Taiwan court rules against Indigenous hunting rights overhaul

·3 min read

Taiwan's top court on Friday said some hunting restrictions placed on the island's Indigenous inhabitants were unconstitutional, but stopped short of supporting the complete overhaul of regulations that campaigners had pushed for.

Hunting restrictions have become a bone of contention among Taiwan's Indigenous communities, who have long felt marginalised and discriminated against by the Han Chinese majority that first began arriving in the 17th century.

Under current regulations, Indigenous communities are only allowed to hunt with homemade rifles during certain festival days and only with prior approval from authorities.

Activists say homemade firearms are dangerous and argue that the restrictions impede on the subsistence hunting traditions their communities have practiced for centuries.

Friday's ruling by Taiwan's Constitutional Court was sparked by the 2013 prosecution of Tama Talum, a member of the Bunun tribe, for killing two protected species with a modified rifle.

Talum, 62, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison, a verdict that caused anger within Indigenous communities and sparked a long-running legal fightback.

Talum said he was following tribal customs and was hunting the animals as food for his mother who was used to eating wild game.

The prosecution went up to the Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction and jail term.

But it also asked the Constitutional Court to look at the current laws governing hunting.

In Friday's ruling a panel of 15 judges declared that making Indigenous communities apply for advance permission to hunt, and detail how many animals they expected to kill, was unconstitutional.

But it declined to overturn the homemade rifle restriction or allow Indigenous hunters to kill protected species.

"The constitution recognises both the protection of Indigenous people's right to practice their hunting culture and the protection of the environment and ecology," chief justice Hsu Tzong-li said.

"Both fundamental values are equally important."

- 'A cultural right' -

Talum, who now faces the prospect of prison, described the ruling as "regrettable" and said he would continue to hunt.

"We should be able to use good guns, why do we continue to use homemade guns that are dangerous and easy to discharge," he said.

He also dismissed concerns hunting would lead to the destruction of protected species because Indigenous communities only hunt at a subsistence level.

Hsieh Meng-yu, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Foundation, said the ruling went "90 percent" against Talum.

But he said it was the first time a court had recognised that Indigenous hunting was "a cultural right that should be respected and protected by the state".

Hsieh added that they would now push for a suspended sentence for Talum.

Hunting was once a core way of life for Taiwan's Indigenous people who -- much like the native populations of Australia and the Americas -- were decimated by waves of immigration and have faced a long history of discrimination.

Taiwan's 16 recognised Indigenous tribes led a comparatively uninterrupted life for thousands of years before immigrants first began arriving from the Chinese mainland.

They are an Austronesian people -- their languages, cultures and traditions far more closely linked to populations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific than China.

They now make up only 2.5 percent of Taiwan's 23 million population and remain marginalised, facing lower wages, higher rates of unemployment and poorer health indicators.

Taiwan has morphed into one of Asia's most progressive democracies in recent decades and there is growing recognition that past wrongs must be righted.

In 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen -- Taiwan's first leader with some Indigenous heritage -- delivered a landmark apology for how the island's governments had treated aboriginal communities.

Indigenous activists welcomed the apology but say there are still core issues of dispute -- particularly the loss of ancestral land rights.

A ruling by Taiwan's Constitutional Court in 2017 paved the way for the island to become the first place in Asia to legalise gay marriage.

aw-jta/mtp