Taipei, Taiwan – Taiwanese indigenous people await a decisive decision by the island’s supreme court on Friday, which will determine the scope of their traditional hunting rights and potentially pave the way for a limited return of civilian firearms to the island. after the law restricted its use. early eighties.
The case began eight years ago in 2013 with the prosecution of indigenous hunter Bunun Talum Suqluman (Wang Kuang-lu) under the island’s wildlife conservation laws.
He was initially sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison after being found guilty of using a “modified rifle” to kill two protected animals, although the term was suspended in 2017 following an international outcry.
But the hunter continued to fight his conviction, represented by the Taiwan Legal Aid Foundation.
Earlier this year, the Taiwan Constitutional Court heard several plaintiffs whether the island’s wildlife conservation laws unduly restricted the rights of indigenous people who claimed that hunting was an important cultural practice and It allows them to hunt on a small scale.
On Friday afternoon, the higher court will rule on whether indigenous hunters should be restricted to using homemade weapons and traps to kill animals and whether they should be asked for government permission before hunting.
The Taiwan Legal Aid Foundation told Al Jazeera that the laws are impractical and conflict with traditional customs protected by the basic law of the island’s indigenous population.
“The Wildlife Conservation Act regulates indigenous hunters who must apply and report on how many and what types of animals they would previously hunt, which violates traditional laws that prey is the blessing of ancestral spirits, so you don’t have to brag and show otherwise, God will be punished, ”the foundation’s Indigenous Peoples Legal Center said.
“Also, we can’t help but wonder in an unpredictable environment like forests, how can we predict which prey they will hunt.”
Taiwan recognizes 16 indigenous groups whose ancestors had lived on the island for thousands of years before the first ethnic century began to arrive in the first Han ethnic group in mainland China and the government of the Republic of China s’ settled on the island in 1949.
“Hunting is an integral part of our indigenous culture,” said Baubu Caljas, a Paiwan hunter who runs an indigenous youth organization in southern Taiwan. “The offering of animals is often the most important process in our traditional religious rituals, which includes funerals, harvest festivals, and prayers.
“I think it is unfair to even have to ask the government for the ‘legal right’ to hunt [Republic of China] the government took over our homeland a few decades ago. We, the natives of Taiwan, exist on this island living with our lives for millennia. Did the government demand the “right” to rule over us when they took control? “
Taiwan’s Ministry of Agriculture has expressed concern that relaxing laws will lead to a return to overhunting in Taiwan, where local species were once hunted on the verge of extinction.
For 300 years, animals, including tiny mountain deer and monkeys, were hunted for their fur, which was mostly exported.
Most hunting ended with a moratorium in the early 1970s, during the island’s martial law era, but persisted on a smaller scale to supply the demand for game meat, mainly among ethnic groups. have Taiwanese, according to wildlife conservation expert Kurtis Pei.
It was not until the Wildlife Conservation Act of 1989 that commercial hunting was formally banned. Since then, according to Pei, populations of monkeys, swans and sambar deer have begun to recover.
Indigenous hunting, unlike commercial hunting, is only carried out at the subsistence level or to prevent animals from eating crops and has not hindered the recovery of the species.
“What the foreigners misunderstand most is that they believe we kill indiscriminately everything we see,” said Silan Oyon, an Amis-Atayal hunter who teaches hunting classes in Wulai, a district of New Taipei city known for its waters. thermal baths and their mountain landscapes.
“Hunting is not something we do on a whim. We follow the seasons, alternating mountains and river banks. The Han (ethnic Chinese) think we spend all day, every day, hunting. “
With animal populations booming over the past 20 years, Baubu says a limited amount of hunting has now become necessary to maintain an ecological balance.
“For us, who live so close to the mountains, it is quite obvious that the number of wildlife is getting a little out of control. Without any predators in today’s ecosystem, these animals reproduce rapidly and plant density generally decreases, ”he said.
“Now you have mountains that go down to the plains and bark at night in the community. With the gradual disappearance of vegetation, we also see a higher frequency of landslides in recent years. On the other hand, you have a decline in hunting activities as a result of generational cultural loss. I don’t think it’s difficult to see that indigenous hunting only affects a negligible fraction of a thriving wildlife population. “
Unlike the current Taiwan-based application system, indigenous hunters and experts say they would prefer a hunting management system that gives local communities more control over the management and control of hunting activities.
“The key is to create some kind of institution where the hunters of each locality can manage the hunting area themselves. They’re already doing it, but it would be nice to have some incentives to make it more formal, ”said Scott Simon, co-owner of the Taiwan Studies Chair at the University of Ottawa, Canada, who spent several years living with indigenous communities in southern and eastern Taiwan.
Some significant collaborations have already yielded results.
Pei, who is also a professor at Pingtung University of Science and Technology in Taiwan, has worked closely with hunter associations as part of his research on conservation. Meanwhile, indigenous communities in the mountainous municipality of Alishan in central Taiwan have had some success working with the Forest Office, according to Babua, who said he hoped to manage the hunt through more collaborative partnerships.
One of the strengths, however, is the weapons.
For now, hunters use homemade weapons, usually made from devices such as modified nail guns or snout charge rifles that require hunters to add gunpowder to fire each shot, according to Taiwanese media.
But they say these weapons are dangerous and cruel, as they can easily fire or let an animal face a painful death.
“[Ethnic] Sometimes Han people come across a dead animal in the mountains left for dead and share the photo, saying [Indigenous] people kill unintentionally, “Silan said.” Actually, it’s because our weapons aren’t good. Unlike foreign hunters, prey could run for a long time after being shot. Various shots can be fired to kill. , which is more cruel ”.
For security reasons, the Interior Ministry has said it could consider allowing indigenous hunters to buy registered firearms, according to Taiwanese media.
If the amendment were passed, the Taiwanese government would be in a unique position to expand gun rights, albeit on a small scale, where most sites have tried to restrict them.
Most civilians are prohibited from possessing firearms, including handguns, rifles, and shotguns, according to Taiwan’s firearms legislation. Beyond indigenous hunters, only fishermen can apply for permission to own a harpoon weapon.
The Indigenous Peoples Legal Center has said the top court decision on Friday could go far beyond gun rights and have major repercussions for indigenous rights in Taiwan.
Although communities are protected by various laws, they do not enjoy the same level of protection as the first Canadian nations or the Maori of New Zealand.
The administration of President Tsai Ing-wen, the first leader of indigenous descent, has shown interest in extending indigenous rights.
Activists hope a ruling in favor of communities can further this cause.