The Indigenous World 2023: Taiwan
The officially recognized Indigenous population of Taiwan numbers 580,758 people, or 2.48% of the total population.
Sixteen distinct Indigenous Peoples are officially recognized: Amis (also Pangcah), Atayal (also Tayal), Bunun, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Sakizaya, Sediq, Thao, Truku, Tsou, Tao (also Yamei), Kanakanavu, and Hla'alua.
Ten lowland Indigenous Peoples groups (Pingpu) are not recognized as such by the government and hence not extended the same rights as the 16 recognized groups and thus are also excluded from the Council of Indigenous Peoples’ (CIP) policies and programmes. The ten unrecognized peoples are: Babuza, Hoanya, Kaxabu, Ketagalan, Makatao, Papora, Pazeh, Siraya, Taokas, and Tavorlong.
The 16 recognized groups enjoy representation at all levels of government, from parliament to central government's CIP and municipal governments, city and county councillors, and local district and township representatives.
Most of Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples originally lived in the central mountains, in the east coast and in the south. However, nowadays over half of the Indigenous population lives in the urban areas of the country.
The main challenges facing Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan are their rapidly disappearing cultures and languages, encroachment onto their traditional domain, the denial of their rights and the exclusion of the 10 lowland (Pingpu) Indigenous Peoples.
The 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); the Name Act (2003), which allows Indigenous Peoples to register their original names in Chinese characters and to annotate them in Romanized script; and the Indigenous Languages Development Act (2017).
Unfortunately, serious discrepancies and contradictions in the legislation, coupled with only partial implementation of these laws have stymied progress towards the 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.
Truku consent for mining
In the long-running legal dispute between Asia Cement Corp and the Truku Indigenous people over mining operations and Indigenous land rights, a vote was organized on 12 February for local Truku community residents of Siulin Township, Hualien County on Taiwan's east coast.
The court battle and mining law amendment in parliament had dragged on for some years due to legal manoeuvring and lobbying on both sides. Meanwhile, in 2021, the Ministry of Economic Affairs approved Asia Cement’s continuing operations on a 20-year mining rights extension.
A turning point came in September 2021 when the High Administrative Court ruled against Asia Cement Corp for contravening articles of Taiwan's Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, citing that the company did not conduct a consultation and nor did it obtain the approval of the affected Indigenous community.
The court thereby upheld the need for Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and, after that ruling, consultations took place from late 2021 to early 2022 between the company and a council of chosen leaders representing the affected Truku Bsngan community in Siulin Township.
The process led to the organization of a vote on 12 February to address the FPIC requirements and on whether the residents would agree that Asia Cement Corp should continue its operations where the company already had consent for quarrying and mining from landowners and on public land reserved for Indigenous Peoples. The result came as a victory for Asia Cement Corp with 294 ballots in agreement (83 per cent of households) and 45 ballots against.
Local Indigenous residents who opposed the mining company protested outside the polling station, while environmental activists alleged that the company had used unfair tactics and threats of losing economic benefits to pressure the residents, as local authorities and police had to keep order during the voting.
Afterwards, Asia Cement Corp released a statement thanking the Truku community residents for their support and suggesting that the process “will become a model for corporations to consult and obtain consent, and to respect the wishes of the indigenous people.”
The statement also stressed that the company would comply with environmental protection and ensure safety at work, implement a revenue-sharing mechanism, and provide more jobs for Truku community members.
Those opposing the company’s continued operations staged more protests, accusing the Asia Cement Corp of winning the vote by misleading the community by presenting only favourable information, promising generous local investments, social benefits programmes and job creation for community members while threatening to pull out if the result was not in the company's favour.
Since the FPIC process, with a result that was clearly favourable for the company, government officials, including the CIP, have promised to respect the decision of the Truku community. In its statement, the Ministry of Economic Affairs praised the process as setting a good example of economic development and benefit-sharing between the Indigenous community and business sector. The statement noted that the consultation process had helped ensure the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights while at the same time enabling the mining operation and cement production to continue, thus allowing for a sharing of benefits with the community, also meeting the needs of the industry and the nation's economic development.
