Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Taiwan's dark village

View from Liushidan mountain - down in the valley below, is nestled the Dark Village

Its hard to imagine that in high-tech Taiwan – one of the most wired societies in the world – there can be any community without access to electricity. But there is: a settlement of aboriginals from the Amis tribe – one of the island’s 13 officially recognized tribes - living in Hualien county on Taiwan’s east coast. Its not connected to the electricity grid and has no access to power. Its known locally as as The Dark Village.

Amis villagers celebrate at a day lily festival.

Legal disputes over the land are the main reason the site never got connected to the mains grid. Decades ago, the land was seized by the government and developed for forestry. But today, the local people – members of the Amis aboriginal tribe; one of Taiwan’s 13 officially recognized tribes – are trying to reassert their ancestral land claims.

Amis women

When I first met them, the tribe were celebrating at a newly-opened sales centre at a festival promoting their locally harvested crop - the daylily, an edible flower, which traditionally used in Chinese cooking, especially soups.

Early picked day lilies

day lily meal

Day lily fried chips

Day lily icecream

For the past three years, the non-governmental organization, World Vision Taiwan, has been working with the community, giving them technical and other training, helping them turn to organic farming methods. It means they can sell their crop at prices five times higher than before.

One of the community leaders, Sawmah tells me the project is giving people a new sense of pride – and employment opportunities for the tribe’s younger generation who would normally leave for the cities in search of work.

"Organic farming can earn us more money; and it’s a healthier product for customers to eat", he says. "My children picked day lilies when they were young..but for them it was difficult work. When they finished school, they chose to work in the city.
"But I told them they can come back any time; now we have this sales centre, they can work there, they don’t have to do farming. We are trying to achieve more here..and let young people see that if if you are a farmer, you can still have a good life. "

Will they still live in the village when they are older?

But life is still tough.

houses at the Dark Village - pic courtesy of World Vision Taiwan

The tribe spend about half a year living in the Dark Village – during the main planting and harvesting season – housed in basic iron corrugated buildings. No electricity means they need to build wood fires to cook; At night, oil lanterns provide a little light. They’ve lived like this for years.

Cooking at night by fire in the village

"Having no electricity..its like being blind" , says 63 year old Kiko. She tells me its hard to keep food fresh- especially meat. I ask her what's the first thing she would buy if they had electricity in the village. " A refrigerator..a washing machine..a tv..a cell phone. lots of things", she says, barely pausing for breath.

These day lilies have bloomed..and cannot be eaten

Those items could soon be within their grasp. The appearance a few months ago of electricity poles near their village in the valley – which were installed to pump stream water to a nearby mountain resort – is making many tribal elders, like Potal, keen to see their own settlement connected to the power grid.

Electricity poles appeared near the settlement a few months ago.

"I really really want power in the village", he tells me "because I've been living there forever. I want to enjoy some modern life..put something in the refrigerator; I don't want to heat up wood to burn things, to cook. I've been waiting for it all my life.", he says.

You might think the whole tribe would welcome the arrival of electricity - but that's not the case.

And, surprisingly, opposition is coming from the tribe's younger members. 28 year old Masawo says there’s a special community spirit – as they sit around fires at night singing songs and chatting – which he fears might disappear forever.

"We don’t have electricity, so people get together after work; chat, and talk about important things. In the past, we would tell stories and sing too. If we had electricity, we’d all just sit around watching TV and wouldn’t talk about things", he says.

Okoc, a mother of four, agrees. "We don’t want regular electriricty. I like things the way they are.
"Here we use oil lanterns, like in the old times. It seems better like that. If you had power, you wouldn’t be able to see all the stars; and all the natural living things, like frogs and other animals, would run away. "

The debate is creating such damaging divisions within the tribe that younger members say they will respect the wishes of the elders. But one compromise solution could be solar power - which would be more in keeping with the tribe’s goals of developing future projects like ecotourism and trekking.
But whatever’s decided in the future, with the advent of power, one thing’s for sure: the Dark Village will have to change its name for good.

1 comment:

Betsey said...

Caro: this was a great tour. I am an avid organic gardener and daylily grower. You've given me some ideas. And I definitely respect the villagers for their industriousness and willingness to at least discuss forgoing the hypotism of "the Tube".