Taipei’s Supreme Administrative Court on Thursday revoked the economic ministry’s approval in 2018 of extending Asia Cement Corporation’s mining rights in Hualien for another 20 years, in a move that rejected the cement company’s appeal and recognized Indigenous peoples’ rights to consent to development projects in their living areas.

“Mining is a form of land development that typically affects Indigenous peoples and their traditional cultures,” the judges explained in a statement. “The legislators have obligated the government to consult with and obtain approval from Indigenous peoples before extending mining rights.”

In 2019, a Taipei high court ruled in favor of four Truku plaintiffs, who filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Economic Affairs, which allowed Asia Cement to continue mining in their living areas without their consent. Environmental groups had questioned why the ministry rushed through the renewal of the company’s license in less than four months.

Asia Cement has been mining in Hualien’s Xincheng mountain for more than six decades. It has applied for a 20-year extension of mining rights three times, most recently in 2017, when the company’s license was set to expire in half a year.

Recognition of Indigenous Rights

Amnesty International has reacted positively to the results, demanding that Asia Cement follow the ruling by suspending its operations in the mining site. It also called for the government to ensure they obtain the approval of Indigenous peoples before greenlighting any development projects.

Aries Huang, a campaigner based in Eastern Taiwan for a local environmental group Citizen of the Earth, said the court decision “made little difference” to Asia Cement’s mining activities.

According to the rules in the Mining Act, the government approves the extension of mining activities “in principle,” meaning that once a company applies, it can continue its operations until the authorities call for a halt.

But the ruling serves as a “sharp warning” to the government, including the Bureau of Mines and the economic ministry, Huang said. “The Bureau of Mines has been rash in approving extension of mining rights, and the court is asking the government to evaluate the consequences carefully.”

Another significant result of the decision is that the court has reaffirmed the rights of the Indigenous peoples to decide how they want their territories to be developed, she added.

In the statement, the Supreme Court also pointed out that the four plaintiffs are all residents of the area around the mining ground. The ministry’s decision is likely to “violate their right to life, body, and property, as well as their rights to live according to Indigenous peoples’ traditional cultures.”

Mining continues

As expected, Asia Cement said on Friday “according to regulations,” it is still allowed to continue its mining operations. “The court decision has not had a significant impact on our financial situation.”

The Ministry of Economic Affairs backed the cement company’s decision, saying that the application of extension is “pending,” according to the Mining Act.

The ministry added that it would ask Asia Cement to submit a proof of consent by the Indigenous tribes in the vicinity of the mining site before approving the 20-year extension.

Despite the continuation of mining activities, Citizen of the Earth pointed out in a statement that the Truku peoples can “negotiate with Asia Cement for compensation or termination of damage based on the spirit of the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law.”

Government “cannot skirt the issue anymore”

The controversy around Xincheng’s mining site has come to the fore since the screening of the film Beyond Beauty - Taiwan From Above in 2013 by the deceased director Chi Po-lin. It showed footage from a helicopter how the once lush green mountains turned into open mining grounds over a few years.

Indigenous activist groups have been protesting for years under the wing of the “Against Asia Cement Corporation, Give Back Truku Land, Self-Saving Committee,” calling for the government to prioritize legal changes that would force companies to take responsibility for destroying the environment.

As the Legislative Yuan has convened recently, Amnesty International has called for lawmakers to include Indigenious peoples’ rights in the amendment of the Mining Act.

Huang, the campaigner, said the Ministry of Economic Affairs now has the option to discontinue Asia Cement’s operations simply based on their impact on the environment. It could also choose to modify the regulations in the Mining Act, making it necessary to discuss with the Indigenous peoples before starting to develop a mining ground.

Still, the government “cannot skirt the issue anymore” after the court decision, she said.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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