Recognized Indigenous Peoples oppose Pingpu Peoples
Throughout 2022, Taiwan's Pingpu groups (also known as plains aborigines, Pe'po peoples) persisted in their struggle for recognition. Ironically, one of the strongest forces opposing the Pingpu’s formal recognition as Indigenous Peoples are the 16 peoples whose status as Indigenous as already recognized by the government and who are thus able to access government benefits designed to empower Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan.
Pingpu activists have been bolstered by the worldwide Indigenous rights movement, the enactment of the Indigenous Peoples’ Basic Law in Taiwan, and government leaders’ promises to restore justice for Pingpu Peoples. Facing an erosion of their culture, ethnic identity and language, in recent years Pingpu activists have resorted to legal challenges and arguing that existing government policies are contravening laws and violating the rights of Pingpu groups.
The main case was launched by Siraya leader, Uma Talavan, on behalf of the Siraya people, in which she questioned CIP’s refusal to recognize the Indigenous status of the Siraya. The High Administrative Court took up the case in 2020 and later referred it to the Constitutional Court for interpretation on the Status Act for Indigenous Peoples and other relevant laws.
When the case entered its oral hearing in June 2022, politicians and leaders representing recognized Indigenous Peoples (known as Taiwan's Status Indigenous Peoples) convened meetings across Taiwan to declare their opposition to the recognition of Pingpu Peoples as Indigenous.
The first such meeting was a press conference held in New Taipei City on 26 June 2022 where leaders presented a public declaration with the slogan: “When Pingpu become lowland Indigenous people, Status Indigenous Peoples groups will be exterminated.” This event was followed by news briefings in Hualien County and Taitung County, and in Taoyuan, Taichung, and Kaohsiung cities, where leaders of Taiwan’s status groups also stated their opposition to granting Indigenous status to Pingpu Peoples.
Taitung County deputy council speaker Lin Tsung-han, whose Paiwan name is “Sakinu Maysang”, said that if Pingpu groups received Indigenous status it would impact negatively on the current 16 recognized Indigenous groups and dilute Taiwan's special Indigenous status, leading to the destruction of existing Indigenous ethnic identity, culture, and traditions. Lin also claimed that too many Pingpu Peoples could receive the status and thus gain too much political power, depriving the existing Indigenous groups of their rights and leading to the extermination of Taiwan's current 16 Status Indigenous Peoples.
CIP Minister Icyang Parod also spoke publicly to support these declarations, asking the Constitutional Court to respect the “existing large differences” between the Status Indigenous Peoples and the Pingpu groups and arguing that “recognizing Pingpu groups as Indigenous people will adversely affect the rights enjoyed by those who are currently recognized.”,
The stance taken by Lin and his fellow Taitung Indigenous councillors came as a shock to Pingpu activists. They pointed out that, in essence, it was one Indigenous group denying the existence of another Indigenous group in order to exclude the latter group from sharing the benefits and privileges of the recognized groups.
Constitutional ruling in Siraya's favour
On 28 October, Taiwan's Constitutional Court handed down its ruling on Siraya’s case, stating that Siraya and other Pingpu groups have the right to be recognized as “Indigenous people” and giving the government a three-year period to amend and implement relevant law statutes to enable Pingpu recognition.
The Constitutional Interpretation stated that Taiwan's native Austronesian peoples, including Pingpu groups, were able to obtain constitutionally protected Indigenous status, and thus rejected CIP's opposing arguments.
Hailed as a landmark decision, unanimous among the 15 Grand Justices, the ruling stated that it was unconstitutional to use provisions in the Status Act for Indigenous Peoples, as CIP had done in the past, to deny Indigenous status registration to Pingpu groups.
