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 decision passed down in 2000 by the Hualien District Court called for Asia Cement to allow onto their land the holders of the cultivation rights of the 61 parcels for which the cultivation rights had not been waived, but the company has so far refused to do so and authorities have thus far failed to enforce the court's decision. The bloody protest in 2001 was an attempt by Tien Chun-chou and landowners to gain access to the plots.

Asia Cement, however, insists that the land rights were obtained legally and the Aborigines" claims to the land are moot. Though over 20 calls this week to company vice president and spokesman Chou Wei-kuen (周維崑) who in 2001 issued the death threats, were never returned, the company's promotional material highlights the Hualien factory's long list of honorable mentions from government agencies for its safety, hygiene, welfare, pollution-control and labor-management relations programs. The company also claims to have benefited the community through investment and jobs, both of which were -- and remain -- sorely needed in the area.

The pragmatist and the idealist

It's on this last point that Tien Kuei-shih has settled his accommodation with the mine's presence in Hsiulin. "Before the company came in, everyone complained about how there were no jobs. Now the company's here and everyone wants them gone," he said.

"If you want to develop the land, you need to find a company to put in the investment. It's not as if the residents here have the money to develop the land themselves."

But the benefits to the local community are difficult to determine, particularly in job creation. The company, which allegedly promised to provide Aborigines with jobs, has, in fact, only 20 Aborigine employees out of a workforce of 115 and 15 of these belong to the Amis tribe and are not from Hsiulin. In total, only five landowning Taroko residents of Hsiulin are currently employed at the mine, all at the lowest tier.

Tien Kuei-shih, a high-school graduate, tested into his job 25 years ago and remains at the unskilled-labor pay rank. His Han Chinese colleagues, he said, have been promoted over him for decades.

"If people want the company out of here, it's because they promised to give jobs but didn't deliver. They haven't taken care of the people here. That's their biggest problem," he said.

There are plenty of other problems, though, that his sister points out. First, landowners received as little as NT$3,000 in compensation from the company when it initially obtained the leases and later investigations found that many never received any compensation in the first place. Then there is what she called a high incidence of lung ailments in the township, which she attributes to the suspended dust particles thrown into the air by the mine's TNT-blast digging methods, stone-grinding and delivery processes.

For Tien Chun-chou, Asia Cement's acquisition of the land bears the mark of the central government's all-too-frequent disregard for Aborigines' rights and deep-rooted racist sentiment toward indigenous peoples.

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