• Indigenous peoples in Taiwan

    Indigenous peoples in Taiwan

Indigenous World 2020: Taiwan

The officially recognised Indigenous population of Taiwan numbers 571,816 people (2019), or 2.42% of the total population. Sixteen distinct Indigenous Peoples are officially recognised. In addition, there are at least 10 Pingpu 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, nowadays nearly half of the Indigenous population lives in the urban areas of the country. The main challenges facing Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan continue to be rapidly disappearing cultures and languages, encroachment on traditional domain, and protection of Indigenous rights. The Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) is the state agency responsible for Indigenous Peoples. Taiwan has adopted a number of laws designed to protect Indigenous Peoples rights including the Constitutional Amendments on Indigenous representation in the Legislative Assembly, protection of language and culture and political participation (2000); 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 Romanised script. Unfortunately, serious discrepancies and contradictions in the legislation, coupled with only partial implementation of these laws have stymied progress towards self-governance of Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan. Since Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations it is not party to UN human rights instruments.

Mining law and Truku land right

In July 2019, Truku people of Hsiulin Township on Taiwan’s east coast won a court battle over their land against the mining company Asia Cement Corp. of Taiwan,1 but the sought-after law amendment to restrict mining operations was dragged through to the year’s end.

For many years environmental activists have been supporting Truku people in their decades-long protest against Asia Cement, which began its operations in the area in 1973, after taking over the mining right and business license from a small local company. A number of protests were organised throughout 2019, including a protest at an Asia Cement shareholders meeting in Taipei City on 24 June.2

The High Administrative Court ruling to revoke the 20-year mining right extension issued to Asia Cement by the Bureau of Mines was a victory for the local community, mostly Truku people, that live next to the company’s operation sites, including the limestone quarry and cement production factory. Given that the court ruled the company had violated Taiwan’s 2005 Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, activists hailed the outcome of the court’s case as symbolic. The court specifically referred to Article 21 of the law that stipulates, “When governments or private parties engage in land development, resource use, ecological conservation and academic research in Indigenous land, tribe and their adjoining land owned by governments, they shall consult and obtain consent by Indigenous Peoples or tribes, even their participation, and share benefits with Indigenous people.” The court found the company did not conduct proper consultation with the local community and did not obtain its approval for extending the mining operation.

Asia Cement appealed the decision and meanwhile is continuing its quarrying and mining operations arguing that its permit for extension of mining operations was obtained in accordance with provisions of Taiwan’s Mining Act.3,4 Company lawyers also cited the “grandfather clause”, saying that it started mining operations in Hsiulin long before adoption of the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law in 2005 and hence was exempt from its legal applications.

The battle then focused on an amendment of the provisions of the Mining Act that allowed the company to continue its operations despite the ruling of the court. Even though many legislators in the ruling and opposition parties pledged their support to the amendment, the process in the Parliament was delayed due to lengthy cross-party negotiation.

Environmental groups and Truku people appealed for public support and held talks with legislators, while Asia Cement and other business conglomerates took up lobbying efforts to stifle the amendment process. Asia Cement pointed to economic benefits and jobs its operations brought to the local community, saying that over 40% of their 700 employees are locally hired Indigenous people. Some of the company employees spoke to the media, expressing their support to the company and opposition to shutting down its operations fearing loss of jobs.5 Company officials presented a petition in support of continued operations, claiming it was signed by 70% of the area’s residents. However, according to Truku activists and environmental groups most local people were not aware of the petition.

The process dragged until the end of 2019, and the small opposition New Power Party tried to insert an amendment to the Mining Act into the agenda for deliberation and voting during the legislature’s specially convened session on 31 December, but the move was blocked by the two main parties of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Kuomintang (KMT), as they were focusing on passing another important bill.

The failure to pass the amendment has been regarded as a defeat for Truku people, since in 2020 the amendment may be further challenged by business groups and its passing through legislature might be even more difficult.

Pingpu’s and Kavalan groups struggle for recognition

In 2019 Indigenous Pingpu peoples’ struggle for the legal recognition of their Indigenous status once again ended without progress.6

In 2019 Pingpu activists focused their activities on pushing through an amendment to the “Status Act For Indigenous Peoples”. Pingpu activists in alliance with Siraya peoples, worked with legislators from the DPP to get the bill on the priority list in February and there were indications that the bill had a good prospect in Parliament. However, just like in past years, the bill’s deliberations and cross-party negotiations were delayed and got bogged down. And as happened in the past, Indigenous legislators from the two main parties suggested further consultations and public hearings were needed.7

Throughout the year Pingpu groups and Siraya leaders, Uma Talavan and her father Cheng-Hiong Talavan, organised a number of protest actions denouncing delays in the legislature.8 A protest on 15 October ended with protesters handing a petition letter demanding speeding up the deliberations around the bill and recognition of the Indigenous status of Pingpu peoples to the President’s Office.9

Unfortunately, protests, advocacy and lobbying work did not bear fruit and Pingpu peoples are still excluded from the CIP and consequently left out of all government programmes aimed at protecting and supporting Indigenous Peoples, while the survival of their culture, language and self-identity is looking bleak with each passing year. Analysing the reasons for the lack of progress, interviewed activists pointed to the resistance from the opposition KMT party, as well as from Indigenous legislators, CIP officials and a majority of other officially recognised Indigenous Peoples groups, which seemed to be hesitant about the prospect of sharing government-allocated resources designated for the support of officially recognised Indigenous Peoples.10

A similar situation was experienced by Kavalan people who originally come from the north-east of Taiwan. While Kavalan people in Hualien County have their Indigenous status officially recognised (registered at about 1,500 people) and thus can access all programmes and subsidies under the CIP, in Yilan County nearly all Kavalan people have no Indigenous status.

