Taiwan’s east coast has been subjected to a string of development projects that exploit the land and disregard environmental justice. Now, as the nation gets caught up in a rush to develop tourism, one more construction plan has been added to this sad list. On May 30, a meeting was called in Sansiantai Borough (三仙台) in Taitung County’s Chenggong Township (成功), at which local residents were told that an environmental impact assessment for a building project in the area had been completed and that construction work would start after one week. Stunned by the sudden announcement, local residents demanded that the departments responsible for the project hold a second public meeting to better explain what impact the project would have. However, the departments in charge said that there was no reason to hold another meeting and that they were not duty-bound to do so because the required procedures had already been completed.
Serious problems are evident in several aspects of this case.
The project development site is located in the famous Sansiantai scenic area. Although the area is well-known, most people are probably not aware that the east coast’s last remaining intact coral reef is just nearby. This is the most beautiful diving spot on the east coast and it is an important haven for marine resources that are shared by Aborigines and fishermen. Studies by the Eastern Marine Biology Research Center of the Fisheries Research Institute and by members of Academia Sinica show that this small stretch of sea is home to 2.5 percent of the nation’s fish fry and fingerlings. They recommended that it be designated a marine conservation area. Unfortunately, the coral reef has already been degraded by mud and sand washed down from building sites on adjacent land and by overfishing. There is good reason to worry that the 12 hectare resort development project, in the course of its construction and future operation, will cause more damage to the coral reef and that the reef will be completely ruined.
Then there is the question of social justice. The Jihuei (基翬) Aboriginal settlement is just uphill from the resort development site. The settlement is classified as a general conservation area, so there are many restrictions on building there. Jihuei residents are not even allowed to rebuild their houses if they are damaged. This stands in stark contrast to the green light given for this major development project in a neighboring conservation area.
This has triggered a backlash from Amis Aborigines who live in Jihuei. The authorities say that approval for the development project has been handled according to the law. If that is so, it seems to lend support to the accusations by Aborigines that while they frequently get in trouble with the law for using natural resources, it is considered legal when it is the state and big businesses — the super “rats” gnawing away at the mountains and polluting the sea — that are the ones doing so.
Besides, has proper procedure really been followed in relation to this case? There are two good reasons to doubt it.
First, according to Article 164 of the Administrative Procedure Act (行政程序法): “The decision on an administrative planning that relates to specified utilization of land situated in specific districts or the construction of major infrastructures, which involves persons with diverse interest and the powers of a multiple number of administrative authorities, may be finalized only through open process and after the holding of a hearing proceeding.” The current project and the plan to build a hotel in the Sansiantai scenic area have been major items on the agenda of the authorities concerned for many years, but when, if ever, did they make the process open or hold a public hearing?
Second, according to Article 21 of the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act (原住民族基本法): “The government or private party shall consult indigenous peoples and obtain their consent or participation, and share with indigenous peoples benefits generated from land development, resource utilization, ecology conservation and academic researches in indigenous peoples’ regions.” The present development project is located within the traditional territory of the Amis, yet the Amis living in the area were only informed about it seven days before building work was due to start.
They were not told about it before that, still less were they consulted; they did not agree to the project; and they were not given a chance to take part in the review procedure. If the government and commercial developers really respected these laws, then the coral reef that is cherished by people living in the area, Han and Aborigines alike, would have been more firmly protected when the project was under review, and so would the interests of the residents. Unfortunately, that is not the way things have been done.
These two points are typical of the unlawful and unjust procedures followed with regard to many development projects in the past. As if that were not bad enough, an even greater systemic injustice is being readied that will sell out the interests of the nation’s east coast. That injustice is to be found in the draft law on the development of the east coast that is under deliberation in the legislature.
Articles 10 to 12 of the version of the law favored by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which are to do with how land can be used, would give local governments the sole power to change the classification of usage for land and exempt them from the restrictions imposed by existing laws on land use. The proposed articles would also greatly reduce the time required for reviewing applications to change land-use designations to a maximum of one year. If these articles are approved, local residents, who are generally disadvantaged in their access to information, will be made even more vulnerable to procedural injustice than they already are.
Many commercial developers and even government agencies like to complain about having to abide by various laws and procedures, which they see as red tape standing in the way of profits. They often deliberately skip over these regulations, and now they are trying to dispense with the rules altogether by means of the proposed legislation. Not following procedural justice will lead to environmental destruction, and it will harm the interests of local residents. This is definitely not the kind of development that Taiwan needs.
Tai Hsing-sheng is an associate professor at National Dong Hwa University’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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