Another First for Permaculture in Tawian
After successfully hosting the first Permaculture Design Course in Taiwan in 2008, Earth Passengers, an environment group based in Taipei, has forged ahead breaking new ground. This year’s PDC was the first to be hosted by and conducted in an Indigenous Taiwanese village community.
Near the city of Taitung on Taiwans southeast coast, high mountains fall abruptly to the sea where the indigenous village of Taromak lies nestled in the foothills. These are lands of the Rukai tribe and a cultural heartland for the indigenous Taiwanese peoples.
Here around 50 people came together as a learning community for 2 weeks to participate in the intensive PDC program. In addition to 5 indigenous participants, the group was comprised mostly of ethnic Chinese Taiwanese, many from Taipei plus others from rural areas representing most parts of the island, and for the majority this was their first real contact and experience of the rich culture of Taiwan’s first peoples.
There were also participants from Hong Kong and Beijing and 5 or so PDC graduates from the previous years course helping out and refreshing their knowledge.
Earth Passengers invited me back to Taiwan to teach this course, which proved to be an exceptional experience. I was booked into Dewana, an indigenous B & B run by Lily on the edge of the village. Lily greeted me like one of the family and I was soon adorned with a head garland of Rosella sprigs sporting plump ripe red calixes for meeting the village chief and the director of the Taromak Cultural Centre.
The Earth Passenger team provided all sorts of delicious things for the evening BBQ including massive mushrooms, bamboo shoots, local fish and pork, expertly grilled by ‘Flying Fish’ (that’s the meaning of his real name in English) from the Yamy tribe of Orchid Island.
Different cooks in the village contributed to the course catering and we were treated a diverse range of local indigenous foods and dishes, from fern fronds and snails to bamboo culms stuffed with rice and meats. Definite highlights of the course were the two visits to indigenous villages in the mountains.
While nobody lives permanently in them they remain an important connection with the past, with their culture, nature and their ancestors — most of the hill tribes were relocated from their mountain homes to lowland settlements in the 1920’s by the Japanese. Taiwan’s first peoples are Melanesian and consequently their language, culture and ethnicity is quite different to that of the predominantly Chinese population of Taiwan.
The first mountain visit was into the lands of the Puyuma tribe to Aliman’s family’s hill village. The place has been set up not only for maintaining their own connection with land and culture, but also to share it with university students and other groups.
Aliman, who was also participating in the PDC, is a cultural and environmental educator with a natural flair for the dramatic, a wicked sense of humour and a lively communicator. After honouring the ancestors, he took us all on a walk into a jungle littered with massive boulders, often with very narrow gaps that we had to squeeze through and a 10 meter high cliff face where the roots of an ancient fig tree provided a natural ladder.
The layout and functional spaces of a traditional house built with bamboo and rock was explained and we explored further structures as well the young food forest and little crop terraces used for growing millet and maize. On the edge of the small paddies was a discreet snare set to catch any wild mountain boar thinking of raiding the crops.
We were treated to a wonderful feast of local foods and indigenous cuisine followed by some raucous traditional entertainment around the campfire.
A few days later, we had 2 days off from the course and I joined most of the class on a 2-day visit to the original mountain village of our Taromak hosts. The narrow winding drive up the mountain had the adrenalin pumping at times, but we arrived safely and first stop was at the shrine to notify the ancestors of our arrival.
We then proceeded up to the main house and after settling down our packs half the group went off to harvest bamboo and the women were taken on a wildfoods foraging walk collecting edible ferns, and the tender tips of edible weeds and tree leaves for the kitchen.
After dinner we were entertained around the campfire with indigenous songs and stories, washed down with a never-ending supply of locally grown and brewed millet wine (personally brewed by the chief himself). I was asked to share a story from indigenous Australia so I told the story of Djanbung, given to me by Uncle Eric Walker, elder of the Bundjalung people.
The following day was filled with archery using a handmade bamboo bow and arrows made with arrow bamboo with a 6-inch nail attached to the end. There’s an abundance of rocks and slate in the mountains for building, so everyone chipped in to help move a truck-load of rocks up to the site for a new stone house. The village has already reconstructed one of the traditional stone houses. I was most impressed by the stone masonry and the slate roof.
Nearby, ruins from the original stone houses peered out from under the vines and jungle regrowth, fragmented reminders of another time when everyone lived and worked up in mountains living their predominantly hunter gathering lifestyle with small plots of cultivated millet.
The chief explained the symbols and meaning of their traditional dress and what signified the tribe, family and the unique symbols reserved for the chief, what indicated an honoured warrior or hero and other types of status. His own jacket was handmade by his wife some 40 years ago, with every single one of what must amount to thousands of tiny beads stitched by hand. Although the fabric has faded over time, he still wears it with pride.
After a garland-making session with the women and a hearty lunch, we headed back down to the lowlands for the rest of the course.
There was one further surprise encounter with the culture on the last day of the course. Mr Hu, one of the local village participants, couldn’t attend class due to a family wedding, but he insisted I join the wedding reception for lunch.
It was quite some affair with several hundred guests, many decked out in their best formal traditional attire and headdresses. It was truly a feast for the eyes and Mr Hu pointed out the symbols of the various families in the tribe.
I was accompanied by Earth Passengers’ Peter Morehead, who helped me with translation– he remarked on how handy it was at such large family reunions to be able to immediately recognise which family everyone belonged to. All too soon it was time to return to class, but I wasn’t permitted to leave until I joined the women dancing for while and met Mr Hu’s wife who made me a beautiful necklace of traditional ceramic beads.
The course ended that evening. The feedback was inspiring and humbling. The best feedback came from indigenous participants who discovered a new understanding of their traditional systems along with a vocabulary to explain the science of ecological processes and sustainable elements in their culture, and practical ways to develop sustainable systems that meet contemporary needs of a changing world in a way that sits comfortably, and not in conflict, with their indigenous values.
Robyn Francis, November 2009
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