered to establish a “Pingpu Peoples Affairs Council”, a new government agency outside of CIP. Doing so would mean Taiwan would never recognize Pingpu groups as IPs, and that the Pingpu would have no indigenous rights.9 

Thao people’s traditional territory

Thao people living around the Sun Moon Lake of central Taiwan have been caught up in political disputes between CIP and Nantou County Government over land and natural resources. Thao activists and community leaders wanted to assert their traditional domain even before the arrival of Han Chinese settlers. After completing studies based on mapping and field investigation, verification of historic documents and written records, on 11 June the CIP presented the first phase of delineation of the traditional territories for the Thao and Atayal peoples.10

In CIP’s document, some 8,000 hectares, including most of Nantou County’s Yuchih Township and parts of Shueili Township and Renai Township, have been delineated as belonging to the Thao people’s traditional territory. This delineation means that the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the Thao people must be sought through their traditional governance Council of Elders and community representatives before going ahead with economic, tourism or land development projects or environmental and wildlife conservation programs.

The day after the announcement, on 12 June, the Nantou County Government moved to approve the EIA (environmental impact assessment) report11 and give the go-ahead for a BOT (build-operate-transfer) project to build a major tourist resort hotel on “Peacock Garden” park on the shores of Sun Moon Lake, which is on the Thao’s traditional land.

Thao activists had fought against the resort for several years because it infringes on their traditional territory and land rights. The activists accused some Nantou County Government officials of colluding with the resort development company to profit from the project. Government officials have tried to hide details of the project from outside evaluation, the Thao peoples said. The Thao peoples also opposed it because, with increased tourism activities and added pressure on local resources, the resort will result in environmental damage and more pollution of Sun Moon Lake. As of today, the resort has not materialized due to the ongoing protests.

Led by Thao elder, Panu Kapamumu, the Thao community has fought this and other projects all the way, refusing to accept the EIA, and appealing to the public for support over the years. The political battle escalated in August when Lin Ming-chen, local governor and head of Nantou County Government of KMT party, announced that under his administration the County would not accept the CIP’s delineation of Thao people’s traditional territory, saying he had the majority support of people in these townships.12 Lin said CIP did not consult with his local government, and that the delineation of indigenous lands would impede road improvement, public infrastructure construction and economic development projects, and that the dispute would lead to open conflict between the Thao people and non-indigenous populations.

During the political dispute, with support from other indigenous groups, Thao activists released statements calling on the authorities to uphold indigenous peoples’ rights to their traditional territory and natural resources and pointed out that, throughout history, the Thao people had lost land and much of their rights due to encroachment by Han Chinese settlers. They demanded that the local government comply with Taiwan’s “Indigenous Peoples Basic Act”.13 Meanwhile, a group of pro testers continued to hold out at a park in downtown Taipei City against CIP’s announced guidelines on restoring traditional territory to indigenous communities issued in 2017 (Indigenous World 2018). Officials of Taipei City authority issued eviction orders for them to vacate the protest location several times over the last year, which were enforced by police and city crews.14 The protest, which was led by indigenous activists Panay Kusui and Nabu Husungan Istanda, nevertheless kept returning to the same site to continue their activities. In their protest, they are arguing that CIP has not gone far enough to return all the land lost to Han Chinese settlers and government agencies over the past centuries. 

Thao indigenous human rights defender

Thao elder, Panu Kapamumu, has been recognized as being among the foremost indigenous human rights defenders in Taiwan. He has led the fight against incursions onto the Thao traditional territory around Sun Moon Lake by land developers, tourist resort businesses, and Nantou County Government in past years. Elder Panu rallied the Thao people in the sustained campaign against the construction of a tourist resort at “Peacock Garden” park, and organized protest rallies at government offices, holding press conference to publicize their cause.15 In his statement on the project, Elder Panu spoke out against it: 

We are fighting for our traditional territory and to protect our Thao homeland. Some government agencies and officials are working with businesses for profiteering to take our land, violate our indigenous rights, and even had damaged Thao’s sacred sites, and also have polluted the water and natural resources which our people depend on. […] Without consultation and our consent, we are totally opposed to any further development on our land, and I will use my life to stop these new projects.16 

Notes and references

  1. See Council of Indigenous Peoples website announcement, 24 April. “Project for Revitalization of Endangered Indigenous Languages”, at: http://bit.ly/2T9FUqI
  2. See United Daily News, “CIP set up mentor system for teaching endangered indigenous languages”, at: http://bit.ly/2T8iNNm
  3. See Economic Daily News, “2018 Siraya Cultural Festival, with result of mother tongue restoration”, at: http://bit.ly/2T80EPE
  4. See United Daily News, “Taiwan indigenous languages to get own Wikipedia sites next year”, at: http://bit.ly/2TgmBMF
  5. See United Daily News, “Sakizaya community young and old mobilized to produce language materials”, at: http://bit.ly/2T80KH0
  6. See Taiwan Central News Agency, “CIP officials oppose granting Pingpu indigenous status, suggest for separate law amendment regarding indigenous recognition”, 12 April, at: http://bit.ly/2T82tMu
  7. See United Daily News, “CIP says subsidy to Pingpu groups to base on level of cultural preservation”, 10 June, at: http://bit.ly/2TaLlWr
  8. See Central News Agency, “No agreement on granting indigenous status to Pingpu groups, still require negotiation between political parties”, Dec 24, at: http://bit.ly/2T8LLfP
  9. See Nihao’s It Going? “Why Taiwanese aboriginals vote Blue (KMT) and not Green (DPP)?” at: http://bit.ly/2T90EPd
  10. See Liberty Times, “CIP announce traditional territory delineation, will protect indigenous rights”, 11 June, at: http://bit.ly/2T917AX
  11. See The News Lens, “BOT project on Peacock Garden still passes EIA, after CIP announcement”, 12 June, at: http://bit.ly/2TbkIR4
  12. See Liberty Times, “Lin Ming-chen overturns CIP decision on Thao traditional territory”, 15 August, at: http://bit.ly/2T8mtyx
  13. See Taipei Times, “Concessions deal blow to Aboriginal land rights: group”, Aug 14, at: http://bit.ly/2T8FQr9
  14. See Newtalk, “Taipei City Government to tear down protester site after 400 days”, 31 March , at: http://bit.ly/2TcI5d5
  15. See United Daily News, “Thao people demand revoke BOT project at Sun Moon Lake Peacock Garden”, 12 June, at: http://bit.ly/2TcI9cP
  16. See Civil Media@Taiwan, “Local government force through EIA on BOT resort project at Peacock Garden, Sun Moon Lake, on Thao People’s Traditional Territory”, 12 June, http://bit.ly/2T2A5vl

Jason Pan Adawai is director of the indigenous rights activist organization, TARA-Pingpu, and former executive council member of the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact (AIPP). Jason is an indigenous Pazeh (one of the lowland Pingpu groups) of Liyutan village, Miaoli County.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

For media inquiries click here

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

 instagram social icon facebook_social_icon.png   youtuble_logo_icon.png  linkedin_social_icon.png twitter-x-icon.png 

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand