No one bothered to explain to the residents why the southern tip of their island home was suddenly no longer accessible. All they knew was that the place where for generations women had dredged the rough tide pools for crabs and where farmers had long tended fields of taro and millet had suddenly turned into a massive construction site. I went.
Rumors started flying. It was a pineapple canary. No, it was a canary for fish. Whatever the local people decided, it would mean more jobs for the islanders.
In 1980, when a local priest spotted an article buried in the back of a newspaper, the islanders learned what the place really was: a massive nuclear waste dump.
“The government betrayed us,” Sayapen Lamoran, a 76-year-old pastor, said in a recent interview at his home on Lanyu, a lush volcanic island off Taiwan’s southeast coast that is the traditional home of the Tao, which One of the 16 officially recognized indigenous tribes. in Taiwan. “They didn’t care that the nuclear waste would kill us, that the Tao people would become extinct.”
More than three decades after that revelation, a pile of nuclear waste remains in Lanyu, a painful reminder to Tao of the government’s broken promises, and of his longing for greater autonomy for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. It is a symbol of struggle.
The waste site at Lanyu, also known as Orchid Island or Ponso no Tao, has been one of the highest-profile causes taken up by indigenous Taiwanese, who were the main inhabitants of these islands until four centuries ago, when colonial settlers Started coming from here. Mainland China, Europe and later, Imperial Japan.
Today, ethnic Han Chinese make up more than 95 percent of Taiwan’s population of 23 million. In contrast, roughly 583,000 Indigenous people make up 2 percent, and many still face widespread social and economic marginalization. Lanyu itself has over 5,000 residents.
The movement for greater indigenous rights has gained traction in recent years as Taiwan, a self-governing territory claimed by Beijing, pursues a separate identity separate from mainland China. In 2016, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen became the first leader to formally apologize to the island’s indigenous people for centuries of “pain and abuse”.
But the government has been slow to act on the issue of nuclear waste.
After the revelation that the site was a nuclear waste facility, Tao fought vigorously to persuade the government to remove it. For years they staged mass protests on the island and in front of government offices in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. He became a self-taught expert in nuclear waste.
But despite repeated promises from the government to relocate the site, the dump remains in place.
On a recent afternoon, Taiwanese tourists in snorkeling gear laughed and frolicked in the glistening blue waters, seemingly unaware that looming just above them, nestled in a tree-carpeted hillside, was the nuclear warhead. The waste site was what some Tao say has contributed to increased rates of cancer, mutated fish and other health problems among the islanders.
Taiwanese authorities and Taipower, the state utility that operates the waste site, have said that residents’ exposure to low levels of radiation from the dump has been minimal, citing several scientific studies.
Thomas Isaac, an expert on nuclear waste management and former chief advisor to Blue Ribbon, said the health effects of such dump sites, which are usually in remote areas near operating nuclear facilities, are a point of contention among scientists and nuclear energy skeptics. remains a controversial subject. Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. “Scientists will tell you that when you look at places that have been exposed to low levels of radiation, you can find no effect.”
Statements from Taiwanese officials and Taipower have done little to ease the islanders’ concerns.
“I don’t believe the problem has really been resolved,” said Siaman Giapato, 63, a retired teacher, as he sat in the shade of a wooden hut carving a model of a traditional fishing boat. “We’ve been living with man-made hazards like this for years.”
Behind the suspicion of the islanders lies a deep distrust of outsiders. for a good cause.
For centuries, the Tao lived a largely isolated existence on this 17-square-mile island, interacting only occasionally with shipwrecked sailors and people from the northern Philippine Islands. Then, in the late 19th century, Taiwan, including Lanyu, came under the control of Japanese colonists, who began to study the Tao, which they called yami, as ethnographic subjects.
This was more than just an innocent educational endeavor: the Japanese wanted to learn more about the peoples of the Pacific so they could help their empire expand its territorial reach into Asia.
In Tao’s eyes, the island’s subsequent rulers, members of the Kuomintang government, weren’t much better. He took a more pragmatic approach to ruling by forcing the Tao to wear modern clothing, banning their native language in public places, and forcing them out of their traditional underground homes. The new government also sent convicted criminals to the island, some of whom raped Tao women according to historians and a recent government-led investigation.
It was against this background that the authoritarian government decided in the 1970s to build a site on Lanyu to store more than 10,000 barrels of low-level radioactive waste produced by several nuclear power plants on the main island of Taiwan. Lanyu was remote, the argument went, and had few residents in the immediate area.
No reply was given to Tao.
Hailin Chung, 42, a Tao woman who runs a coffee shop on the island, said: “There have been lies many times.” “Outsiders have changed our region in a huge way.”
When Pastor Sayapen Lamoran saw the article in the newspaper, he immediately began spreading the word to fellow Tao back home about the “poison” waste site. In the late 1980s, Tao organized several large-scale protests, even after the dump was opened in 1982. In 1988, protesters stormed the offices of the nuclear site. Years later, he threw boulders into the harbor to prevent Taipower from bringing in new barrels of nuclear waste.
“We were pushing the limits and seeing hope,” said Shaman Fengyan, 58, who led a protest movement on the island in the 1980s.
Along the way, the protesters scored small victories. The government eventually agreed to stop bringing in additional barrels of waste.
But efforts to move the waste failed. In 1993, a group of countries voted to permanently ban the practice of dumping all nuclear waste in the ocean. Other possible options were thwarted, including a plan to export the waste to North Korea.
In 2018, Taiwan’s government published what many Tao saw as a long-overdue report acknowledging its failure decades earlier to consult with islanders about building a nuclear waste site. After publishing the report, officials agreed to pay Tao $83 million in compensation, with an additional $7 million to be distributed every three years.
The most fervent anti-nuclear activists have disdained the payments, calling them a “candy-like” sedative, which has fueled local anger and undermined the movement. Others are less bothered.
“It’s not as serious as some people say,” said Si Nan Samonen, 45, a Tao woman who has been working as a tour guide at the nuclear waste storage site for the past seven years.
Taipower said in a statement that it was still “trying hard” to find a permanent storage site, but that it had struggled to overcome resistance from residents in the proposed resettlement areas.
With no resolution in sight, the anti-nuclear movement has lost steam in recent years. While posters and stickers “No nuclear!” Still chilling in bars and restaurants across the island, many young Tao say they have little interest in waging a campaign that has cost their elders so much time and energy.
For them, the focus these days is on tourism and appealing to the hordes of young Taiwanese who arrive on the island via ferry or small propeller planes and get around on rented scooters. Some young Taos say they will instead focus on social issues that can actually be solved, such as picking up trash on the island and educating outsiders about Tao culture.
“‘Antinuclear’ is a clichéd word now,” said Si Yabosognanen, 34, relaxing on the patio of his beachside bar as the sun was setting and a light breeze was blowing. “Promoting Tao culture is more important than repeating the same old tune.”
But for the older generation of activists on Lanyu, the removal of the nuclear dump is a cause worth fighting for.
“Tourists come, have fun and leave,” said 50-year-old Sinan Jiphangya, owner of the Anti-Nuclear Bar on Lanyu, a roadside shack filled with powerful posters with names such as “Nuclear Waste Get Out Off”. , serves brightly colored cocktails. Lanyu.”
“We have no fallback,” she said. “This island is our only home.”
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