The Miramar Story

This is the story of the Miramar Resort on Shanyuan beach, Taitung County - a tale of illegal construction licenses, environmental laws and indigenous rights. And while it has the usual elements of corruption, greed and revenge, most importantly, this story is about love, passion and hope. It is about people standing up and fighting for their love of nature. It is about their passion to protect the resources and ecosystems around them and also their way of life, traditions and culture. And it is with undying hope, that they are battling against the biggest adversaries that you can come up against - money and power.

One of the most important characters in this story is the land itself. With its dark lush mountains descending from the heavens straight into rock cliffs that plunge into the vibrant blue waters below, this coastline is simply breath taking. Once you get down as far as Taitung County you will find, not only nature in all its glory, but a very special culture and way of life that makes it distinct from the rest of the island. Its remote geographical location has kept this area isolated from the seemingly inescapable reach of industrialization and urban expansion, and you feel like you’ve stumbled upon a secret world that couldn’t possibly exist in Taiwan. Here lies Dulan, a small town along the coast, about 20 km north of Taitung city. It consists of a short strip of single-story buildings along the highway, with the Old Sugar Factory as its main attraction. The Sugar Factory has been converted into a space for the local artisan community to gather, create and just be; where visitors can come to soak up this authentic, raw taste of music, art and life. There are little cafes, restaurants and B&Bs all run with local love and care, making each and every one of them unique with none of the tacky theme parks or Disney style resorts that plague the rest of the island.  
The population of Dulan is made up mostly of Amis, one of Taiwan’s largest indigenous groups known for their pride and strong roots in music and art. There is also a community of foreigners who have found themselves drawn to Dulan - a group of people who made the choice to leave the city and give up their high paying jobs in order to live a more harmonious coexistence with nature. However, while getting away from Taiwan’s hardcore money-driven culture is all very nice for those of us who are able to make these lifestyle choices, for the indigenous peoples of Taitung County, especially the youth, the isolation is felt financially as well. This is why so many indigenous communities see their young people leaving the villages and migrating to cities in search of work. Developing tourism, of course, is the obvious way to boost the economy of a place that has little else to offer other than pristine beaches and stunning mountain sides, and so it was no surprise when the government granted a license for a resort to be built on Shanyuan beach. The construction of this hotel has, however, resulted in a surprising turn of events.

If you head south from Dulan, about 8 km, you will  reach Shanyuan beach - a golden arch of sand and surf that stretches for about 1.5 km. It used to be a sweeping expanse of open space, free of any obtrusive buildings or crowds, a sight for sore eyes in Taiwan. Coral reefs lay to the north and south, making it one of the few precious spots left where you could find sea life for divers or fishing. This beach is also sacred fishing grounds to the Amis tribes nearby. Today, the Miramar Resort, a colossal structure taking up nearly 6 hectares of land, has consumed most of the beach and the hearts of the locals as well. No one in this story is arguing against development along the east coast, but this particular case has brought up some very pertinent arguments about how the development should be carried out, or rather how it should NOT be carried out.

     Shanyuan beach before and after construction of the Miramar Resort

So what is it that has people so up and against the Miramar resort? Let’s start with its blatant disregard for the law. It all started in 2004 when the Taitung County government signed a BOT (build operate transfer) contract with the Miramar Group, a multi million dollar corporation which owns the Miramar Entertainment Park in Taipei, as well as a wide range of businesses including other hotels department stores, real estate and petrol stations. The developers were granted a building license which allowed them to build without an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment); however, in order to sidestep the EIA, the construction could not exceed .9 hectares of land. With this license, the developers simply applied for an expansion permit the following year and then continued to build the resort six times the size of what the license permitted, with no EIA being conducted. This came to the attention of the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) and they ruled that construction must be stopped until an EIA was approved. The Taitung County government then quickly pushed an EIA through, with five of the assessment members conveniently being Taitung County officials. In 2010 the High Court ruled that the EIA was flawed for this very reason along with the fact that the government had not provided sufficient scientific evidence that the project would not pollute the ocean.  Then, in February of this year, the Supreme Administrative Court again ruled that the EIA was invalid and that construction “should” be stopped. The most recent verdict was just announced on September 21st, 2012, bringing news that the indigenous groups and the NGOs have won the latest injunction and the Supreme Administrative Court has ruled that construction must be discontinued.

