Following President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) official apology to the nation’s Aborigines on Aug. 1 last year, many assumed that the government would adhere to the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act (原住民族基本法) announced on Feb. 5, 2005.
However, on March 14, then-Bureau of Mining Affairs director Chu Ming-chao (朱明昭) approved an application by Asia Cement to renew its mining license near Taroko National Park for 20 years.
Chu’s retirement immediately after the approval has led to suspicions of a quid pro quo deal.
Late film director Chi Po-lin’s (齊柏林) observations of Asia Cement’s quarry in Hualien led to a public outcry over the renewal.
About 21,000 people petitioned the government to revoke the license, while environmentalists demanded that the government conduct an environmental impact assessment on the mining site and follow Article 21 of the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act.
Premier Lin Chuan (林全) ordered a review of the approval process.
On June 19, the Ministry of Economic Affairs confirmed that the license would be renewed, as it did not find anything illegal regarding the application.
Ironically, Tsai on July 14 presented a special award at Chi’s memorial service to his family for the director’s contribution to the nation.
Far Eastern Group chairman Douglas Hsu (徐旭東) on June 27 defended the quarry by saying the pit could be turned into a lake to raise fish, a point refuted by former minister of the interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源), who said that artificial reservoirs can leak, which could lead to dam failure.
Naturally formed landslide dams are demolished to prevent flooding should failure occur.
Indeed, there is a Truku community near the quarry.
That Hsu has failed to consider this suggests he cares little about the environment.
Vice Minister of Economic Affairs Yang Wei-fu (楊偉甫) on July 18 said that the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act is unclear, adding that even though the government respects the law, until the legislature passes amendments to the Mining Act (礦業法), it would be difficult to enforce.
Aboriginal studies academics are well aware that since the passage of the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act, before carrying out any research on Aborigines, researchers must explain their project at a meeting and obtain a signed agreement from the people involved and submit a proposal to the research ethics committee for review.
Why was Asia Cement given special permission to skip those steps?
As several reports have said, many lawmakers believe the ministry prefers a version of the amendments to the Mining Act that is biased in favor of mining companies.
Cement production involves such issues as national land preservation, the public interest and infrastructure, which raises the question if more licenses should be issued to cement companies to satisfy domestic demand or if environmental impact assessment requirements should be stricter, mining areas restricted and exports banned. Perhaps cement should be imported? These are issues that the government must clarify, and it should let the public decide, perhaps in a referendum.
Another problem is the draft amendments to the Mining Act, which include the unfair article that allows the ministry to grant mining permission to companies when three-quarters of local residents agree.
The review process for the amendments has been slow. So far, legislators have agreed on only one amendment.
However, the budget review for the infrastructure program has already been scheduled for the third extraordinary session.
It is unknown when the legislature can finish reviewing the amendments, but Asia Cement will not stop its mining operations until some major changes have been introduced.
Andrew Cheng is a professor of psychiatry.
Translated by Tu Yu-an
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