“For 400 years, every regime that has come to Taiwan has brutally violated the rights of indigenous peoples through armed invasion and land seizure. For this, I apologise to the indigenous peoples on behalf of the government.” After taking office, Taiwan’s new president Tsai Ing-wen became Asia’s first representative of government to formally apologise to the indigenous.
All regimes on Taiwan, including the Dutch, Koxinga’s Kingdom of Tungning, the Qing Empire, Japan and the Republic of China, have used coercion, causing those who have lived there the longest to face the hardships of loss of land, cultural loss and economic downturn. Today, these plights continue.
A survey has shown that the income of indigenous people is 61% of other households, and that the proportion of indigenous people classified as belonging to “low-income households” is four times the national average. Employment in indigenous communities is not easy to find, and many young people are forced to move to cities, mostly in search of labour intensive, low paid work.
Perhaps because they have been away from the mountains and the forests for so long, indigenous people have forgotten that they were once the guardians of the land and experts in farming. Today, having been given the use of the precious hoe by Aurora Social Enterprise, indigenous people are quickly returning to their former glory.
Promoting organic farming, retrieving the link with the land
Famous for its sunrise, hordes of tourists make their way up Alishan to catch the sunrise every day, and come back down again after sunset. Restaurants on the mountain have been popping up one by one, and the land of the Tsou people has been sold off inch by inch. When there is no farmland left to cultivate, members of the community either remain unemployed in the area or move away to look for work.
Sixteen years ago, when Indian priest James Vyathappan took volunteers from Fu Jen Catholic University deep into an indigenous community to provide education services, he discovered that poverty was the root of all hardships, as parents cannot give their children a good education if the economic situation among indigenous people does not improve.
Seeing the deep dependence on the land among indigenous people, Ya-chen Chen, who had a background as a social worker, transformed the education service team into the Manna Organic Culture and Living Association in 2006. She then invited experts to come to the community to guide indigenous people on how to abandon pesticides and fertilisers in favour of natural farming methods that were friendlier to the environment. Even in the early stage, she had already obtained support from seven farmers.
But after changing the mode of production, difficulties related to subsequent processing, packaging, sales and logistics immediately emerged, not one of which areas was the expertise of the non-profit organisation. Therefore, Ya-chen Chen sought out Peng-chao Wang and Jester Lee, whose backgrounds were in trade and marketing, and they together established Aurora Social Enterprise in 2008.
Who would have thought that Typhoon Morakot would rear its head the next year, leading to the worst flooding in Taiwan for decades? Much arable land on Alishan was washed away beyond recognition. Luckily, the team was able to respond swiftly, leasing idle land to farmers for cultivation.
Knowing that post-disaster rehabilitation of farmland also requires funds, Aurora Social Enterprise made a payment to the farmers before sowing commenced and then developed a production and repayment plan with them. In the first two years of cooperation, Aurora guaranteed that it would purchase from farmers. Only after the third year did it begin to introduce price differences based on product quality segmentation. In addition, it also issued micro-loans to support indigenous people to improve farming efficiency and to create related businesses.
Following patient counselling and companionship, the farmers’ repayment rate was as high as 80% and, after just four years of operation, Aurora Social Enterprise was able to break even.
Cooking flavourful meals, tour guiding, opening B&Bs…there is lots more that indigenous communities can do
With the help of Aurora Social Enterprise, farmers only need to look after their crops and products, while Aurora shoulders responsibility for sales. Seafood is mostly sold to supermarkets and restaurants; misshapen produce is made into processed products; tea leaves and coffee are made into gift boxes. The team is also planning to take advantage of the mountainous climate and terrain to grow high-value traditional Chinese medicine herbs.
In addition, Aurora Social Enterprise has opened the Manna Social Enterprise Café at Fu Jen Catholic University, which sources the ingredients for its light meals from the Alishan area and gives internship opportunities to indigenous students in the hope that they will start their own businesses upon return to their communities.
However, not all indigenous people like farming. Instead, some have tried developing eco-tourism, perhaps first guiding tourists around the village, before teaching them how to harvest local crops and cook organic food. When night falls, tourists might then stay at locally owned B&Bs.
Having witnessed the power of diversified development, Peng-chao Wang said, “The goal of Aurora is to guarantee local employment for indigenous people and to ensure stable income. Therefore, if someone wants to develop a tourist business, we encourage them to take the first step.”
After ten years of operation, Manna continues to teach farming, while Aurora endeavours to promote sales. In this way, one complements the other. As Manna is a non-profit organisation, it has been agreed that farmers should donate 5% of their income and Aurora should donate 3% of its revenue to Manna, so that it can continue to promote natural farming.
This model has not only helped more than 30 farmers change to organic farming, but also taught frontline producers about sales practices. Today, farmers are already able to organise production and sales schedules on their own, as well as package their products by grade according to market demand. When the indigenous community is able to independently operate all aspects of business, Aurora will gradually retreat and start to look for another community in need of help.
An indigenous person once excitedly told Peng-chao Wang that his son had been discharged from voluntary military service and decided to become a “Prince of Organic Farming” in his home village. It is obviously not the case that young people return to their village because they are not able to make a living in the city. When a young person who can see a different future decides to go home, it means hope has returned to indigenous communities.