To make a long story short the Taitung County government allowed the Miramar Group to build this hotel with an illegal license, without adhering to environmental regulations, without consulting with indigenous groups and against the ruling of the High Court. Is this the kind of example that Taiwan wants to set for the future development of its east coast? Take note that there are about 38 planned development projects from Hualien to Taitung, watching and waiting to see what they can or cannot get away with. The case of the Miramar Resort has many people questioning whether the government and its laws can be trusted to regulate development and its impact both on the environment, as well as people’s lives. This is why a group of people decided to take the matter into their own hands.
I attended the second annual Fudafudak Protest concert held in July, a warm and peaceful gathering of people who came together to voice their concern for the sacred land and culture that is so dear to their hearts. Many of them were not from the area and a large portion were not from Taiwan at all, but it was very evident that all of these individuals were passionately opposed to the resort. Michael Tilly, an Australian who now calls the area home and has been whole-heartedly dedicating his time and effort to the movement explained to me that a group of Taitung artists, who had been active in the opposition to the resort right from the beginning, eventually joined forces with other members of the local community and decided to stage a camp-in on the beach for the month of June, 2011. “This action struck a chord with a lot of people and they became drawn to the movement to protect the natural beauty of Taiwan. In particular, the movement has become a rallying point for Taiwan’s indigenous people and has seen a historically significant coming together to say ‘enough is enough’.” Seeing the support and strength growing through awareness, a concert on the beach became the next step and they named it Fudafudak - the traditional Amis name for the beach, which also means “beautiful sands”. “When that was held and over 1000 people turned up,” continued Michael, “the vibe, which had been, ‘we probably can’t win but we’re gonna go down swinging’, suddenly went to ‘shit, we can actually win this thing’.”

The 2012 Fudafudak protest concert.

The day after the concert, I sat with Wang Yuwen under the open and airy Taluan, a traditional Amis structure built from drift-wood, while the gigantic structure of pink concrete and all its security watched over us. Yuwen is an artist from Taitung and she told me the story of how the protest on the beach had come to happen. “A group of us got together and decided that we would camp on the beach, both as a message to the hotel, but also because after the hotel, we won’t be able to use the beach anymore.” While they stayed on the beach, they built the taluan, traditionally a small shelter where people could rest after fishing. “The taluan” says Yuwen, “is built completely with natural materials and will not harm the environment in any way.” The talaun is also serving as a means to educate tourists who come to the beach. Under its welcoming shade one can look at “before and after” photos and can read more about the impact the Miramar Resort has made both on the natural environment and the indigenous peoples of the area. Yuwen proceeded to tell me that it has helped to mend the division within the Amis community, which has been brought about the by the construction of the resort.  “People came together to build it and it is now a place where we can meet and discuss.”  I found myself thinking that, in  a way, the taluan has come to represent everything that the hotel is not.

Lin Shulin is from the Erythrina tribe, whose village lies on the other side of the coral reef to the south of the resort. She has been one of the Amis locals to have spearheaded the movement and we talked about what effects the hotel would have on the Amis traditions and way of life. These are sacred Amis grounds, as they would come here to collect plants and fish, as well as hold traditional ceremonies on the beach and in the waters. Now, the resort wants to take away their access to the beach and they have already begun to see pollution in the waters and damage to the coral reefs. She explained that one of the important ceremonies was to hand down their ancestors’ skills and traditions to the teenagers in order to provide them with a sense of identity and pride before they set out into the cities where it is so easy to become lost. Shulin also made it clear that she would like to see development in the area, so that the young people would not have to leave their homes in search of work, but she knows that the Miramar Resort is not the answer.

Of course, for many locals, especially the youth, it is believed that the hotel will create more job opportunities. “The youth want jobs, but they don’t see the deeper problem”, spoke aboriginal activist, Nabu. “This hotel wants to feed my people with dollars, they want to make people dependent, and it will only take away our pride and the beauty of this land, and then what will we have?” Nabu and his wife, folk singer Panai, both formidable characters in this battle, passionately reiterated the point that they are not against development itself. They want to share the beauty of Taitung County with everyone, but that this resort was in fact taking it away from everyone. “This used to be a public beach” spoke Panai, brimming with emotion and tears welling in her eyes, “but now the hotel will decide who can come and go. We want development here in Taitung, but we want it to be sustainable and we want our voices to be heard and we must continue to fight for that, we must not give up.”

Some might argue that it is too late, as the Miramar Resort stands there ready to open any day. Add to that, the Miramar Development Group has announced that it would apply for at least NT $1 billion in compensation, which would come out of Taitung’s pocket. This is a threat that could easily scare people into submission, but the lawyer representing the activists says that this claim for compensation is totally ridiculous and is confident that he could beat it in court. As he pointed out - the Miramar Group knowingly built with an illegal construction license and now that they’ve been caught, they want to sue the public?

When I first walked through the gates of the Miramar Resort, I could not help but feel that the fight to demolish it and restore the beach to its natural state was a lost cause, simply because of the sheer amount of money and the magnitude of corporate and political forces lined up behind it. But as I got out onto the beach and saw the people gathered with their faces toward the sea and sky, singing and dancing, there was no sense of intimidation, even with the hotel casting its aura of permanence and all its guards and police watching over them. In fact, this only seemed to make the protestors sing and dance louder. There had been heavy rain warnings earlier in the day and a typhoon was on its way, but the sky had opened up and stars shone down clear and bright on the crowd of about a thousand, filling us all with hope and renewed determination to protect what belongs to all of us, mother nature.

Emily McKee