The Grand Justices affirmed that “Native Austronesian peoples had been living in Taiwan since historic times, prior to the arrival of Han Chinese, which later become the majority population. These original peoples had their traditional living spaces throughout Taiwan, and each independently had evolved their language, history, and cultural traditions.”
The ruling said that individuals had to register to obtain their Indigenous status, and prove belonging to one of the Pingpu tribes, where tribe members must have a “collective identity as an ethnic group” that retains its culture, language, and traditional practices. They also had to substantiate their ties to the Austronesian people via historical documents and reports.
While recognizing the importance of the ruling, Uma Talavan pointed out that Indigenous politicians and CIP officials could put up barriers to block the Siraya people from obtaining Indigenous status. In her court presentation, Uma Talavan and the Siraya people’s delegates pointed to CIP's exclusion policy and refusal to allow Siraya to register as violations of the guarantee of equality among all ethnic groups under the Constitution, as well as a violation of the State’s guarantee to safeguard the status and political participation of all Indigenous groups, pointing out that, according to the Constitution: “The State shall affirm cultural pluralism and shall actively preserve and foster the development of aboriginal languages and cultures.”
She noted that the State and its government agencies had denied the Siraya and other Pingpu groups’ Indigenous culture, tradition, and collective ethnic identity, for which they have struggled for over two decades to gain recognition while facing pervasive discrimination, assimilation forces, and real dangers of cultural extinction. She also accused the State of contravening its own Constitution and international covenants on Indigenous Peoples’ rights to safeguard them from assimilation by the main population.
Documents and government reports were also presented that proved that Pingpu rights advocates had been active in Taiwan's Indigenous rights movement since the early 1990s and that Pingpu representatives had participated at United Nations forums and international conferences on Indigenous issues since that time, all before Taiwan established the CIP in 1996.
“Since participating in these struggles and Indigenous rights movement in early 1990s, it has now been nearly three decades and many Pingpu leaders and elders have passed away or are in advanced age. They and their families cannot wait any longer and the State should not delay the judgement and should not continue to violate the Constitution to deprive Pingpu Indigenous groups of their proper rights and status as Indigenous people of this country,” Talavan said.
Wildlife conservation setback
Collaboration between Indigenous communities, conservation groups and researchers, and government agencies has led to considerable progress in recent years in the protection of Taiwan's forest and wildlife.
Two prominent incidents in 2022 concerning Formosan black bears killed by poachers with hunting rifles received significant news coverage, however, with condemnation from conservation activists and various sectors of society due to its detrimental impact and tarnished image after years of touting conservation success stories in Taiwan.
The first incident was in May when a dead Formosan bear, a critically endangered species protected by law under the nation's Wildlife Conservation Act, was found buried near a mountain village in Nantou County of central Taiwan. The second incident took place in December, when an online video of a group of men carrying a dead bear on scooters went viral. Local authorities launched an investigation to find out the circumstances and to identify who did the killing.
In the May incident, investigators tracked down the poachers, who turned out to be two Indigenous Bunun hunters from the same family in nearby Bokai Village. The poachers admitted to setting a steel-wire trap for hunting that had snared the bear, which they then killed by firing three shots at it.
The December incident led investigators to southern Taiwan's Pingtung County, near a mountain village of Wutai Township, populated mainly by Indigenous Rukai people. A search in the poacher's house uncovered freezers containing the carcasses of a Formosan black bear and Formosan serow (wild goat) as well as the remains and pieces of four Formosan sambar deer, all protected species according to Taiwan's wildlife regulations.
All poachers are currently facing prosecution on charges of illegal poaching and killing of protected wildlife, in contravention of the Wildlife Conservation Act. Both cases stirred up public anger, with conservation groups and politicians condemning the poaching activities.
Since the investigation determined that both cases were illegal poaching by Indigenous hunters, the public focused on the fact that the poachers had in both cases violated the traditional customs of most Indigenous communities for protecting the black bear as a sacred animal. Responding to the public outcry, CIP officials released a statement calling on all Indigenous communities to put an end to the killing of protected wildlife and follow traditional beliefs that have respect for the Formosan black bear.
