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Linda Gail Arrigo         February 15, 1998

In 1990, thirty houses of Tungmen Village in Hsiulin Township, Hwalien County, disappeared under an avalanche of mud and gravel.  On the slopes above the village, marble boulders had been mined to sell for landscape decoration; much of the natural vegetation had been replaced by beetlenut palm cultivation.  At least a dozen lives were extinguished in those few moments, lives of the Atayal tribe of Taiwan's indigenous peoples.

This was the first dramatic indicator of accelerating erosion and flooding in eastern Taiwan.  Many other landslides and floods have occurred since.  The steep ravines fill with raging waters within about three hours after a prolonged rainfall, and gush out on the narrow coast.  Decades of legal and illegal forest cutting, expansion of cropping of beetlenut and tea onto steep mountain slopes, and careless cutting into the mountain faces for roads and vast excavations of limestone have all taken their toll.  East Taiwan is already marked with huge cement factories at every limestone outcropping that meets the coast; and more expansion is underway.

For the 400 people of Santsan Village in Hsiulin Township, a large cluster of residences located at the joining of the two branches of Santsan Creek, the gorge just to the south of Taroko Gorge, this environmental degradation is not an abstract matter.  Specifically, they fear that the limestone excavation pit on the top of the peak just north of their village is a sword hanging over their heads.  Following the typhoons of 1997 they observed an ominous increase in the tumble of boulders and debris down the steep gully that shoots halfway up the peak.  They say that their elders have lived in the jagged mountains of Taroko all their lives, and they know the signs of danger.


On February 13, 1998 over forty residents of Santsan, men, women and children, marched to the Hwalien County Assembly to demand again that the mining operation be stopped for good.  They were led by Lin Shu-chin, the neighborhood head, and You Chung-chin, a local house builder.  They were not surprised to be met by a police barricade and a flutter of newspaper and television reporters.  They emphasized that they are reasonable and nonviolent.  They presented a petition and withdrew back to their pickup trucks in the parking lot.  They reflected on their chances for success.

After the first demonstration on February 11, a full convoy of government officials -- forestry management, mining bureau, Taroko National Park officials, local representatives -- made the trip up the peak to view the excavation.  The officials gave out soothing statements that the excavation had been legally approved by all the proper procedures, and that it shouldn't pose a danger.  Anyway, further mining had been stopped in December as a precaution.

The villagers didn't believe any of this.  They said excavation had ceased only in the last few days, not last December.  As they saw it, the local elected representatives were the common drinking companions of the mining company, and were almost certainly paid off to approve the last two years of mining, in the first place.  No doubt the company would delay to avoid publicity, and then renew operations later.  They expected that the company's requests for arbitration would just be an attempt to buy off their leaders.  If the excavation really posed no danger, why wouldn't the company or the government officials guarantee so?  Why wouldn't they explicitly accept liability and responsibility if disaster did strike?  But really, what use would payoff or compensation be to them after they were dead?

"The wife of the subcontractor owner came to my house last week and tried to persuade us not to demonstrate at the County Assembly", said a friend of Mrs. You.  "She said we could negotiate.  I told her that maybe the company could buy all of our houses and land, or that maybe she would like to come and build a house next to us, and live together with us, for whatever fate.  She declined."

After the march of the protesters, the reporters in attendance also had their own opinions.  Some, cynical, said that the reason for the public protest was that the villagers wanted a cut of the profits from the mining, and that they would be placated by payments.  The villagers should have gone through the proper procedures and negotiations rather than just uselessly marching and protesting to the wrong authorities; they were insufficiently educated.  The reporters generally accepted the officials' view that the danger was minimal.  "Why didn't they protest two years ago when the mining permit was in process?  Now it is legal, it is too late."  "Anyway, who can say that the mountain really will fall down?"  These observers seemed to think it was only an issue if collapse was certain and imminent.


This occasion was not the Santsan villagers' first experience with protest.  In about 1989 a company called Lidong Mining began digging iron ore from an exposed face of dark rock along the north branch of Santsan Creek.  There had been some mining there during the Japanese period as well.  The company built an ore-crushing plant at the side of the narrow streambed; trucks could drive from the town, which is itself not much above sea level and within sight of the coast, up the streambed about 2 km., to load the ore.  The gorge is so deep and steep that there is no other access.  Not long after mining began, Santsan villagers became concerned about the amount of rock left in the gorge from the mining operation, and the increasing slippage of shattered cliffs above the gorge.  In fact one company worker was killed by falling rock during excavation with explosives.  Since the villagers frequently walk up the gorge to gather crabs and to hunt, they considered this danger a personal threat.

A newspaper clipping from the China Times local edition, September 3, 1994, shows the previous day's gathering of protesting villagers at the mining site.  In the foreground, one villager named Bulong (Chinese name, Chou Tung-an), dramatically bare-chested, can be seen pointing up at the cliffs.

According to newspaper reports, the mining bureau officials visited the site and pronounced that the operation was safe.  The company manager said, "The regulations are that open-face mining can be carried on on slopes up to 70 degrees.  Here the incline is only 60 degrees, we are legal."  But the management office of Taroko National Park stated that they had never agreed to the mining.  A large boulder happened to tumble down about the time the company manager appeared.  Lidong ceased operations after the protest.