In the Kavalan assembly event on 21 December, held at Hualien’s Fongbin Township, community leaders and elders once again requested the government to grant Indigenous status for all Kavalan people and to end the denial of Indigenous rights for those from Yilan county.11

Long-time Kavalan rights activist Bauki Anao has called on the government to end the discrimination of Indigenous people and repeated the demand of official recognition for Kavalan people in Yilan and for the Pingpu groups.12 According to Bauki Anao, CIP officials had explained that the KMT government had invited “lowland aborigines” to register for Indigenous status several times between 1956 to 1963. Those registered at that time were granted Indigenous Peoples recognition. But according to Bauki Anao, his parents never received this information due to the isolation of their villages and lack of effort by local officials to inform the local population on government edicts.

Compensation for Tao people

After completing its investigation report, the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) announced in November that it will allocate a compensation package at NT$2.55 billion (about US$85 million) for Lanyu Island residents for the storage of radioactive waste by the state utility Taipower Co., which operates Taiwan’s nuclear power plants.13 The offshore volcanic island is the homeland of Indigenous Tao people.

In addition to the compensation figure, MOEA officials said they will pay out NT$220 million (about US$7.36 million) every three years as a “compensation for land use”, while a non-profit foundation supervised by a governing board will manage these funds for public projects, community services, economic development and social welfare programmes for Lanyu Island residents.14

The compensation came after the investigation report conducted by the Indigenous Justice Committee under the Presidential Office’s mandate concluded that Tao people’s rights were violated and they had no idea that in 1978, with secret approval of the KMT government and then premier Sun Yun-suan, Taipower Co. started building a storage facility for radioactive waste on the island. Taipower Co. had deceived the Tao people by telling them the construction was for a fish cannery factory, promising it would benefit the island’s economy and create jobs for its residents. The first batch of 288 metal drums filled with nuclear waste was delivered to the site in 1982. Since that time, Taipower Co. has been using the site continuously, despite the court challenges and active protests every year. Tao activists insist that Lanyu islanders were not aware of the site’s use and did not consent to it, and therefore the storage is illegal. Moreover, the high incidence of cancer and other illnesses on the island is attributed by activists to the presence of nuclear waste.

In its defense, Taipower Co. pointed out that the company has been providing funds to finance energy and water supply networks for many years, as well as improved health care, construction of schools and medical stations, telecommunication facilities, and subsidies for fishing boat repair and local public buses. It also claims to have paid NT$1 billion (about USD$33 million) to island residents in compensation for land use at the storage site.15

It was reported that as a result of protests held by Tao peoples anti-nuclear activists in August and November,16 Taipower Co. started to look into other potential sites to store the nuclear waste. A Tao elder, Siyapen Nganaen, speaking at the protest said that his people will not accept the compensation figure, but instead called on the government to transfer the funds into a Tao foundation fund that would be focused on terminating nuclear waste on Lanyu and for its removal to other permanent storage sites.

Kavalan cultural revival

In 2019 the Kavalan people in Yilan County marked a new chapter for their cultural revival movement, when on 13-14 July,  for the first time in over 100 years, they performed the rituals of the “Ocean Festival” or “Sepaw tu lazing” as it is known in Kavalan language.17 Pan Ying-tsai, the 91-year-old Kavalan chief of Kirippoan Village, conducted the rituals in traditional costume, in the presence of other Kavalan elders from east coast villages and participants from the local community.18 The Kavalan leader remembered the Kirippoan villagers performing the “Kisaiiz”, the ritual for healing illnesses, when he was a five-year-old child, but  in those days he said only his elder family members had memories of participating in “Sepaw tu lazing”.

Since much of Kavalan culture, language and traditions had eroded due to the government’s assimilation policies and mainstream society pressures, it took some help from Kavalan clans in Hualien and work by cultural researchers for this revival of tradition to happen. Pan Ying-tsai believes the festival had a positive impact on the community’s young people who were motivated to support the restoration of Kavalan language, music and traditional culture, and to keep the festival alive in the future.

Taiwan hosting Indigenous Peoples conferences

In December 2019, Taiwan hosted the “International Indigenous Economic Development Forum” for consultation on food and agriculture innovation, promoting Indigenous women and youth start-ups, entry into the global e-commerce market, sustainable financing, Indigenous social enterprises, and other issues. Besides Taiwanese officials and Indigenous representatives, the forum was attended by over 200 delegates and experts from Pacific island nations, Southeast Asia, Bangladesh, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Italy.19 The three-day conference focused on the soft power and business potential of Indigenous groups, raising public awareness of Indigenous economic development and deepening commercial connections with regional neighbors in line with the government’s “New Southbound Policy”focusing on expanding Taiwan’s economic, cultural and tourism links with Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand.

