The Story of Smangus at Students of Sustainability

This morning I gave a presentation about Smangus at the Students of Sustainability (SoS) conference. This year the conference is being held in Bendigo, which is not far from where I live in Australia. I attended because it was a good chance to reconnect with the academic world and activists in Australia. It was also the first time I have done a presentation about my research in Taiwan for an Australian audience.

SoS is an annual conference organised by the Australian Student Environment Network (ASEN) which connects campus environment collectives from around Australia. I first attended SoS in 2004. Incidentally the 2004 conference was also the first time I met John Seed. I later had the chance to travel around Taiwan with John and visit some indigenous communities including Smangus.

My presentation, titled “The Story of Smangus: Indigenous Rights in Taiwan,” started with some background information about Taiwan and its indigenous peoples. I then followed this with some discussion of the Smangus community and the legal case about the right to use wood from a wind-fallen tree. As the key theme of the conference is sustainability I wanted people to know more about how the people of Smangus have used their traditional knowledge as the basis for a sustainable community. The word sustainability is often misused, but I think the people of Smangus and other indigenous peoples around the world have practiced sustainable ways of living for hundreds or even thousands of years. There are many lessons that can be learnt from them.

Indigenous issues are a major theme at SoS. The plenary on the first day of the conference was on sovereignty. Grassroots Aboriginal activists spoke about the topic. Their perspectives presented a radical challenge to the mainstream discourse on this issue in Australia. This afternoon I had the chance to further explore some of these issues in a workshop about working with indigenous communities. The workshop talked about the need for “decolonising our minds” in order to work effectively with indigenous peoples for justice.

*You can find the pdf file of my presentation here.

Hagay community protests against impacts of Baling Dam

Hagay community protests outside Executive Yuan

Members of the Atayal community of Hagay (哈凱部落) protested outside the Executive Yuan in Taipei today. They called on the government to provide permanent housing to replace the temporary housing they have been living in for ten years. They also called on the government to take responsibility for the impacts of the construction of the Baling Dam in the catchment of the Shimen Reservoir.

The Hagay community originally lived in a remote location in Fuxing Township of Taoyuan County (桃園縣復興鄉). About twenty years ago the community decided to move to a new location near the Baling Bridge (巴陵橋) on the Northern Cross Island Highway to make it easier for the children to get to school. Continue reading

John Seed in Jianshi and Smangus

Atayal artist Yawi

After travelling through central and southern Taiwan the next part of John Seed’s trip spent a few days in Jianshi Township of Hsinchu County. The photo above shows the Atayal artist Yawi. He has a studio up in the mountains and he kindly showed us around. His artworks have been purchased by the former Vice President Annette Lu and the current First Lady Chow Mei-ching.

Ginger cultivation in Jianshi

We also went to see the area where ginger is being cultivated in Tianshui. This is another important local environmental issue. The ginger growing is done by outsiders who come in and rent or buy the land, usually via dubious legal methods. The cultivation is being done on slopes which are steeper than the legal limit. The extensive clearing and disturbance of the soil creates a significant risk of a landslide. The growers exploit the land for short term profits while the local residents have to live with the effects of environmental degradation and risk of landslides. Continue reading

Trip to Marqwang and Smangus

I spent last week visiting Marqwang and Smangus, two communities in the houshan (後山) area of Jianshi Township (尖石鄉) in Hsinchu County. The visit was to conduct field work for a research project about the management of the Shimen Reservoir Catchment following the implementation of the Shimen Reservoir and Catchment Area Remediation Special Act (石門水庫及其集水區整治特別條例) which was passed by the Legislative Yuan in January 2006. The act created a special budget of NT$25 billion to upgrade the facilities of the Shimen Reservoir and management of the catchment area.

The Shimen Reservoir suffered severe impacts following Typhoon Aere in 2004 and several other typhoons in the period from 2001 to 2005. These typhoons caused large inflows of the sediment into the dam and compromised the ability of the reservoir to supply water to Taoyuan and Taipei counties. Michael Turton recently published a post detailing some of the problems based on an article that was published in CommonWealth magazine (天下雜誌). These two articles provide excellent background information. Continue reading

Visit to village relocation site in Alishan

Alishan Tsou people

Yesterday I visited the Alishan area to look at an area of land that is proposed for a village relocation. The relocation plan is being put forward by members of the Laiji (來吉) community following the impacts of Typhoon Morakot. Some academics and people from the local government met with community members and were taken on a tour of the proposed site.  Continue reading

Visit to typhoon-affected areas of Kaohsiung County

Over the weekend I visited some of the areas affected by Typhoon Morakot in Kaohsiung County with a group of law students from Providence University. It is now more than eight months since the typhoon hit Taiwan. While there has been so much reported about the event in the media visiting these places provides a better understanding of the magnitude of the disaster.

The first part of the trip visited Liugui (六龜) and Baolai (寶來). In Liugui a Bunun elder related the history of his community. Following the typhoon they have been frustrated in their efforts to find a new place to relocate their village. Even though they have found a suitable place the government has repeatedly refused them permission to move there.

Dr Lin Yih-ren raised the important point that “moving the village” (遷村) is actually a normal part of the culture of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Historically they also migrated to new locations within Taiwan. However, forced relocation by the government is something different and doesn’t respect the autonomy or integrity of indigenous communities.

A satellite photo in Liugui showed the extent of landslides. These occurred in both areas were people lived and also in other places were there were no people living and no agricultural or other activities. This indicates the problem is not just related to land use, but is closely linked to the geology of the area. The landscape is very fragile in nature. Continue reading

High Court delivers not guilty verdict in Smangus case

The High Court yesterday passed down a not guilty verdict to three men from the Atayal village of Smangus. The verdict follows the Supreme Court decision in December last year that sent the case back to the High Court for another hearing.

The case concerned the use of wood from a tree that fell over on the road to Smangus in a September 2005 typhoon. The Forestry Bureau later removed the main part of the tree. The three men from Smangus then took the remaining tree stump for use in their village following a decision made at a community meeting. They were subsequently charged with theft of forest products under the Forestry Act.

Regarding the decision the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (台灣人權促進會) wrote on their blog:

This is not only victory and justice for Smangus after a long battle. It will also have major influence on the autonomous development of all indigenous communities. It also means that the nation’s justice system attaches importance to the basic human rights of indigenous peoples. [translated from Chinese by David]

The decision ends a legal battle that has gone on for more than four years. During this time the community of Smangus has consistently asserted its rights under the law, in particular Article 15 of the Forestry Act and the Indigenous Peoples’ Basic Law. The decision to bring the tree stump back to the village was also in accordance with the gaga, their system of traditional law.

Sanying Community celebrates another year

On Saturday the Amis community of Sanying (三鶯部落) in Sanxia held its end of year celebration. The event attracted a crowd of about 500 people which was more than last year’s event. The community had also undergone a lot rebuilding after its demolition in February 2008.

The afternoon began with dancing by members of Sanying and also the nearby riverside community of Saowac. As the evening approached the dancing ended and there was a generously catered meal enjoyed by everyone in attendance. Continue reading