Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 17 News List

Something in the air stinks in Hsiulin

The Taroko Aborigines are locked in a struggle against Asia Cement Corp to reclaim lands they say were illegally obtained

By Max Woodworth  /  STAFF REPORTER

A panoramic view of Hsiulin Township shows Asia Cement's facility in the distance.

PHOTO: MAX WOODWORTH, TAIPEI TIMES

Tourists on the way to or from Taroko National Park, where Taiwan's diverse ecosystems and natural beauty are on dramatic display, will inevitably pass through the township of Hsiulin at the park's east end. Though few people stop in Hsiulin, it's hard to miss. It's the place where the hulking gray factory dominates the landscape, where the foliage carries a layer of dust that lends it a ghostly white shade and where the air has a gritty taste that irritates the sinuses.

It's also where graffiti on house walls shouts: "Give us our land back!"

The graffiti was written by Taroko Aborigine residents of Hsiulin who have been engaged in a bitter, decade-long conflict over land rights at Asia Cement Corp's open-pit mine that has alienated the company from the community, divided the locals and, on one occasion three years ago, erupted in a bloody protest.

Since the 2001 action, in which Aborigine landowners attempted to forcibly enter the premises to occupy their plots of land but were rebuffed by mine employees and a company vice president who threatened to kill them "one by one," the company has erected a fence surrounding their operations.

The fence is a physical barrier between the mine and the landowners, but it's also a figurative divide between Tien Chun-chou (田春綢), the elderly, yet fiery activist who leads the Land Reclamation Committee, and her younger brother Tien Kuei-shih (田貴實), a 25-year mine employee only months away from a pension-backed retirement.

The sister is determined to see through the mission of regaining full land rights for the Taroko people who in her words "have been robbed and cheated for 30 years" since the company established operations at Hsiulin. The brother, meanwhile, is exasperated by his divided loyalties between the company and his clan and simply wishes to "retire in peace."

Troubled roots

The contentious battle between the Taroko and Asia Cement finds its roots back in 1968 and 1969, when the tribespeople, at the time recognized as Atayal Aborigines, registered their land cultivation rights in Hsiulin under a newly established law for the preservation of indigenous peoples" land. That legislation allows for full ownership of the land to be transferred to Aborigines after the land had been cultivated for five years. It also stipulates that land granted to Aborigines for cultivation is non-transferable and non-leasable except to other indigenous persons and under restricted conditions.

Nevertheless, beginning in 1972, Han Chinese-owned Asia Cement entered nine-year lease agreements negotiated by the township's administration office for 272 plots of Aborigine land and in the subsequent few years the land rights to all but 61 parcels of land were canceled and handed over to the company under circumstances that activists and legal representatives say are illegal and that should render the company's claims to land use rights invalid.

At the center of Tien Chun Chou's campaign against the mine are strong suspicions that the cancellations of land rights were obtained through forgery. Copies of relevant documents given to Taipei Times show remarkably similar handwriting for signatures by different people signing over the rights to their land. Some lack dates and all lack thumbprints, which are required in the case of a representative signing in lieu of someone who cannot write Chinese. According to Chung Bao-chu (鐘寶珠), an activist involved in the case, one of the deeds was signed by an office building. Furthermore, an investigation in 1996 of the land right cancellations showed that none of the people interviewed could recall signing the waivers.

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