However, in the subsequent two years shattered rock continued to slide into the gorge, and after several typhoons the lower portion of the gorge, from the mine site on down, has filled up with debris to a depth of ten meters, burying the beautiful water-worn marble of the original streambed.  Some farmland and wooden houses were buried as well.  The concrete shells of the ore-processing plant lie like tossed matchboxes.  The stream itself disappears into the gravel.  So much for national parks.

Bulong died in August 1997, a few hours after Typhoon Amber passed over the area.  He was looking for "rose stone" in the new washout of the gully that goes up the peak next to the village.  This rare pink marble provides a little extra income in this area, where indigenous workers have been displaced, even in marble factories, by imported labor.  Friends saw Bulong swept away in a sudden surge of water and stone; his body was not found.  Bulong was about 52, and divorced; he is survived by a single son who was crippled in an automobile accident.


The steep gully to the north of the village has been shaped and reinforced in its lower stretches with concrete dikes and rows of concrete wave-breakers, no doubt at considerable expense for Hwalien County.  However, the Santsan villagers are skeptical that this is anything more than a palliative; it is certainly nothing that can withstand the tremendous force of water and stone during a storm.  The example of the levee built on the west side of the village where the two creek branches meet is pertinent; a large part of the concrete-faced bank was undermined and crumbled in the first typhoon after its 1996 completion.

In their memory of the last two years since mining of limestone has gone on in the saddle of the peak above, the large gully to the north of the village has progressively widened and filled with boulders and washout from the mountain above.  This may be partly due to the huge burden of mining trucks that rumble up the steep road parallel to and often in the gully itself.  The road is not surfaced because it must be continually reshaped.  It is about thirty feet wide, and heavy vehicle treads mark it all the way to the edge.  Large earth-shaping equipment seems to have been continually at work; some lies discarded along the road.  There are also groves of beetlenut palms along the steep slopes, many of them planted by outsiders to whom the indigenous people rent the land.

According to the villagers, the company owns at least a dozen thirty-ton trucks, and each truck makes about ten runs a day.  The gully takes the road partly up the mountain, which is part of the range that rises abruptly from sea level along most of Taiwan's east coast.  At the top of the gully is a site of twisted metal where a previous limestone-mining operation, Fushan Mining, was wiped out by a typhoon.  From there the road winds back and forth and to the west, ascending the loose soil that is the outer layer of the mountains, to the shoulder of the mountain at an elevation of perhaps six hundred meters.  Usually the view is obscured by clouds at the top of the mountain, but if it is clear one can see on the way up a breathtaking curve of the blue ocean below, and Santsan Creek flowing into it.

Late last year when the villagers trespassed into the mining area to investigate the land erosion they found that the subcontractor of Fushan had dug out a pit about two hundred meters wide and fifty deep.  They became concerned that especially if the pit filled with rainwater, the soft soil of its outer edge would be likely to collapse and send thousands of tons of earth hurtling down the precipitous slope, into the streambed and perhaps as far as their homes and the primary school bordering the other side of the stream below.

Also at the end of 1997 Professor Li Sze-gun, Department of Geography at Hwalien's Teachers College, was asked by the Environmental Protection Administration to evaluate the mining project from the papers he was given, without visiting the site.  From what he knew of the area and its designation as a national park, he opposed the mining; however, he reports that his opinion and environmental concerns in general were not allowed to overrule the industrial planners.  "Certainly I could investigate and make a public statement that mining there is not advisable, especially in the national park and at that elevation.  But if I did I would not get any more requests from the EPA for evaluations, because the local industrialists would say I am opposed to economic development."

Following the public protest, in the last few days the subcontractor has been hurriedly bulldozing in the edge of the pit.  Some improvements to the road such as setting in drainage gutters and planting small bushes are also in progress.  The villagers oppose any activity because they suspect it will be used as a cover for continued mining.  But whether or not the mining stops now, it seems likely that long term ecological destruction can hardly be abated by such minor responses.  What if the mountain slumps five years from now?  Ten years?

The mining companies take no responsibility for long term damage to this "aborigine protected land".  They can hide under a multitude of subcontractors and holding companies.  The government agencies also show very little regard for other than the very narrow definitions of legal procedure and immediate financial liability.  Then the officials can chalk up such disasters as the landslide at Tungmen Village to acts of nature, and provide for resettlement of the refugees merely as a welfare measure.

The deeper questions are:  How could they have allowed a mining operation like Lidong's right in the middle of a major scenic location in lands of a national park?  How much was that small face of iron ore worth, and who got paid off?  How can they continue to rent out the land of the indigenous people to outsiders who siphon off the profits of short-term schemes for mining, farming and touristry?  Who is making money off the costly government-constructed "improvements" such as concrete levees and flood-protection barriers, unwise remedies that are too-little-and-too-late?


It was two Santsan villagers who took me up the mountain peak on their motorcycles, one a small middle-aged man who runs a sundries shop in the village while he cares for his sick mother, and the other a sturdy deaf-mute who seemed to make himself well understood through descriptive gestures.  They just called him "Ya-Ba", Mute.  When we reached the edge of the cavernous excavation at the saddle of the mountain, and stood watching two earth-movers far below, Ya-Ba bellowed out a shout of outrage that echoed across the huge emptiness.  He danced a choreography of what would happen when the mountain fell.  And perhaps screams are the most accurate articulation of the situation of Santsan Village.

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