Sun Ta-chuan, who has been called the "least political" and "most culturally informed" minister of the Council for Indigenous Peoples, was called upon to take charge of the CIP after Typhoon Morakot and handle the thorny problem of coordinating reconstruction in the Aboriginal disaster areas. What are his views on how reconstruction has been going and on future development? An exclusive interview follows:
Q: There have been many achievements in reconstruction in the year since Morakot, but there have been expressions of dissatisfaction as well. In particular, what do you think of those disaster victims who came north on the eve of Morakot's first anniversary to protest?
A: After the disaster, the government's main consideration was that destruction of the environment in many mountain areas had gone beyond any possibility of repair. The best choice was therefore that, with the support of NGOs, Aboriginal peoples from those places move as quickly as possible into permanent housing in safe areas. That's where the concept of building settlements of permanent housing came from. Because it was necessary to determine the number of households who would relocate in order to plan construction, that's how the controversy got started over asking Aborigines, in exchange for permanent housing, to sign binding agreements not to return to the mountains.
Just after Morakot, when uncertainty reigned, many Aborigines did indeed worry that "the government wants to force Aborigines out of our hometowns." In fact, the government's permanent-housing policy has never been about compulsory relocation, and there has never been any attempt to compel people to sell their hometown land to the government. Even where it has been bought by the government, this has only been with the agreement of the persons involved. But with the media reporting all kinds of rumors, even now many indigenous people still have concerns. We will have to do more to get the facts out to people.
Q: But it says in plain black and white in Article 20 of the Morakot Special Act: Land that poses a safety risk shall be deemed a "restricted area," and "people will be restricted from living in such areas," which presumably means that they must be relocated-willingly or not.
A: Before October of last year the government was still thinking that the best option was that disaster victims could all be moved into permanent housing in new settlements and not return to unsafe mountain areas. That's why these terms were written into the Morakot Special Act.
But around that time, I spoke with people in over 20 villages, and we realized that Aborigines could never accept complete abandonment of their hometowns. This issue caused big arguments between us and other agencies at several cabinet meetings. Fortunately in the end we reached an agreement: The local people would have to agree to accept the designation of "restricted area," and in cases where people would not accept this, we created the "high-risk area" designation so that people who wanted to relocate could get permanent housing while those who wanted to remain in their hometowns could do so.
Also, the Post-Morakot Reconstruction Council gave a definitive interpretation of "people will be restricted from living in such areas" as being the same as in the Disaster Prevention Act. That means when an emergency evacuation order is in effect, residents of an at-risk area cannot remain in the area, but can return when the order is lifted. With this new agreement in place, people have been more willing to accept permanent housing without fear that this means losing their old homes in the mountains.
As for the protest, this was mostly about reconstruction problems in the mountain areas. There are still 6000 Aborigines living in high-risk areas, and because repair of mountain roads and bridges has been slower than anticipated, some feel the government has over-emphasized lowland reconstruction and neglected the mountain areas. In fact, the problem isn't the government's attitude, it's that the circumstances on the ground are forbidding. In some cases the roadbeds have been washed away, and big machinery can't get in. In other cases, no one has bid for the contracts. All we can do is to try to work faster.
Q: In the past year, disputes over relocation and housing qualifications have caused splits in some indigenous tribes, which bodes ill for future reconstruction. What can be done?
A: This problem really worries us, because reconstruction isn't just building houses, it involves employment, social relations, culture, psychology, and ethnic identity. The government has not done enough in these areas, but the Executive Yuan has begun to reassess its direction and these will be the most important areas in the next phase.
For example, different indigenous peoples have been mixed in resettlement areas, and the housing, designed by the donating organizations, is uniform, making it difficult to assert unique identities. Also, social networks have fractured, and inevitably differences of opinion have arisen about management of resettlement sites. Therefore in the next phase we need a dialogue platform, like management committees, to build consensus.
But Aboriginal compatriots must also realize that after relocation it will be impossible that the same social relations will persist as in the mountains. In their new homes, they must form new social relations, new cultural networks, and new norms. The adjustment will be long and tough, and while government and experts can help, most important is the attitude of the indigenous people themselves.
Therefore I call on all those concerned with Aboriginal peoples to support "dialogue" at the current stage, to create good soil for healthy shoots to grow. If people jump to conclusions and declare "opposition" between different indigenous peoples or between Han Chinese and Aborigines, or politicize disputes, this will harm efforts to form a new culture, which is of no help to indigenous people.
Q: What can be done about Aboriginal economic opportunities after relocation to the lowlands? Are big projects like Yonglin Organic Farm, built by Foxconn, really suitable for indigenous peoples?
A: Yonglin is one possibility, but I think we need to take a wider perspective.
The ROC has never had a policy about Aboriginal economic activities. In the past these were merely minor subsets of industrial policy for society as a whole, managed through the capitalist division of labor. The government has never taken Aboriginal society or traditional lifestyles as the starting point to find a different economic model for indigenous people. For example, we have always copied the larger society in agricultural practices, but indigenous peoples are not good at commerce and if a bank lends us money it gets even worse! If we can develop small-scale organic farming suited to Aboriginal values, first aiming only for self-sufficiency, reducing reliance on cash, maybe we can find an economic model that upholds tribal order and dignity.
Also, cultural industries definitely should be a focus for Aboriginal jobs. In any case I hope that the directions for development can be clarified before government restructuring comes into effect in 2012, in order to define the tasks of the Council of Indigenous Peoples.
The CIP would also like to regain responsibility for Aboriginal culture and education in the government restructuring. It's not that other ministries are incompetent, it's a problem of perspective and responsibility. Only by getting all matters and funding related to ethnic integrity returned to the CIP can the problems of indigenous people be correctly handled in the context of Aboriginal society, culture, history, and psychology.
Likewise, getting back to post-Morakot reconstruction, we need a comprehensive framework, not just humanitarian sympathy. Only in this way will indigenous people-both those who remain in the mountain hometowns and those who have left-play a more positive role in the future.