|About the Author
Pina Wu is an Environmental Services Professional based in Taipei, Taiwan. Her specialties include Urban Planning, Community Engagement and International Development. She has a Master in Public Policy and Urban Planning from Harvard University and an M.S. in Building & Planning from National Taiwan University. She currently teaches Environmental Education and English for Tour Guiding in Wenshan and Tainan Community Colleges.
By Pina Wu, ECOCLUB.com Correspondent
The village of Smangus (pop. 178), is located in the remote mountains of central Taiwan (open Map), in the area inhabited by the indigenous Atayal people. Since 2004, in order to develop its tourism sustainably, the villagers formed a cooperative, officially the “Smangus Tribal Labor Co-op”, sharing the land, costs and profits. Today, 55,000 tourists visit this small village of 34 households each year, generating an annual revenue of 0.7 million USD1. The co-op has increased worker salaries four times in the past ten years and currently employs 47 villagers full-time. It offers comprehensive welfare programs and it is also funding the construction of an elementary school. Tourism not only sustains the village economically, but also helps the local community rediscover and reinvent their traditional socioeconomic system.
Smangus is considered to be a unique and a successful model in Taiwan by many researchers and commentators2. Unlike other indigenous villages such as Makutaay, Matai’an and Fulafulangan in the east coast, where tourism is managed by individual households, individuals, or external investors, Smangus, through its Tribal Council, has formed an organization where villagers pool their limited resources, buffer the interference of external developers and conserve the local culture and environment.
Your correspondent arrived in the Smangus village on a mid-summer afternoon with a tour. At first glance this was clearly not the village of a remote tribe whose population and culture was in decline, as was the case until 20 years ago: now the village center was packed with tour vans and bustled with tourists. Back in the 1990s, the village economy was based on mushroom and fruit production. With limited road access high up in the mountains (1500m a.s.l.) the village could not support everyone and youngsters had to leave for education and work in the plains, also losing their native language along the way. In 1991, under the guidance of tribal chief Icyeh Sulung, a group of villagers set out to look for potential tourism attractions. They quickly focused on a group of “giant trees”, red cypresses over one thousand years old. Seeing both the trees and the forest, the villagers, with the assistance of Cardinal Tien Cultural Foundation3, persuaded the county government to widen the road and make it accessible by cars in 1995. Tourists started trickling in the village.
As is often the case, tourism development upset local balances: families began to compete for tourists in offering accommodation and food services. Since most of the villagers are relatives (Tsai, 2004), the competition really disrupted the harmony within the village. As not every family had the resources to build a tourist lodging, some borrowed money from external lenders or investors. Villagers were approached by developers (Li, 2011), including some dubious ones, expressing interest in buying land sometimes accompanied by threats. The villagers suddenly became aware that they could lose both their land and their autonomy if they did not unite.
In 2001, eight families were the first to collaborate so as to operate a common kitchen and combine their individual tourist lodgings into a cooperative. A detailed plan of shareholding was also drafted with the assistance of two college students and later included more members. The system was congruent with the Atayal culture and relied on ‘gaga’, traditional Atayal ethics and social rules (Tsai, 2004). Back in the old times, the villagers had been working together, sharing harvest and prey to strengthen social relations.
The co-op enjoys a transparent decision-making system as documented in a 2011 Taiwan Public Television film (Web: http://smangus.pts.org.tw) and as personally witnessed by your correspondent. There is an operational meeting every morning at 8:00, and a general members’ meeting every two weeks, in which everyone has to participate and issues can be discussed openly. In Tsai's research in 2004, 28 members were surveyed about the management of the co-op and most respondents felt they could express their opinion during the meetings and that they were likely to abide to the decision made during the meetings.
