Environmental Injustice in Taiwan

Taiwan is home to 16 aboriginal tribes; among these tribes are the Tao (also known as the Yami) peoples who inhabit Orchid Island, some 65 miles off the coast of Taiwan. In the 1980’s, unbeknownst to the Tao people, the tip of Orchid Island was turned into a nuclear waste dump.

For several years the activities surrounding the nuclear waste site, which was the main activity on the island, was kept secret. The Tao people were never informed that the island would become a nuclear waste dumping site. In the late 1980’s the Tao people initiated protests after uncovering the truth about what was taking place.

It was not until 2008 that the Taiwanese government conducted an inspection of the barrels which had been eroding since 1992. The storage facility stopped receiving waste in 1996. The possible impact of nuclear waste dumping on Orchid Island includes but is not limited to: water pollution, cancer, death, learning disabilities due to contaminated fish, and birth defects.

Recently, the Taiwanese government apologized to the aboriginal tribes and declared that it would set up a Historical Truth Commission. The apology addressed the inequality that aborigines have faced for hundreds of years. The President of Taiwan used Orchid Island as an example of the injustices aborigines have faced. While some applauded the gesture, others believe it may turn out to be an empty promise.  This sentiment may have some merit, considering an apology was issued before and previous leaders acknowledged action was needed for the Tao peoples.

There is draft legislation which requests the government to “remove radioactive waste from the island within 2 years, allocate $316.1 million (USD) to restore local ecology, resident health, and social and economic development” which has deteriorated as a result of the nuclear waste. Presumably the draft legislation also includes corporations such as Taipower, who should also be held responsible for the hazardous activities conducted on the island.

What opportunities do the Tao people have under international law to address this issue? The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a universal framework for “minimum standards” for indigenous populations. Article 15 of the UN Declaration gives an adequate starting point. Article 15 provides “states…shall take effective measures to combat prejudice and eliminate discrimination…” which arguably could include environmental discriminatory policies. Further, Article 29 states that no “storage or disposal of hazardous materials” shall take place in lands or territories of indigenous peoples.

At this juncture there is no enforcement mechanism for “violations” of the UN Declaration. Therefore, it is important Taiwan specifically give the aborigines a large role in setting up the Historical Commission, allow the aborigines to participate in the Historical Commission in a meaningful manner, televise or record testimony so that it can be shared with the public to foster openness and an understanding of the history of the aborigines, and that any recommendations which are adopted  by the Commission are implemented immediately.

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