Taroko Indigenous vs. Asia Cement: Notes on Wild's Recent Visit to Hualien, January 2010

Adapted by Nicholas Young from Shi-Wei Lu's Essay太魯閣族還我土地運動2010年1月花蓮陳情小記

Hu Wenhsien, a plaintiff in our case against Asia Cement, passed away just a few days before our recent trip to Hualien. Mr. Hu had been divorced from his land for over forty years, though all that separated him from it was a narrow dirt road and a barbed wire fence. From his residence you can hear the rumble and crack of the Asia Cement mining project just a few meters up the hill. His family's home is literally hemmed in on all sides by Asia Cement's Taroko mining operation.

When we arrived at his home, Mr. Hu's family emerged holding his funerary photo, which we had hoped they would bring to our earlier demonstration in front of the Hualien County Government. Unfortunately, they never made it to the demonstration. At their home, we explained the legal process being undertaken, and asked them to help obtaining signatures from all of Mr. Hu's living descendants. How many will do so remains to be seen. Dispossessed of their land, his family is scattered around the island. Like many native peoples across the globe, they have been forced from their traditional domain and made to assimilate into the mainstream culture and economy.

Mr. Hu's grandchildren were cheerful and adorable, relentlessly posing for the cameras. One particularly poignant photo is of one of his grandsons, wearing tattered slippers and standing atop an unused bag of Lucky Cement. The irony is that cement has never brought a shred of luck to this family, only anguish and disappointment, accompanied by a rain of dust and the never-ending din of demolition.

From his home we went to see Mr. Hu's gravesite, just a short walk away. He was buried just the day before, and we searched for quite a while before locating his gravesite, still under construction, in the innermost corner of the cemetery.

There was yet no name on his headstone, as the cement used to construct it was still drying.

One colleague knelt near the grave, looking at some wilted flowers left for Mr. Hu and flipping through some of the condolence cards that had come with the flowers. Two of the cards were particularly distressing because of who had sent them. They were from the previous and current Sioulin Township Chiefs, both mournfully wishing that Mr. Hu rest in peace with the Lord. That year the Sioulin Township Office had assisted Asia Cement in fabricating documents and deceiving aboriginal obligees, going so far as to make a land-lease agreement with Asia Cement as a precursor to occupying tribal lands. It has never been clear where the rent paid by Asia Cement to Sioulin Township has gone, as the local infrastructure is still in dire straits. A good indicator of how the township has fared was a bus sign we saw. There is only one bus that passes through Sioulin, and it comes just three times a day.

Are the people of Sioulin really better off now than they were before Asia Cement arrived? Older generations of Indigenous peoples feel especially strong ties to their land. They relied on it for crops, livestock, and all of their other basic needs. A native people stripped of their land is like a pianist with no piano to play, or a sailor with no ship to sail. Without the one thing on which they have relied for centuries, or even millennia, these people are often left with no choice but to be exiled to the lowest, most marginalized rungs of the mainstream socioeconomic system.

Mr. Hu put the weight of his hopes in our hands, and it is truly saddening that we had yet to defeat Asia Cement and the Sioulin Township while Mr. Hu was still alive. It would have been an honor to enable Hu Wenhsien to finally cross that dirt road, cut through the barbed wire fence, and be reunited with the land that is rightfully his, after so many decades of desolation and disappointment.

As we left the township we passed by the Asia Cement factory at the mouth of Taroko Gorge; it was like a hideous grey monster in the middle of paradise, belching noxious fumes and dust into the air. The government, however, has determined that this grey monster is a model of sustainable industry, recognizing the factory with awards for its pollution prevention.

What can be done to oppose such entrenched powers and interests as Asia Cement and other devastating industries around Taiwan and across the globe? If we choose not throw up our hands in defeat, we can only continue our fight with a smile. While it may seem that this is one of many cases of Wild at Heart helping a client, it's really the other way around. Without people like Hu Wenhsien, what would become of our mountains, our trees, and our water? What hope could we really have for ourselves?