Forest Guardians Find a Future

By Zoe Cheng

Original Post on Taiwan Review, June 2007

The achievements of a small aboriginal community to develop a sustainable model of tourism are as inspiring as the natural heritage they want to conserve.

As a species, the Formosa Red Cypress came to Taiwan in the last ice age. The majestic trees grow at altitudes between 1,800 and 2,500 meters in Taiwan's cool, moist, often cloud-shrouded central mountains. These trees are certainly the oldest living things on Taiwan. The lifespan of a cypress can easily surpass 1,000 years; the oldest one found so far in Taiwan being over 4,000 years old. While cypresses have been growing here for millennia, the opportunity to see an old giant is pitifully rare. This isn't just because of the time it takes to grow--it needs more than 12 years to gain 1 centimeter in circumference--but also because of decades of deforestation since Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945). As a result, only a few forests, located in inaccessible areas have survived.

The rarer the towering cypress clusters have become, the greater people's interest in seeing them has grown. Forests of giant cypress have become a tourist attraction. For the mountain villages located near cypress forests this has brought economic benefits, but it has also brought environmental and social damage. The conundrum is how to strike a balance between exploiting the trees as a tourism resource while keeping at bay the overdevelopment and environmental degradation that tourism can bring. One community that may have solved this problem is Smangus.

Smangus, a village of the Atayal tribe, is perhaps one of the most remote communities in Taiwan. Situated in mountains in eastern Hsinchu County, it takes two and a half hours to drive a winding road at about 30 kilometers per hour to Neiwan, the nearest township. The village was the last in Taiwan to be connected to the national electrical grid in 1980, and also the last to get a road suitable for cars in 1995. Before the discovery of a forest of giant cypresses in 1991, Smangus villagers led a life that had changed little in centuries. Hunting and planting millet, taro, yams and bamboo were their main means of support; their main item of trade was dried mushrooms, the marketing of which involved a six-hour walk to the nearest village and a six-hour walk back.

Due to its geographical isolation, the storms of Taiwan's history have largely passed Smangus by, although during the Japanese colonial era the entire community was relocated. After Japanese rule ended, some villagers moved back to their ancestral land. "You won't find people over 80 years old here for they were moved out." Icyeh, the 64-year-old village head says.

Past Hardships

Until little more than a decade ago, to live in Smangus a person had to be almost unbelievably hardy. "Thirty years ago life here was so arduous," Icyeh says. Any modern convenience--a refrigerator, a TV set, a gas stove--had to be carried for eight hours from the nearest road. Emergencies like giving birth could sometimes be hard to handle. One child, called "Bridge," got his name because he was delivered at Smangus Bridge, only halfway to the hospital.

Only four years ago, the government set up an elementary school in the village on ground in front of the church. Before that, schooling took place in Hsinkuang, a village at the same altitude as Smangus, but separated by the Takechin Creek. This means a four-hour walk involving a steep descent to the river and then a grueling climb. The children walked to school on Mondays, usually arriving around lunch time, and home again Saturdays, staying on campus during the week in a bamboo hut erected by their parents and cooking for themselves. The junior high school was located even further away, an entire day's walk.

If Smangus seems to have been forgotten by society at large, its isolation has helped foster an attitude among its residents that it is under some divine dispensation--Smangus, they think, is "God's village." Remoteness has also held at bay some of the more corrupting influences of the outside world. "In the early years, there were no epidemics, and not enough money to buy rice wine, so no bottle men," says Icyeh, referring to the alcoholism that plagues many aboriginal communities.

Smangus was not the first aboriginal settlement to exploit the tourism potential of the giant cypresses. Tatkuanshan--formerly known as Lalashan--in Taoyuan county, was declared a nature reserve in 1986 because of its cypress forests. Indeed it was partly with the aim of following in Tatkuanshan's footsteps that Icyeh, around 15 years ago, started to search for a giant cypress forest around Smangus. He found one group of giant cypresses but unfortunately the biggest was knocked down by a typhoon.

Villagers kept on searching because their dreams repeatedly contained good omens, for example red and white sheep licking the root of a giant tree. Icyeh recalled legends saying that giant trees were located near red water. Working on this he eventually discovered Yaya Qparung, as the villagers call it, meaning "as great as mothers." Yaya Qparung, currently the second largest cypress in Taiwan, has a circumference of 20.5 meters, and is over 2,500 years old. "The cypress forest is 1,630 meters above sea level, making it more accessible than the previously discovered one," Icyeh says. Since then, Yaya Qparung has drawn countless visitors to Smangus.

More Than Just Trees

Often, visitors arrive having only forests of giant cypress in mind, but by the time they leave have discovered that what Smangus has to offer goes beyond Yaya Qparung. From the air one breathes, the spring water one drinks, a community setting strewn with Atayal wood carvings and traditional bamboo houses, a plethora of flowers, the song of the Formosan yuhina or call of the crested serpent eagle--the area is a feast for the five senses and fills visitors with a sense of delight. Even at night, walking around the foggy community under a starry sky and hearing the hoot of a collared scops owl or frogs' mating calls is enchanting, although the weather can be a little cool.

To see the cypress forests visitors need to start--preferably in the morning--from the village and take an ancient trail which traverses two cliffs, six lush stands of bamboo, several bridges and winds between hills on an easy but long hiking route. The entire hike is about 5.2 kilometers and takes from four to six hours. For those who register ahead of their visit, a native guide is available, who will often point out fascinating details along the trail. When Yaya Qparung and eight other giant cypresses are sighted, visitors simply stop and marvel at the hugeness of the trees. "Yaya Qparung looks like a person opening his arms to welcome you," Icyeh says. The trail is well maintained; fences and elevated wooden walkways have been set up to protect the roots and trunks from trampling.

