Tao People’s Fight for Environmental Justice and Subjectivity on Orchid Island

Written by Mei-Fang Fan.

Image credit: nuclear waste repository on Orchid Island, photo provided by author

The problem with Indigenous Peoples suffering disproportionately from environmental harms tends to entangle with the failure to recognise their worth and exclusion from decision-making. For example, most Taiwanese low-level nuclear waste has been temporarily stored on Orchid Island since 1982, the homeland of the Tao (Yami) tribe.  The nuclear waste repository on Orchid Island exemplifies three dimensions of environmental injustice. These are distributive inequity, lack of recognition and exclusion from the process of policymaking.

First, the Tao tribe has suffered from disproportionate environmental burdens and risks. The Tao tribe differs from many ecological justice communities (minority or low-income communities) in ways that reflect their significant cultural ties to the environment as Indigenous peoples and their perception of nuclear waste risk associated with cultural traditions. Tao tribespeople’s anxiety of nuclear waste has been linked to the fearful image of “evil ghosts,” the origin of misfortune and disaster in their traditional beliefs. The first-time people heard the connection between nuclear waste and evil ghosts was in February 1998 when hundreds of the Tao living in Taipei, led by the Tao Youth Association, gathered in front of Taipower headquarters and asked for the removal of nuclear waste from Orchid Island. This series of demonstrations was called “Chasing away Orchid Island’s evil ghosts.” The Tao also got Taipower’s promise to remove the repository from their homeland by the end of 2002. However, Taipower delayed removing the Orchid Island Repository because of the final low-level radioactive waste disposal siting failures. 

The conventional risk assessment approach and the official claims that the radiation adheres to a safe level have overlooked the negative psychological and spiritual impacts of the nuclear waste on the Tao tribespeople, which failed to comprehensively address the holistic concept of Tao people’s health and well-being. The Tao People’s sociocultural lifestyle is interdependent and connected with Orchid Island’s natural environment. Notably, the rivers and water have critical traditional cultural annotations and functions. The Tao people are vulnerable to environmental impacts because of their unique lifestyle (e.g., fishing, shellfish picking, farming, and groundwater usage) and insufficient medical resources. The elder Tao tribespeople describes the KMT government and Taipower’s nuclear waste dumping on Orchid Island as “throwing unwanted Taiwanese litter.”

Second, the disputes have led to the Tao sense of misrecognition, such as the past authoritative governance that dumped nuclear waste on their homeland without Tao consent, Taipower’s casual reaction to the Tao opposition and delay in honouring its promise to remove the nuclear waste. These former Taiwanese legislators’ remarks offended the Tao. The investigation report published by the cabinet-level Fact-Seeking Committee in September 2018 shows that according to an existing official document, the government prohibited residents from approaching on the grounds of “defence facilities” or “military land.” No evidence shows that the decision got the informed consent of the Tao tribe. Until 1982 when the repository was completed and open to group visitors, the Tao knew it was a nuclear waste repository. 

Third, the concerns with procedural equality in the environmental justice movement are linked to the call for justice in terms of recognition and the distribution of environmental risk. The Tao tend to feel that their voices are neglected and that the tribe is excluded from decision-making. The Tao argument for the decision being made by the tribesmen involves the Tao’s doubt about representative politics. In December 2011, media reports from Academic Sinica scholars detected cesium-137 and cobalt-60 in sediments of the intertidal zone and tidal pool near the nuclear waste depository on Orchid Island from 2008 to 2010. After the “trace release” of radiation event, the Atomic Energy Council has promoted parallel environmental monitoring with an emphasis on information transparency, public participation, and verification, sampling, and analysis by a third party. The Orchid Island residents, NGOs, and local government representatives participated in the villages’ environmental sampling and radiation detection work. However, the reliability of the result of the governmental environmental parallel detection operation was doubted by the anti-nuclear waste organisations. In this top-down participatory mechanism, the residents are still limited to being notified, informed, and passively participating in the monitoring process. 

Since the Fukushima disaster, the Tao people have actively participated in various anti-nuclear waste activities to make their voices heard. The young Tao people spread information on nuclear waste and anti-nuclear activities through the Internet and citizen media. The anti-nuclear alliance and activism have questioned the quality of the governmental radiation regulatory standards and monitoring approaches as well as the reliability of the government scientific reports, which reflects the distrust of the nuclear energy regulation culture, continuing transdisciplinary and cross-cultural interaction and social learning processes. 

At the meeting of the Presidential Office Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee in March 2018, the convener of the cabinet-level Fact-Seeking Committee and other committee members urged the government to formulate compensation regulations as soon as possible to compensate the Tao tribe. The Executive Yuan had approved guidelines for the compensation and that a fund management board that includes residents will be established. However, Tao elder anti-nuclear activists said that the Tao tribe rejects the compensation at a protest in front of the Executive Yuan on 29 November 2019. The Tao activists called attention to their demands, including establishing a communication platform to discuss how to handle nuclear waste and related compensation, legalisation of nuclear waste disposal and compensation, and redirecting the funds to relocate the waste disposal site. 

Tao people’s demand for autonomy reflects recognition struggles and the claim for just treatment and distribution. Participatory and deliberative democracy could help the situation of lack of recognition improve. It could let us reflect on what we think and understand and learn to respect the cultural differences and Tao ways of knowing through dialogue and deliberation. It needs to empower the Tao tribe to play a crucial role in environmental governance and decision-making processes. Connections of Indigenous activism and deliberative practices at multiple scales could shape knowledge production and governance dynamics. Tao participation and continuing processes of dialogue within tribal communities and between tribes, and interactions between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous residents are crucial for coping with environmental risks, address injustice, and reconstruct tribal well-being.

Mei-Fang Fan is a professor at the Institute of Science, Technology and Society, National Yang-Ming Chiao Tung University. She is the author of Deliberative Democracy in Taiwan: A Deliberative Systems Perspective(Routledge, Nov. 2020). Her work on environmental justice and nuclear waste controversy on Orchid Island has been published in the Journal of Communication Research and Practice (In Chinese), Local Environment, Environmental Politics, Public Understanding of Science; latest article on wild creek remediation controversies on Orchid Island will be appeared in Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space.  

This article was published as part of a special issue on The Outlying Islands.

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