Neither Green Nor Just: The DPP’s Reckoning With Environmental Justice

Neither Green Nor Just: The DPP’s Reckoning With Environmental Justice

The Russian weaponisation of gas supplies has sparked a renewed interest in Taiwan’s energy security, placing the DPP’s anti-nuclear policies at the centre of attention. On the one hand, both energy and national security experts have criticised the DPP’s continuing nuclear phase-out for pushing Taiwan, which in 2022 imported more than 97% of its energy, into an increasingly precarious position. The opposition, on the other hand, has criticised the party’s 2025 energy mix formula (i.e., 20% renewable energy, 30% coal, and 50% LNG) for its inconsistency with international trends, namely the increasing role of nuclear energy in global decarbonisation efforts, which the DPP countered by referring to industry-wide trends, such as the renewable energy focus of the RE100 initiative, instead.

Most of these debates have thus focused on the energy and industrial (rather than lifestyle and social) aspects of Taiwan’s 2050 net-zero transition plan and the corresponding implications for national (rather than human and ecological) security. These debates have also been framed by the positivist knowledge regimes produced by science and policy experts, who, bounded by the neoliberal paradigm of the inter-state system, tend to propose market-based approaches to carbon reduction and other environmental concerns.

All of this has obscured the issue of nuclear waste and its effects on local communities, and thus the discussion of Taiwan’s major case of environmental injustice, which is the siting of the nuclear waste facility on the Orchid Island (Lanyu) inhabited by the Tao group of indigenous peoples. The narrow conception of environmental justice in terms of its distributive and procedural elements produced by the capital-centred epistemology of the science-policy nexus has thus served to justify monetary compensation as an appropriate remedy to such injustice. This has been challenged by the broader conception of the Tao tribe, which incorporates cultural, territorial, and ecological elements.

The purpose of this article is two-fold. First, to fill in the gap in the current debates about Taiwan’s nuclear policy, the article focuses on an alternative definition of environmental justice (based on the situated knowledges of the Tao community) to that produced by the expert community (and adopted by the DPP). Second, the article argues that the sustainable beliefs and practices of the Tao (but also other Indigenous groups) can benefit Taiwan’s domestic transition as well as the broader international community. Although these suggestions are targeted at the DPP, the focus on the utility of traditional ecological knowledge for the lifestyle and social dimensions of Taiwan’s green transition, alongside its potential to play a role in Taiwan’s ecological diplomacy, can facilitate a cross-party consensus, and should thus be pursued irrespective of the upcoming election results.

Framing the issue: From environmental to ecological injustice

The origins of the anti-nuclear waste movement date back to 1988, when Tao activists held their first large-scale demonstration. It was held in response to learning about the true nature of the nuclear waste repository that began operating in 1982 under the false premise of being a fish-canning factory. Although the demonstrations were successful in ceasing the shipments of nuclear waste in 1996, the movement is still ongoing as the waste remains on the island, 36 years since the first protests took place.

The then-authoritarian KMT decided to site the disposal facility on Lanyu, yet it was the DPP President Chen Shui-bian who made an explicit relocation promise. The consensus about a site for the final disposal facility, however, has still not been reached, in spite of the 2006 passage of the legislation governing the siting process. The DPP’s continuing failure to find a solution to this major case of environmental injustice against Taiwan’s Indigenous community is compounded by its self-proclaimed image as a ‘green party’ that takes Indigenous issues seriously. Indeed, Tsai’s official apology and establishment of the Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee is emblematic of the DPP’s intention to deal with the multitude of injustices committed against the indigenous peoples. Yet, the party’s policy shortcomings have aggravated not only its relations with the indigenous communities but also environmental groups more broadly.

Part of the DPP’s failure to remove the nuclear waste lies in its adoption of a positivist conception of environmental justice that has been implicit in devaluing the situated knowledges and practices of Taiwan’s indigenous communities whilst failing to tackle the continued neo-colonial process of indigenous land dispossessions and the broader problem of environmental racism. The focus on distributive and procedural justice can thus seem adequate within the utilitarian purview of the science-policy nexus that has a history of subjugating nature to culture but not the traditional ecological knowledge of the Tao, which embeds culture within nature.