For visitors with more time, a visit to the nearby Koraw Ecological Park is worthwhile. Koraw means "fat earth." This park is small, yet it is home to a number of endangered species, such as Swinhoe's pheasant, the Formosan giant flying squirrel and rare orchid varieties. Animal footprints are easily visible. An experienced guide can help visitors understand how Atayal hunters trap animals. Almost every feature of the park has a story to tell.

In fact, Smangus has made a great effort to get to where it is today. Twelve years ago, when it began to receive tourists, they faced a number of challenges. Competition for business among villagers was intense, leading to frequent conflicts. "In the first three years, villagers cared only for their own businesses. Relations between them turned so sour that we, being all Christians, looked like strangers to one another after church meetings. I thought it would be a disaster if such disagreements continued," Icyeh says. He was also worried that a lack of solidarity among the villagers would lead to outsiders being able to acquire their land, something which had happened in other aboriginal villages.

Birth of the Commune

"I tried to revive our ancestor's spirit of sharing to foster cohesion," Icyeh says. He took the lead to stand firm against the enticement of outside conglomerates. "If I put money before the wishes of the ancestors, I could have made a pile," he says. Step by step, village members started to pool their resources and run the restaurant and accommodation businesses collectively. A collective management system, tnunan in Atayal, finally came into being in 2004. Tnunan means a close interweaving of threads to make a beautiful pattern, the spirit of which emphasizes sharing and coordination. Participants in tnunan all signed agreements according to which they are co-owners of the land, the selling of which is not allowed. A tribal development association was also set up as the decision-making body for village affairs.

Three years on, they have built a restaurant that seats around 200 people, a canteen, a tourist information center and several guesthouses. Profits from the enterprises go into a community fund, which provides cradle-to-the-grave care for villagers. In addition, villagers who work get a monthly salary of NT$10,000 (US$320). "That's more than enough to live here," says Goyong, a young villager who returned to the community recently after living away for 16 years.

Tnunan has been practiced in Smangus for three years. Almost all the 25 households, some 80 to 90 people, living in the village have joined the collective. "Our ancestors often said that we shared one dining table, meaning that we are one family. We just practice what our ancestors told us," Yurow Icyang, a middle-aged leading member, says.

Each day as the sun emerges from the mountain behind the village, the males gather in a meeting area for job assignment. About the same time, children make their now short walk to school. After a short prayer, having received their job assignments, the villagers go to work, which can be cleaning up the community, repair work, interpreting for visitors, sculpture, house building or peach growing. Women work too. They clean guesthouses, take turns to cook, and some weave the cloth for which Atayal women are famous. Everything is run in an orderly way as the tourists begin to arrive.

Tourism is now the mainstay of the village's income. "Around 60 to 70 percent of revenue is raised from tourism," says Yurow. The rest is earned from crop and fruit sales. Currently, they receive about 350 tourists per day on weekends. "Actually, our goal is to reduce the number of visitors to 250 per day," Yurow says. "We want fewer visitors but higher quality." Currently, Smangus is coordinating with the Hsiuluan police office, which regulates the mountain permits that allow entry to the area, to control visitor volumes.

The Management Gurus

If it is the cypress forest that draws visitors, then it is the efficient management of the community's affairs and the strong cohesion among villagers that have started to draw young Atayal back to settle. This is a remarkable success because this village, like many others, used only to see young people move away, leaving only the elderly. "Kids of the mountain areas easily get into bad ways when they live in the cities. I hope they can find a place here," says Icyeh, who endeavors to promote a healthier lifestyle. "We put a 'non-smoking community' sign at the entrance to the village because we want to encourage our people to quit smoking," Icyeh says. "A lot of changes are visible now, which I feel very proud of." Abstinence from alcohol is also promoted. "We are happy even if only one or two quit drinking," says Icyeh. His father, who also used to be the village leader, died of cirrhosis of the liver resulting from alcoholism. "Now only a few old people drink or smoke. Work efficiency has improved a lot," Tgbil Icyang, a young father of two, agrees. "We hope visitors can stop smoking here, too, for safety's sake."

Among all the changes to their original lifestyle, the ban on hunting is perhaps the most difficult to accept. Many male villagers are accomplished hunters, their pride deriving from how many black bears or other formidable beasts they had killed. Expertise in hunting provided significant social status. But the villagers realize that hope for the future lies in ecotourism. "I quit hunting because wild animals have to be preserved," says Gumaih, an old hunter who has carved a knife on his door plaque to tell everyone about his glorious past.

There are other inconveniences the villagers have to endure--noise, garbage, and sometimes lack of privacy. Visitors have, for example, pitched tents in villagers' front yards or sat in on religious meetings. Also, not every visitor spends a night in Smangus, many just come for a half-day hike to the cypress forest. "When the safety measures are better, we will consider charging visitors a fee to cover cleaning up," Icyeh says. Smangus has provided all the necessary facilities and trail maintenance. "We do hope we will be permitted to manage this area," Icyeh says.

Perhaps Smangus' greatest achievement, however, is being able to create a future for itself and its children. So many other remote villages are struggling. "We encourage our kids to study hard and learn something related to the village's development so that they'll be able to make greater contributions," Tgbil says. There are now seven students at university and one at graduate school. Someday, the new blood will join their parents in making a future as venerable and vital as Yaya Qparung.

Used with permission

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