That same month, the CIP Minister, Icyang Parod, announced that Taiwan had secured the right to host the World Indigenous Tourism Summit (WITS) in 2022, with an agreement signing ceremony in Taipei City. “We hope the summit will help lift the international profile of Taiwan and its Indigenous tribes and provide an opportunity for us to learn from other countries that have greater experience in Indigenous tourism,” Parod said.20 Ben Sherman, who signed the agreement on behalf of the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance (WINTA) conducted assessment tours during his participation at the “International Indigenous Economic Development Forum”. Sharing his impressions from the visits, Sherman said he was reassured that awarding Taiwan as host of the WITS was the right decision.21


Notes and references

  1. Central News Agency, July 11, 2019 “Court revokes cement firm’s mining rights on aboriginal land” https://focustaiwan.tw/society/201907110014
  2. Report by Taiwan Environmental Information Center, June 24, 2019 “Protest and altercation at Asia Cement Shareholders Meeting” https://e-info.org.tw/ node/218697
  3. Taipei Times, July 30, 2019 “Asia Cement challenges removal of mining permit“ http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/biz/archives/2019/07/30/2003719561
  4. The News Lens, Sept. 2, 2019, “Economic Affairs Ministry said no appeal on court ruling not to extend Asia Cement mining right”: https://www.thenewslens. com/article/124230
  5. Nownews, July 16, 2019, “Asia Cement fight against mining restriction, workers union demands rights to work”: https://www.nownews.com/ news/20190716/3503203/
  6. The ten groups of Pingpu groups (plains aborigines), still demanding for recognition as Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples, but government still have not done so, include Ketagalan, Taokas, Pazeh, Kaxabu, Papora, Babuza, Hoanya, Siraya, Tavorlong, and
  7. Liberty Times, Feb. 26, 2019, “Siraya people persist on litigation for recognition, court battle against CIP”: https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/society/ breakingnews/2710225
  8. Taiwan People News, May 2, 2019, “Siraya people demand ruling government to fulfill promise for official recognition of Pingpu groups”: https://www.tw/news/ea37ed60-f954-4527-a654-1d615129f24b
  9. Taipei Times, 16, 2019, “Pingpu groups stage rally to demand recognition”: http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2019/10/16/2003724033
  10. Taiwan Indigenous Television Network, May 19, 2019, “Political parties at odds, Amending Indigenous Status Act for Pingpu groups breaks down”: https://todohealth.com/17978786
  11. Keng Seng Daily News, Dec. 12, 2019, “Delegates call for official Indigenous status for all Kavalan people, on 17-year anniversary of government restoring recognition: http://www.ksnews.com.tw/index.php/news/
  12. Ibid
  13. NEW ARTICLE_ page/0001329714
  14. Central News Agency, Dec. 21, 2019, “Over 70-year old teacher cannot get Kavalan status, for missing out on original status registration”: cna.com. tw/news/aloc/201912210122.aspx
  15. Central News Agency, 23, 2019, “Tao people to receive NT$2.5 billion compensation, for nuclear waste storage on their Lanyu Island”: https://www. cna.com.tw/news/firstnews/201911220097.aspx
  16. Ministry of Economic Affairs Report, 22, 2019, “Report on main points for financial compensation of nuclear waste storage site on Lanyu Island”: https://www.moea.gov.tw/Mns/populace/news/News.aspx?kind=1&menu_ id=40&news_id=87863
  17. Liberty Times, 22, 2019, “Taipower said two main compensation funds had been disbursed”: https://ec.ltn.com.tw/article/breakingnews/2986113
  18. Taipei Times, 30, 2019, “Tao protest, reject compensation for waste”: http:// www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2019/11/30/2003726721
  19. Liberty Times, July 13, 2019, “Kavalan people of Yilan County revive Ocean Festival ceremony”: https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/life/breakingnews/2851767
  20. Taipei Times, July 18, 2019, “Revival by the Sea”: http://www.taipeitimes.com/ News/feat/archives/2019/07/18/2003718869
  21. Storm Media, Dec. 16, 2019, “2019 International Indigenous Economic Development Forum, creating Blue Ocean markets for IPs”: https://www.storm. mg/localarticle/2070330
  22. Council of Indigenous Peoples website statement, Dec. 20, 2019, “Taiwan acquire hosting right for first time, on 2022 World Indigenous Tourism Summit”: https://www.apc.gov.tw/portal/docDetail.html?CID=35AE118732EB6BAF&DID=2D9680BFECBE80B65076A8A605C4B29C
  23. Central News Agency, Dec. 19, 2019, “Taiwan will host 2022 World Indigenous Tourism Summit”: https://www.cna.com.tw/news/firstnews/201912190206.aspx

Jason Pan Adawai is director of the Indigenous rights activist organisation, 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) from Liyutan Village, Miaoli County.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



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

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