A good example of this utilitarian view of nature is the industrial focus on carbon pricing and offsetting in Taiwan’s green transition that is outlined in the Climate Change Response Act and in line with global standards. As several scholars have already pointed out, market-based mechanisms for carbon reduction (but also broader environmental concerns) are not only problematic, as they tend to neglect the important question of who bears the brunt of such re-adjustment policies, but also insufficient, as they perpetuate the capital arrangements that have caused the very problems (i.e., climate change and environmental degradation) they are trying to solve. The subjugation of nature to culture is then inherent within such an anthropocentric interpretation of environmental problems and the continued dominance of capitalist practices that had caused the exploitation of nature in the first place.

The embeddedness of culture within nature, on the other hand, is evident in both Tao beliefs and practices. They have interpreted the nuclear waste in terms of their religious beliefs as a malevolent spirit, Anito, which brings environmental degradation, contaminating fish and taro fields that the Tao’s livelihoods depend on. This is in stark contrast to benevolent spirits, which bring ecological fertility, protecting not just their livelihoods but also ancestral lands. As the Tao equates a healthy environment with healthy spiritual lives, their fishing, farming, housing, and land management practices are all very sustainable. By transcending the culture/nature divide, this traditional ecological knowledge is then not only in line with the emerging global ideal of ecological justice (i.e., a more eco-centric alternative to the predominantly anthropocentric concept of environmental justice) but can arguably play a major role in designing climate change adaptation and mitigation policies that meet the dual objective of being both just and green.

This bottom-up re-conceptualisation of environmental justice in terms of cultural/ecological concerns of the Indigenous communities is noteworthy as it further exposes its tensions with the energy concerns of the expert community. What’s more, these tensions stretch beyond the issue of nuclear energy, with indigenous protests against the government’s development of renewable energy facilities being another case in point.

Going forward: Deliberative democracy and ecological diplomacy

To bridge the power/knowledge gap between the expert community and government officials, on the one hand, and the indigenous communities, on the other, Mei-Fang Fan argues for greater adherence to deliberative (rather than just representative or participatory) systems of democratic governance. These have been challenging the top-down model of positivist knowledge production and dissemination whilst expanding the role of indigenous peoples and their bottom-up model of situated knowledge production in defining the issues that directly affect them (i.e., the issue of environmental justice in the case of the Tao tribe).

There are both domestic and international implications of this challenge to an established knowledge regime (and, by default, the international system itself). On a domestic level, the traditional ecological knowledge and other situated knowledges of the indigenous communities could inform the government’s green transition plan, especially its lifestyle and social aspects. By avoiding the narrow focus on the thorny issue of energy security, this suggestion is relevant for all candidates running in the upcoming presidential and legislative elections, irrespective of their party affiliation. On an international level, the indigenous knowledges could provide another area of niche expertise (beyond that of semiconductors) for Taiwan’s international status, the saliency of which is likely to grow due to the increasingly complex situation of the island’s energy and industrial needs. This is noteworthy, as an increased role for ecological diplomacy in Taiwan’s foreign policy arsenal could expand both Taiwan’s participation in the UNFCCC as well as its regional partnerships with the small Pacific Island states, several of which are Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies.

The Indigenous peoples are, therefore, not just among the communities most affected by climate change but also a major part of the solution. Their sustainable lifestyles and holistic views of the relationship between humans and ecosystems could be of vital importance for several aspects of the green transition, be it in terms of climate governance, ocean governance, disaster management or other aspects of sustainable development.

The article was originally published by Taiwan Insight.


Dominika Remžová
Dominika Remžová

Research Fellow

Key Topics

DPPenvironmentIndigenous issuespresidental electionsTaiwan’s energy security


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