Ethnoecology workshop at Smangus

Smangus community classroom

On Sunday and Monday I attended a conference in Smangus. The conference, organized by National Chiao Tung University (國立交通大學), brought together a small group of anthropologists to discuss the topic of “Rethinking environment, localisation and indigenisation.” While it poured rain on the Sunday afternoon the cafe at provided a great refuge for the presenters gave their papers.

The presentations started with Dr Lin Yih-ren (林益仁) talking about the politics of the plan for the Maqaw National Park. The proposed national park covers a mountain area that is the traditional territory of the Atayal people. The social movement to promote the park developed through several stages. Initially indigenous people were not involved but an alliance between indigenous people and conservationists later developed. However, there was also another indigenous group that opposed the park. The plan for the park is now suspended but it has had an important influence on the development of ecotourism and laws related to indigenous peoples.

Jackson Hu’s paper on the fetish landscapes of the Theravada Buddhist communities in the China-Burma border region wasn’t able to attend to give his presentation, but presented via a PowerPoint presentation with a voice recording.

Kerim Friedman presented a paper on language rights in Taiwan. He looked at how Taiwan developed a place-based multiculturalism in the 1990s, based on Japanese ideas. This has led to a fragmentation of the local language market. For example, there are 43 different language tests for Austronesian languages, even though there are only fourteen officially recognised ethno-linguistic groups.

The next set of presentations were both about Amis communities on the east coast of Taiwan. Yi-tze Lee (李宜澤) talked about the development of organic agriculture in the Talampo community in Fuli (富里). Interestingly this community is known as the “dark village” (黑色部落) because it has no electricity, a name that was also once given to Smangus. Lee contrasted the organic farming practices of Talampo with those of the Chinese-speaking farmers on nearby Liushi Dan Mountain (六十石山).

Next was a presentation about the ‘Tolan community (都蘭) near Taitung. The spirit of the community was very much present as four of the five authors, all members of the ‘Tolan community, were involved in giving the presentation. They looked at the driftwood from Typhoon Morakot and how this sparked action among the young people in the community. Even though most of the young men live outside the village, they discussed the topic via their community website and this led to them taking action to assert their rights to the wood.

Anna Tsing at Smangus

Anna Tsing who is a professor of anthropology at the University of California Santa Cruz was the final presenter. She is well known for her book Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection which looks at the forests of southern Kalimantan in Indonesia as a site for understanding the interplay of the local, provincial, national and global networks that shape the forests.

Tsing’s paper was on the subject of “blasted landscapes.” She looked at the ecological the harvesting of matsutake mushrooms in four countries. These mushrooms only grow on disturbed forest environments with poor soils. Hence they can be used to understand the ecological concept of disturbance. The disturbed landscapes the matsutake mushrooms grow on show how humans can live in disturbed environments. For example, in the US Pacific Northwest the mushrooms are picked by Vietnam War veterans and refugees from Cambodia and Laos. Going into the forests and picking the mushrooms is a form of recuperation for these people whose lives have been affected by war.

A number of members of the Smangus community joined us in the evening for Anna Tsing’s presentation and then gave their own presentations. Lahuy Icyeh introduced the Smangus community and explained how they developed their communal system of management. Then Kevan Berg, a Ph.D. student from Canada, who is currently doing fieldwork in Smangus introduced his research. His study is about landscape ethnoecology and seeks to understand the forest habitat classifications of the Atayal in Smangus. Finally the chief of Smangus, Icyeh Sulung, spoke to the group. He was very happy that the conference was being held in Smangus. He said that the development of ecotourism in Smangus was a way to share traditional knowledge about the environment and to educate people about the importance of environmental protection.

Mushroom in bamboo forest near Smangus

The skies were clear on Monday morning as the group set out on the hike to the Yaya Qparung, the grove of ancient cypress trees. The walk was punctuated by a number of stops along the way where Lahuy talked about the history of various sites. Although the walking trail is now lined by bamboo and forest, it was until a few decades ago being cultivated in some areas. Some evidence of this is still present.

Lahuy with millet at Smangus

At lunch before we left Lahuy pounded some millet for everyone to try. Accompanied by wild honey it tasted quite delicious. The photo above shows Lahuy displaying some of the different millet varieties that are grown in Smangus. Although millet is no longer a staple in their the diet the people in Smangus still grow some millet every year. One of the reasons for this is to preserve the different varieties. Currently they grow seven varieties and they plan to cultivate more in the future.

Smangus was a great location for the conference on the ethnoecology. There was a chance to learn from anthropologists studying ecologically related topics and also learn directly about traditional ecological knowledge in Smangus.

*For more photos see Kerim’s set of Smangus photos at flickr.

Update: The United Daily News (聯合報) has a story about Kevan and Jodi staying in Smangus:  愛上司馬庫斯 加國夫婦Long Stay.

3 thoughts on “Ethnoecology workshop at Smangus

  1. Pingback: Anna Tsing in Smangus | Savage Minds

  2. My wife is from Changbing – Makalahay is the name of the Amis village. We often visit the village a couple times during the year. Nice big hospital with Amis and Japanese speaking nurses for the elderly population in the area would be great!

  3. Pingback: East Asia Blog Round-Up : 30/6/2010 « Eye on East Asia

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