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Indigenous Tao way of life under threat on Taiwan island

by Sally Jensen | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 November 2020 01:00 GMT

Local farmers cycle with their crops on Orchid Island, Taiwan, November 3, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Naomi Goddard

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A surge in domestic tourism due to COVID-19 has pushed the island's traditional Tao way of life and ecological balance to the brink

By Sally Jensen

ORCHID ISLAND, Taiwan, Nov 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - While 2020 will be remembered by many as a year of travel bans and cancelled vacations, the indigenous Tao people of Orchid Island will remember it as the year unprecedented numbers of visitors descended on their once tranquil home.

The small island, 90 km (56 miles) off Taiwan's southeast coast, is home to approximately 4,700 ethnic Austronesian Tao or Yami people, and has in recent years become a popular holiday destination for both Taiwanese and foreigners alike.

But with bans on international travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year Orchid Island has experienced an unexpected surge in domestic visitors to more than 220,000 - putting a strain on both its natural resources and its inhabitants.

A community whose livelihood revolves around fishing, anthropologists believe the Tao people migrated to Orchid Island from Batan Island in the northern Philippines around 800 years ago.

They have their own language and belief system, as well as customs such as tatala boat-building, underground houses and taro cultivation.

Since 1982, Orchid Island has also housed a nuclear waste facility, which has drawn strong opposition and protests from Tao locals.

Taiwan has enforced tight measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, resulting in only 550 cases and seven deaths.

Taiwan's government encouraged the country's nearly 24 million population, roughly equivalent to Australia's, to spend the summer vacation within the country's borders in order to bolster the economy, offering travel subsidies and discounts.

On many days during the summer, ferries to Orchid Island, as well as accommodation on the island were completely booked up.

Many Tao islanders are now engaged in the seasonal tourism industry, working as scuba instructors, hoteliers, restaurateurs and guides.

However, with 82,000 visitors over July and August alone, the 45 kilometre-square island's traditional Tao way of life and ecological balance have been pushed to the brink.

"Here it used to be so beautiful and clean, but since more people have been arriving, the whole place has become a sewage plant," says Lu Mai of the Orchid Island Youth Action Alliance.

To cope with the amount of trash produced on the island over the summer, hoteliers launched a "take home one kilogram per person" scheme aimed at tourists.

The township office similarly initiated a donation scheme of 200 NTD (US $7) per visitor to help with the cost of transporting garbage back to the mainland.

But much of what is picked up on the coasts has floated across the sea from countries such as China, Vietnam, and Hong Kong.

Babu, a local tour and snorkel guide stands on the island’s shore surrounded by trash in Taiwan, November 3, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Naomi Goddard


For the past seven years, Tao men have organized and undertaken an annual ocean clean-up scheme funded by Taiwan's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As well as litter and pollution, the increasing presence of Taiwanese fishing trawlers frustrates local volunteers, many of whom are small-scale fishermen.

"Go to the market, you'll see the catches are getting smaller. Tao people used to catch only what we needed, sharing it out within the community. Now people are selling small fry," says Sima Papo, a local guide.

Climate change is another factor damaging the marine environment on which the Tao rely.

This year, Taiwan did not experience a single typhoon for the first time since 1964.

Typhoons play an important role in preventing damaging sea temperature rise.

This summer's warmth caused Taiwan's worst coral bleaching event in 22 years, according to Greenpeace Taiwan.

"The temperature at these depths (30 meters) has never been so high, so the reef looks bad," says Ya Ken, a scuba instructor and clean-up volunteer.

The coral bleaching affects both tourism and fish stocks.

Tao people are concerned that if the combined pressures from tourism and climate change worsen, their ways of life, traditional and modern, will be affected.

Indigenous men dive and remove fishing equipment from the bleached corals on Orchid Island, Taiwan, August 28, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sally Jensen

A view on Taiwan’s Orchid Island, an indigenous island famous with local tourists for its scenery and culture, November 2, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Naomi Goddard


According to locals, "approximately half" of Orchid's Tao people now live and work seasonally in mainland Taiwanese cities where they find better economic opportunities.

This has led to an exodus of young people from Orchid Island, and a workforce shortage during the off-season.

"Young men used to help construct underground houses and build their tatala as a rite of passage," Ah Shan, a local handyman, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The women took care of agriculture and food production. Now, nobody cares because there's no money in it -- unless it's for tourists."

"Now you can barely see the ocean for all the concrete. Islanders themselves have built it like this, completely unharmonized... this tourism development has eroded our culture," said Sheng An, head of the Ivalini tribe.

Some Tao people are calling for limits to be placed on visitor numbers.

Liu Shu-hao from the tourism department of the Taitung County Government told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, "we have had discussions internally and with the township office, but (a tourist limit) is not something we can say we would implement right now."

The township office handles affairs such as environmental maintenance, training courses, and waste management.

But some Tao people feel that they have been let down by government bureaucracy.

"The government bodies are too idealistic," said Papo, the tour guide. "They think we have time to pick up trash from the ocean. This year, our men are too busy running business on the island, taking tourists around. Who is going to miss a day of wages to look after the land?"

Liu added: "It's difficult to explain. The Tao culture is different, so we sort of let them manage tourism on Orchid Island their own way."


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(Reporting by Sally Jensen, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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