How Renewable Energy Can, and Should, Address Environmental Racism

By Benjamin Pei-wei Yang

March 2019. “The land is my mother, not your ATM” chant dozens of protesters in front of the Executive Yuan, Taiwan’s highest executive body. They are the indigenous Puyuma people from the Katritripulr tribe and have travelled some 350 kilometres from the rural southeastern region of Taitung. Their aim? To “[d]efend sovereignty and revoke the project”


The project in question refers to a proposed solar power plant on their native land, commonly known as the Zhiben Wetlands. More specifically, the Taitung county government plans to build what is officially dubbed “a special area for solar power facilities and educational demonstration” that spans 226 hectares, which would make it the largest solar farm in the country if built. The project was bidden out to Vena Energy, a multinational corporation based in Singapore, in April 2018 with its business plan approved in December. In return, the county government will receive a premium of 200 million New Taiwan Dollars per year hereafter – hence the accusation that the land has been used as an ATM. 


In addition to the project’s potential ecological impacts on endemic species in the wetland, the major controversy surrounding it concerns the process by which it was conceived. The Zhiben Wetlands, known as the Kanaluvang area by natives, had been Puyuma land since the 17th Century. The land was first collected by the county government in 1985 for a BOT (Build-Operate Transfer) amusement park project that eventually fell through in 2002 due to issues over land allocation and a shell corporation. Then, in 2017, the county government decided to adopt this new plan in accordance with the central government’s policies on energy transition. 


Throughout the process of this policy switch, including the feasibility study and impact assessment of the new project, consultation with locals was minimal: the public was only given access to one information session and a discussion seminar. The project was bidden out without the consent of the Katratripulr people, nor any reasonable opportunity for meaningful consent to be given. Moreover, both the exclusionary approach to decision-making and the introduction of external developers seem to reflect an underlying assumption that communities like that of the Katrtripulr are dependent on external resources and expertise and incapable of developing such projects organically.


Locals and advocacy groups contend that this is a breach of Article 21 of Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, which explicitly states that governments and private parties are required to consult indigenous communities, obtain their consent, ensure their participation, and share benefits with them before using indigenous and adjoining land for purposes such as development, resource utilisation, ecological conservation, academic research, and the like. Following the protests in March, consultation meetings will be conducted with the Katratripulr in June, where the future of the case will be determined. But that future is uncertain: this being the first instance where the Basic Law is being applied to safeguard the indigenous rights of consultation and consent, it is hard to predict what is to come. 


Nonetheless, this case brings into question the role of the government in the relationship between renewable energy projects and indigenous land rights: how does the government juggle between redistributing resources and extracting profitable returns? Furthermore, as we imagine a more ideal alternative to the Zhiben scenario, can the economies of indigenous communities ever be self-sufficient or independent of external financial beneficiaries? Can renewable energy serve as a tool to empower the previously marginalised and shift the unbalanced power dynamics of the current status quo?


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May 1982. Shipments of iron barrels arrive at the newly built Longmen harbour on Lanyu, an offshore island southwest of Taiwan and home of some five thousand indigenous Tao (or Yami) people. This would become a weekly recurrence for the next 14 years.


In those barrels laid low-level radioactive waste from Taiwan’s three nuclear plants. Authorities had chosen Lanyu as a nuclear waste storage site in 1974, with the infrastructure and the depository itself built by 1980. The plan was to store the waste there temporarily before disposing of it into a sea trench after processing. 


All this was done without the knowledge and consent of the local Tao community. Despite official denial, it has long been alleged that the Chinese-illiterate locals were cheated into the scheme by officials who claimed to be building a cannery that would provide job opportunities

Subsequently, the 1996 Protocol to the 1972 London Convention essentially banned sea dumping altogether. For Lanyu, this meant that the 100,000 barrels of waste would not be going anywhere. Shipments to Lanyu had stopped thereafter due to public backlash, but the waste that had been shipped there before 1996 still remains on the island till this very day. 


A full 37 years transpired between the ordeals on Lanyu and the Zhiben Wetlands outlined here. Yet one can still draw a significant parallel from these two anecdotes, which is perhaps most precisely captured by the term “environmental racism”. It refers to racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, manifested in the forms of (1) disproportionate exposure to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race and/or (2) the exclusion of minority groups from the process of environmental policy-making. 


While the extent to which the first form is manifested in the two cases is nowhere comparable, the second applies equally to both: ethnic minorities who are the most directly affected by the projects are also the ones who are completely disempowered in the decision-making process. 


