Governance, Empowerment, and Environmental Justice – the Indigenous Tao of Orchid Island, Taiwan


Rosa Enn

PhD defended at: 

University of Vienna, Austria



The dissertation investigates the situation of the indigenous Tao people on Taiwan’s remote Orchid Island. The community of around 4,000 people lives on the periphery of the western Pacific. Ever since contact with first the Japanese, then missionaries and the Kuomintang, the Tao have been exposed to modern influences and denied self-determination. During the time of martial law, the authoritarian government subjected the Tao to arbitrary rule. Ecological exploitation, structural discrimination, and forced assimilation policies have characterized the governance experienced by the Tao. The establishment of a nuclear waste repository on Orchid Island was a serious case of environmental injustice, since the Tao were neither integrated in the relevant decision-making processes nor correctly informed about the plan. Events such as this have contributed to a weakened relationship and mistrust between the Tao and the government. Nevertheless, with the Tao’s strong empowerment, the emerging national social movements, increasing democratization, and progress towards transitional justice, the indigenous community has obtained affirmative action, compensation, and financial benefits. However, the traditional social and economic structures have been transformed tremendously due to the impact of government undertakings on Orchid Island. The Tao today find themselves caught in a trap. On the one hand, they do not want to be exploited by the government by acquiescing to radioactive waste disposal and other interventions; on the other hand, the islanders are quite dependent on government financial support and demand adequate reparations. In recent decades, it has been claimed that the radioactive waste repository is leaking and that toxic substances contaminate the environment. Even though the government has promised to remove the facility, it faces challenges in finding a new site and therefore no solution has yet been found.
The question of whether the Tao should aim for self-determination or make the most of government support leads to conflict between generations and within Tao society. One of the very few possible income sources on the island is the tourism industry. This has grown rapidly but without adequate infrastructure. Only slowly has the need for sustainable and eco-friendly tourism been realized. Tourism may be also provide an opportunity for cultural revitalization as the local people again begin to cherish the unique features of their culture after almost 50 years of assimilation.
The dissertation examines human rights issues on Orchid Island with a focus on the environment. Considering the last hundred years of their history, the Tao face challenges but also have opportunities to position themselves in a democratic 21st century Taiwan. The thesis combines social scientific research methods (quantitative and qualitative) with the consideration of concepts of environmental justice, indigeneity, human rights, legal empowerment, and the challenge of governing indigenous populations.