In 2003, 9 villagers from each household visited several Kibbutz in Israel to study their co-management system4. In 2004, Smangus moved forward to the full model of Tnunan5 - which means land co-ownership including agriculture and livestock. The move was uncomfortable for some, because they owned private land for a long time, but most villagers felt “it is necessary to let go, to take the responsibility of whatever happens after, and to think for the next generation”6. In January 2004, a General Meeting voted in favour of the plan and ever since the villagers have been able to farm collectively, increase efficiency and formulate comprehensive land use planning in an area of nearly 400 hectares, designating areas for farming and areas for conservation. Departments of development, agriculture, domestic animals, ecological preservation, construction, culture and medicare, public relations were integrated into the new co-op structure. The main executive of co-op and head of each department are elected every two years. All villagers above the age of 18 can join the co-op. Every member receives equal pay. Everyone participates in cooking in the restaurants and cleaning the lodgings although most of it is done by women, but they receive extra compensation for this. Even the (elected) head of the tribe, Masay Sulung, has to work in the field or pack fruits according to the work assignment. And the co-op develops a comprehensive welfare scheme that applies to all members in education, medical care, child-rearing, home-building and marriage. There is a daily meeting for everyone, a weekly meeting every Sunday afternoon for the head of each department, a monthly meeting and an annual meeting in January during which people vote on the annual plan, budget, and elect the executives if necessary. There are also emergency meetings. Through frequent meetings, the consensus is formed and the plans are constantly modified. (Li, 2011)
A typical ecotourism program, arranged for group tourists, in Smangus includes the following: a walk to the giant trees (yaya gpalong in the Atayal language, meaning “Mother”), which is a 11km, 4 to 5 hour hike. Along the way there are traditional Atayal plants while visitors learn about local history. The Karow Eco Natural Park, an area once used for planting, is now a quiet forest where people can experience the Atayal way of archery. There are also “Cultural Nights”, “Pray for Blessings” and a “Welcoming Ceremony” where visitors can learn about the vision of the Tribal Council. In the Council’s own words, “The Smangus tribal experiences have been packaged into a series of tourist trips that allow outsiders to experience how the Smangus protect forests and achieve the ideals of sustainable development7.”
The visitors can take a walk to the giant trees whenever they want even if they do not stay in a lodging in Smangus. The giant tree walk is not regulated or guided. The Karow Eco Park and the activities need to be led by a guide, usually the group is 20-50. Over 7 people are qualified as tour guides, while the number of guides who take shifts are 4 to 5 people. There is a 40 minute talk about Smangus which takes place daily as long as there is a booking for more than 20 people on that day and a regular "Cultural Night" that takes place every Saturday. There are two main tour agencies that lead two-day tours to Smangus every week but there are several others that arrange tours on an occasional basis based on an online search. The village also accepts customized tours in which the group is assigned a through guide. A large percentage of tourists come by themselves by self-driving and they book with Smangus website directly. The co-op mainly provides lodging - a double room costs 50-70 USD. Not all tourists get guided tours probably because the village is short of guides. The villagers says they will work on developing tours suited for families with children this year.
A typical visitor usually stays for two or three days in the village. The forest trees of high altitude release a fresh fragrance that stimulates the dull sensations of the city dwellers. And the quietness of the trail relaxes people. The ecological and cultural background of Smangus is introduced by highly-experienced8 locals as interpreters in a humorous and personal way. Through the trip, visitors do feel they have “got in touch with the nature and learned the knowledge about the environment from the indigenous people who knows it the best” as a tourist said. The village’s modernized lodgings and restaurant might come off as “touristy”, but as another visitor sees it “...although it may not look like an undeveloped tribe as I had imagined, it is modernized so its tradition can be continued, and the environment can be protected”.
The co-op supports forest stewardship. Young members are assigned to regular shifts to prevent the area from illegal logging. Local young students who go to school in the cities also come back to work for summer and join the interpretation trips as trainees. To the young people, the co-op not only offers secure employment, but also cultural and environmental education and teaches them the skills of their ancestors. In 2009, the villagers self-built an elementary school. The school gives students a dual system education both in mainstream and Atayal language and culture. The goal is to create a local knowledge pool in Atayal culture in the long run. The co-op expects that population will start increasing again. Already there are many newborn babies, young children, and new families now living in Smangus.
