Different Shades of Green: Indigenous Protests Against Solar Energy

Written by Daniel Davies.

Image credit: Pingtung County, Wanluan Township Office (萬巒鄉公所提供).

On June 3rd, 2020 Taiwan Sugar Corporation CEO, Chen Zao-yi, travelled south to Pingtung County for the most recent talks surrounding a proposed 230-hectare solar farm project at Xinchi Farm in Wanluan Township. The green-energy project, which is to be built alongside the No.185 County Road, has been at the centre of sustained protests by local residents due to the planned felling of Taiwan’s largest planted forest. The site of the development is within the 10,815-hectare forest planted in 2002 by the Taiwan Sugar Corporation, using 5.2 billions of dollars of state subsidies, after the contraction of the sugar industry caused by Taiwan joining the WTO. After nearly 20 years, the area has flourished into a green corridor, supporting not only ecological regeneration but an industry of green tourism, including parks and bicycle routes enjoyed annually by tens of thousands of tourists and local residents alike. The proposed deforestation in this area has united residents of the majority Hakka and Minan township of Wanluan, along with the neighbouring Paiwan indigenous Taiwu Township, in resistance to a project understood to be part of a top-down attempt to usher in a new era of green-energy in Taiwan.

Finding a Voice

The potential environmental effects—the speed at which the content has been undertaken, as well as the lack of transparency—have catalysed local protests towards solar farm construction. Wanluan Township mayor Lin Guo-shun, a central member of the protests, lists the potential devastation to the local environment; from increased flood-risk and land-erosion, to rising temperatures and reduced air quality. The central concern of the protests is on the paradoxical environmental damage caused by the environmental policies of the central government. The loud silence of Pingtung County officials has been understood to show that the future of the development is not open to debate but has support from the highest levels of authority. Rather than representing a future of sustainability, the most recent trends in Taiwan’s new energy programme seem focused more on political and financial gains. The pressures to meet the key campaign promise to dismantle the fourth nuclear power-plant without jeopardising energy outputs, and the green power requirements necessary for inclusion within the supply chains of US industrial giants Apple and Google appear to be forcing the hand of the Tsai administration.

The local protests currently led by Wanluan Local Government and Uljaluc (Taiwu) Village in Taiwu Township are acutely aware of the importance of accurately articulating their discontent towards the project. Leaders have been quick to point to their support for the shift towards green energy. They cite the extensive photovoltaic projects already completed within the regions along with the solar panels attached to the roofs of the houses and primary school in Uljaluc Village. The causes for concern are the environmental impact and the exclusion of local government and residents in the planning process. The first and loudest voice of discontent on the issue came from Highland Indigenous Legislator Kao Chin Su-mei when she questioned the Council of Agriculture regarding the proposal in the Legislative Yuan on March 25th, 2020. The raising of the issue has been praised by local actors who only learned of the project through social media platforms or through contractors ready to break ground. While the Pingtung County Government officials have asserted that they too learned about the project from the media, the relative silence from officials above the township level illustrates a reluctance to speak out against a project supported by the DPP administration of President Tsai Ing-wen.

An Indigenous Island at the Frontline

The protests in Pingtung are not unique: as early as 2017, plans for solar farms have led to a dispute between indigenous communities and the government. Protests against the Zhiben Wetland Photovoltaic Development Project in Taitung are now in their third year. Members of the Katratripulr community are currently appealing to the Taipei High Administrative Court to deny the granting of a license for the finalising of a project originally estimated to cover over 260-hectares of natural wetlands, due to a failure to adequately seek community consent for construction on indigenous lands. For the Paiwan village of Uljaluc in Pingtung, their voice is even less likely to be heard. Although the village is located directly adjacent to the proposed solar farms—and most at risk from the ecological risks of large-scale deforestation, loss of essential tourism and the destruction of their surrounding natural environment—no consent or discussion are required. Because 225 households relocated to land within the 10,000-hectare forest following the devastation of Typhoon Morakot in 2009, the village is now an indigenous island within Wanluan Township. As the village remains under the administration of Taiwu Township, no official invitation has been extended to the village to take part in discussions. The restrictions on industrial development and legally required processes of informed consent guaranteed to indigenous peoples by The Indigenous Peoples Basic Law do not apply to their current place of residence, which is outside the lines of the official indigenous reserved lands. While Wanluan Local Government has proven a strong ally in the protests, the proposed solar farm has highlighted the precarious nature of the divided status of Uljaluc community, and the inability of the community to practice their indigenous rights within the sphere of their contemporary lives.

The protests surrounding the proposed solar farm continue to grow with local councillors and representatives voicing their dissent. However, without the support of the County Government, a face-off between local leaders and county and central executives seems inevitable. While the gains and support for green energy are high, the means and manner in which the transition has been undertaken are divisive. The lack of information provided to local governments and the failure to assess the potential risks that President Tsai’s new energy policy may bring means that currently, it is the local environment, and those who rely on it, that are paying the price.

Daniel Davies is a PhD candidate at the National Sun-Yat Sen University in Kaohsiung. He is exploring the forms of representation and articulation of aboriginal identity in multicultural Taiwan. Daniel has also been active in community development, arts and educational programmes in collaboration with the Pingtung County Government and the Council of Indigenous People

This article is part of special issue on energy and environment in Taiwan.

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