Energy transition policies and developments in renewable energy are often looked upon favourably as a key to mitigating climate change and an integral component to achieving some of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, particularly #7, which seeks to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all”. But if there is anything we can learn from the parallel drawn between Zhiben and Lanyu, it is that when energy transition is approached with development models like that of Zhiben’s, renewable energy is arguably no less exploitative than the traditional energy industries that it seeks to replace, especially in the spheres of civic participation and transparency. Moreover, the costs of securing that access are borne disproportionately by disempowered communities. 


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Given the foregoing discussion, it becomes imperative to consider what a viable option for developing renewable energy would look like. The good news is that one need look no further than 10 kilometres northwest of Zhiben to find a model for such an approach. This is the Taromak tribe of the Rukai people, which established the first indigenous community solar energy company in 2018. 

According to Rukai legend, the tribe’s people are the descendants of the Sun God. Solar energy provides them the opportunity to not only cut their electric bills but also to achieve a greater extent of autonomy through increased self-sufficiency.


“The idea for a green energy tribe stems from the goal of autonomy of the indigenous people. An autonomous energy source means a huge step forward towards self-rule,” says one of the youth leaders of the Taromak tribe. 


Thus, unlike the plan in Zhiben that is led almost entirely by the county government and external developers, the Taromak project is mandated by a resolution passed by its own tribal assembly back in 2015. Workshops, training camps, and seminars were held regularly throughout this process in an effort to integrate external resources and expertise as well as build consensus within the community. 


Within a few years, the project grew from a few solar panels on the roofs of the community centre and churches to the company that we now see today. It has also developed a business model that distributes 80% of its profits to the stakeholders, 10% to the community, and 10% to its green energy development fund – another contrast to the Zhiben case where the approved business plan concerns only the developer and the county government. 


What the Taromak story highlights, then, is the easily decentralised nature of renewable energy sources. Unlike conventional energy sources like nuclear and coal where electricity needs to be generated in centralised power stations due to technical requirements, renewable sources such as solar can be built locally on mini-grid or off-grid systems. This can empower locals in marginalised and underdeveloped rural areas to be both active participants in, and beneficiaries of, renewable energy projects in their communities. 


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So what can governments do to replicate the success of Taromak and avoid scenarios like that in Zhiben in the transition to renewables? One might argue for a strong, supportive legal framework to support such developments. But if anything, the contrast between these two projects tells us that legal frameworks are not enough. 


Taiwan’s laws regarding green energy development played a supportive role in Taromak. The Electricity Actamended in 2017 incorporates renewable energy sources into the energy market, in addition to the state-owned Taipower Company and private power plants, while amendments earlier this year to the Renewable Energy Development Act explicitly state that feed-in tariffs for renewable energy sources in indigenous areas should be weighted. The same would also be applied to the Zhiben plant should it be built. 


Why, then, are the outcomes of these two cases so different? 


When asked this question, Mu-Xin Lin, researcher at National Taiwan University’s Risk Society and Policy Research Centre and Director of the Taiwan Renewable Energy Alliance (TRENA), quickly identified the thoroughness with which people comply to such laws as the biggest difference. 

Citing Article 21 of the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, Lin highlighted the emphasis on the requirement to engage local communities to participate and share the profits with them, and argued that such acts of engagement would not be significant if they are merely treated as procedures to go through. 


“Participation and profits sharing will only be meaningful when it’s done throughout the entire process. Particularly, only when you know what the local communities want and need can you be sharing the profits that they want and need”, Lin contends. 


“Timing also matters” he adds, “What’s the point for local communities to participate after all of the feasibility studies have been done and business plans approved? It should be more of a reciprocal relationship among the government, developers, and the locals”. 


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As governments worldwide seek to achieve universal energy access and transition to renewable energy sources, this can be their takeaway: renewable energy should be used as a vehicle to empower previously underprivileged communities. Instead of repeating the exploitative measures taken by traditional energy conglomerates to meet their own interests, a decentralised approach to energy transition can both mitigate the new challenges posed by climate change and address unjust and exploitative measures taken in the past against minorities. 


Especially when the nature of renewable energy sources encourages decentralisation and democratisation, the responsibility for continued failure to address environmental racism will fall ever more squarely on our shoulders.

Benjamin Yang is a rising second year student at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, where he intends to major in Environmental Studies. He has worked as a research assistant for the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance and Environmental Rights Foundation, both environmental NGOs in Taiwan. He is currently the President of Roosevelt Institute @ Yale-NUS, a student-run public policy think tank, and will be interning at National Taiwan University’s Risk Society and Policy Research Centre for the summer. He is broadly interested in the intersections among environmental policy making, political science, and sociology.


Art by Francesca Nava

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