Jason Pan Adawai is a journalist and 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) from Liyutan Village, Miaoli County, Taiwan.
This article is part of the 37th edition of 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 2023 in full here.
Notes and references
 Jason Pan Adawai. “Taiwan. Mining law and Truku land right.” In The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, pp. 324-326. Copenhagen: The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2020, https://www.iwgia.org/en/taiwan/3609-iw-2020-taiwan.html
 “Court defends IP rights in Asia Cement case.” Liberty Times News, 18 September 2021, https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/society/breakingnews/3676200
 “Bsngan Community consultation on agreeing to a vote, controversies between pro and con groups.” Central News Agency, 12 February 2022, https://www.cna.com.tw/news/ahel/202202120118.aspx
 Council of Indigenous Peoples release. “Bsngan Community Council for voting to approve extending mining operation, CIP respects the decision by indigenous community residents.” 12 February 2022, https://www.cip.gov.tw/zh-tw/news/data-list/35AE118732EB6BAF/7C4907F8B89C86E9E30A90A0C0814788-info.html
 Ministry of Economic Affairs release. “Ministry endorses the approval decision, for reaching agreement on rights of indigenous peoples and economic development for the industry.” 12 February 2022, https://www.moea.gov.tw/Mns/populace/news/News.aspx?kind=1&menu_id=40&news_id=98813
 Pingpu peoples, who have been continuously denied government recognition as Indigenous Peoples, are generally classified according to their ancestral domains, from north to south: Ketagalan, Taokas, Pazeh, Kaxabu, Papora, Babuza, Hoanya (Lloa), Siraya, Tavorlong, and Makatao.
 “Indigenous people groups and councilors of New Taipei City oppose granting indigenous status to Pingpu groups, it will impact on nation's all indigenous peoples to infringe on their rights.” Liberty Times News, 26 June 2022, https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/life/breakingnews/3972722
 “Taitung councilors oppose recognition of the Siraya.” Taipei Times, 29 June 2022, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2022/06/29/2003780787
“CIP opposes indigenous recognition to Pingpu groups, Will divert away resources for recognized Indigenous peoples.” Liberty Times News, 27 June 2022, https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/politics/breakingnews/3973642
 ”(CIP) Council opposes official Indigenous status for Pingpu people.” Central News Agency,
29 June 2022, https://focustaiwan.tw/culture/202206290019
 “Constitutional Court paves way for Siraya recognition.” Taipei Times, 29 October 2022, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2022/10/29/2003787907
 Taiwan Constitutional Court - Interpretation Case No. 17 of 2022. Siraya People Request for Indigenous Status. 28 October 2022, https://cons.judicial.gov.tw/docdata.aspx?fid=38&id=310021
 “Winning court case does not mean Indigenous status for Siraya, Uma Talavan asks amending law statues to address deficiencies.” ETToday News, 28 October 2022, https://www.ettoday.net/news/20221028/2368365.htm
 Taiwan Constitutional Court - Interpretation Case No. 17 of 2022.
 "Formosan bear killed, evidence buried: police." Taipei Times, 13 May 2022, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2022/05/13/2003778149
 “Man arrested for hunting protected wild animals.” Taipei Times, 16 December 2022, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2022/12/16/2003790812
 “Pingtung Police arrest Wutai Township resident on alleged killing of Formosan black bear and sambar deer.” Liberty Times News, 9 December 2022, https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/society/breakingnews/4150217
 “Rukai indigenous leader speaks out on local men riding scooters to show off killed Formosan black bear.” Next Apple News, 14 December 2022, https://tw.nextapple.com/local/20221214/431B6EFE0386A1B6D1F166BEB94BAE5E
 “CIP say killing of Formosan black bear violates indigenous tradition and cultural taboo.” Liberty Times News, 20 December 2022, https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/life/breakingnews/4160544
Tags: Global governance