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Aborigines ask for council's help in getting back lands

PROPERTY RIGHTS The Aboriginal affairs commissioner has vowed to help petitioners in their bid to have lands commandeered in 1967 returned to their rightful owners

By Liu Shao-hua  /  STAFF REPORTER

A girl from the Atayal tribe holds up a banner yesterday expressing hope and seized by the military will be returned.

PHOTO: GEORGE TSORNG, TAIPEI TIMES

A group of Aborigines petitioned the Cabinet's Council of Aboriginal Affairs yesterday for help in recovering land taken by the Ministry of National Defense in 1967.

The 45 petitioners, who include senior citizens, middle-aged people and children, produced evidence documenting that they were the original owners of 77.402 hectares in Hoping township (和平鄉), Taichung County.

"President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has shown his concern for Aboriginal land rights and has committed the government to a policy of returning ancestral lands to Aborigines," the council's chairman, Yohani Isqaqavut (尤哈尼), told the petitioners. "During my term, I will endeavor to see that Aboriginal land rights are respected."

Chin Su-mei (金素梅), an Aboriginal actress who also works for Hoping township's administration, said the defense ministry in 1967 commandeered 2,643 hectares of paddy fields near the Nanshih (南勢段) and Kukuan (谷關段) areas of Hoping township.

The ministry used the land to set up barracks and training camps, Chin said, and it offered "other land as compensation, but they never stuck to the deal."

Another petitioner, Hsu Wan-fu (許萬福), said in a video presentation that the defense ministry had compensated residents for property on the lands -- such as fruit trees, rice and houses -- but not the land itself.

"Since the ministry is not using the lands, why not return them to us?" Hsu said. "It's my ancestors' land. I have to take it back."

The defense ministry stopped using some of the land in 1998 and agreed to return it, the petitioners said, but Hoping township officials failed to inform the original owners about meetings with the ministry to discuss transfer of the lands.

The petitioners said township officials located just two of the original owners and returned three plots of land to them. The remaining property was taken over by the township.

The Aborigines asked the council to help them recover 7.402 hectares currently under the township's control, and a 70-hectare plot that is still being used by the defense ministry's Yueh Wu Camp (岳武營區).

In response to the request, Yohani Isqaqavut told the petitioners, "I will continue with my efforts to campaign for land rights and will do so earnestly."

Aboriginal activists, mainly from the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan where Yohani Isqaqavut was once a leader, launched campaigns named "Return Our Lands" in 1989, 1990 and 1992.

The main challenge facing Aborigines is producing documents that show they were the original owners of land.

Mayaw Kumud (馬耀谷木), a representative at the Aboriginal affairs council, said "this is the first time Aborigines have been able to provide evidence," and usually ownership of such lands defaults to the government.

Mayaw Kumud served a one-year jail term in 1995 for breaking laws against assembly and demonstrations during the 1992 "Return Our Land" campaigns.

"Many activists from that time have entered the new government. We won't let go of [the land rights issue] easily," Mayaw Kumud said.

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