Sun, Aug 10, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Returning to the land of the ancestors

High in the mountains Of Hsinchu County, the Atayal Aborigine village of Smangus is cautiously opening its doors to the outside world

By Max Woodworth  /  STAFF REPORTER

The loss of tribal lands through deals made during dire economic circumstances remains a sore point for the Atayal and indeed most Aboriginal tribes, but Smangus has turned away every offer to sell even small parcels of its land. And there have been many offers.

"Ever since the road was built and the tourism potential of this place became clear, we had Chinese people come up here literally with suitcases full of cash making wild offers," said Masay (曾玉智), another of the tribe's elders who has lived his entire life in Smangus."But when we explain that on principle the land is not ours to sell, but belongs to our ancestors they usually leave us alone."

The restriction on selling land is just one of the fundamental rules to life in Smangus. There is also a blanket ban on alcohol, which has ravaged many Aborigine communities, and a locally dictated building code that demands that wood be the primary building material of all structures in the village.

Though some tourists complain about the alcohol ban, it is not a point on which the tribe plans to compromise.

"They want to keep harmful influences out of the village to protect themselves. Part of the alcohol ban is an observance of their religious beliefs, but it's also the tribe sticking together for the greater good of the community," said Minister Yabu, whose Presbyterian church serves the entire tribe. Smangus converted to Christianity about 50 years ago under an order of the tribe's former leader.

The insistence on abandoning concrete in favor of wood for the village's homes and buildings is a conscious attempt to give Smangus the quaint, rustic appearance that tourist traps like Baling and Lishan have been unable to create.

An experiment underway

With its alternative business plan, ubiquitous tribal empowerment theme and heavy-handed aesthetic regime, Smangus is an experiment that is beginning to bear fruit.

Several newly completed hostels in a Swiss chalet style can house up to 200 people a night and a recently finished town hall-cum-restaurant now serves as the centerpiece of the village.

Recently, the growing influx of visitors has even forced a community debate on ways of limiting numbers.

"We'd like to cap the number of outsiders in the village at any given time at 250. Otherwise the impact on the natural environment, especially the cypress grove that most people come to see, will be harmful. Too many visitors would also upset the pace of life here," Yuraw said.

The village elders are close-mouthed on the income earned by the hostels and restaurant, but say that currently tourism accounts for about 60 percent of the village's income, though a greater percentage than that of villagers is employed in the sector. The rest of the workers in the village are involved in growing vegetables and maintaining the 8-year-old peach orchard, which is viewed as another potential draw for tourists in about five years when the trees begin producing mature fruit. Some villagers work keeping the road to the village clear of boulders. Changes in work duties are discussed once a year if people wish to switch jobs.

As for dividing what income the village earns, workers receive a cut that is proportionate to the amount they initially invested, if they invested anything at all.

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