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.