However, the Smangus story is not without its challenges. A fifth of the villagers have still not joined the co-op, possibly because of the low pay or disagreement with the leadership of the co-op9. In June 2015, the police detained an organized group allegedly for logging as much as 3.5 tones of precious trees such as cedar and cypress in the Smangus area10. Several of the main suspects are local Smangus villagers who did not join the co-op.
Another potential problem is that the co-ownership of the land may not be fully compatible with the current Taiwanese law12. The Tribal Council has to sign a separate contract with each household and the families make a traditional vow to let the co-op to use the land as common property.
Religion-supporting organizations such as the Cardinal Tien Cultural Foundation have had relationships with Smangus for decades, providing social services and developing in-depth tours for college students in the early stages of tourism development in Smangus. But now, the majority of tourists who come to the village book directly with the co-op. Visitors are drawn to Smangus not just for its natural beauty, but because they are touched by the communal spirits and the ideals of the co-op. The village also works with nonprofits such as the Seven Star Eco-conservation Foundation to improve the tours and the meals offered to tourists.
In June 2015, the co-op announced their decision to cut visitor numbers by half - down from a maximum of 500 a day to 250 arguing that they need to reduce the tourist impact on the environment. The co-op also plans to conduct major maintenance work for the bridges and trails they have built. As the region is prone to landslides, the villagers also hope the government can partner with them, utilizing their knowledge in the environment to conserve soil and water to protect the fragile landscape in the mountainous area. Indeed, as this report was being completed Typhoon Soudelor hit Taiwan in early August and the village road washed away. The village is still accessible by cars but repairs are needed.
There are more than eight hundred indigenous villages in Taiwan but Smangus is arguably the only one that creates a co-op system to co-manage its natural and human resources in tourism development. The Smangus story has been praised as a “utopia” by the media and attracted considerable research attention. The “cooperative and symbiotic” principles of Smangus provide much food for thought for other indigenous communities but also for all of us who live in a world that stresses individualism and competition, inspiring us to think alternatively.
Edited by Antonis Petropoulos
All rights reserved, ECOCLUB S.A. (2015)
1. Source: Liberal Times 2014/12/14
2. Taiwan Public Television Service featured Smangus in a documentary “A Year in the Cloud” (2011) which involved a 15-month filming period. (Web: http://www.pts.org.tw/smangus/eng/Storyen.html) The co-op model of Smangus also appeared in Next Media, UDN news, Apple Daily in 2014. There are a lot of research articles and theses on Smangus. The main sources used for this report are: (a). “The Research of the Ecotourism Operated by the Cooperative Operating System in Northern Tapajen Mountain” by Sho-chi Tsia, A report for the Administration of Shei-pa National Park, 2004. (b). A Study on the Development of Strategic Management of Ecotourism in Aboriginal Tribes—A Case Study of the cooperative system called ― Tnunan Smangus in Hsinchu County, Hong-Ren Li, 2011.
3. Smangus, as many indigenous villages in Taiwan is predominantly Christian.
4. The Presbytery church, which sponsored the villagers to visit the Kibbutz, has also been providing scholarships to the villages. It also provided funding so that Smangus would build a water tank to cater for household and tourism. But most of the influence is non-monetary. The villagers are religious and call Smangus "God's village".(Tsai, 2004)
5. Atayal language-meaning to tightly woven the threads of the lives of people as a basket.
6. Quote from “The Research of the Ecotourism Operated by the Cooperative Operating System in Northern Tapajen Mountain” by Sho-chi Tsia, A report for the Administration of Shei-pa National Park, 2004.
7. Source: Poster in Smangus village.
8. Seven members in the co-op have been through the month-long training held by Shei-pa National Park and received qualifications. But I felt they are much more than that. The guides are able to tell stories in a personal way, they can handle the crowd, take control of the atmosphere, set stage for the cultural encounter. And above all, they are very good teachers.
9. Source: A Study on the Development of Strategic Management of Ecotourism in Aboriginal Tribes—A Case Study of the cooperative system called ― Tnunan Smangus in Hsinchu County, Hong-Ren Li, 2011.
10. Taipei Times 2015/6/27 http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2015/06/27/2003621702
11. Source: http://www.coolloud.org.tw/node/46471