Mon, Nov 08, 2004 - Page 16 News List

`Smangus is God's tribe'

After a group of Atayal leaders visited Israel ona fact-finding trip they decided to start their own kibbutz-style communities

AFP , SMANGUS

Tabil Icyan, a 23 year-old Atayal Aborigine, points to a wooden sculpture featuring his ancestors' legend. Around 135 Atayal people from 23 families have founded Taiwan's first kibbutz, an Israeli-style ``socialist commune'' in the isolated village named after their former leader Mangus.

PHOTO: AFP

When Mangus and his Atayal people settled on a remote mountain in Hsinchu County after a journey from Nantou County some 400 years ago, they may not have thought of it as a "Promised Land."

Today, however, 135 descendents of those early settlers have founded the first Israeli-style kibbutz "socialist commune" in an effort to protect their culture and tap the eco-tourist dollar.

Reputedly the most isolated community in Taiwan, until recently the Smangus Atayal eked out a basic living from hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture on the mountain plateau sited at an altitude of 1,600m and surrounded by higher peaks.

Their way of life had seemed under threat as the youth of the tribe abandoned the mountain, lured by the opportunities in Taiwan's modern cities, where they often found themselves treated as second-class citizens.

Taiwan's 430,000 Aboriginals, whom anthropologists believe originally migrated from Malaysia or Indonesia, are among the country's most deprived communities.

Unemployment runs at 15 percent among them and 48 percent survive on less than NT$10,000 a month, a third of the average wage, according to independent lawmaker Kao Chin Su-mei (高金素梅).

More recently, however, the Atayal culture and a nearby grove of up to 1,000 ancient Formosan cypress trees, known as "divine trees," have drawn increasing numbers of eco-tourists to Smangus, an isolated village named after their ancestor.

"Thank our ancestors who gave us this land," says 69-year-old Icyh Sulong who is now head of the village.

Each week hundreds of tourists make the uncomfortable journey along bumpy mountain roads to see the giant trees and learn about the Atayal, who formerly hunted the local wildlife.

"My father had killed or captured 20-odd bears before he died," says 23-year-old Tqbil Icyan of his father Icyan.

While he died 20 years ago after a fall from a transport cable linking two mountains, the tribe believes the bears had their revenge.

"We believe those bears killed by my father avenged their death," Tqbil says.

The Atayal today see greater benefits from sparing the wildlife and tracking down tourist dollars instead.

"When I first visited Smangus 15 years ago, Atayal people shot birds to treat me," says writer Wu Chih-ching. "I told them if they want to attract more visitors to this remote village, they had to protect wild animals," adds Wu, who has advised on improvements to the villages.

The Atayal followed his advice but the transformation to eco-tourism was not without problems. When the Smangus people built their first tourist chalets about seven years ago, persistent squabbles arose over how to make the most of the new opportunities.

The disputes eventually prompted them to adopt a commune-style way of life, modeled on the Israeli kibbutz, although the tribe is Christian: a sign at the entrance of the village reads "Smangus is God's Tribe."

"The idea was inspired by the Bible" which encourages Christians to share their property, Taqbil says.

After a group of Atayal leaders visited Israel on a fact-finding trip early this year to see how Israelis operate their kibbutz communities, the Smangus residents decided to extend the communal lifestyle by sharing their land deeds.

"Now we feel the relationship among our people is much closer than before," Batu Icyh says happily.

Smangus adults work Monday through Thursday, with their jobs ranging from farming to maintaining roads and cooking. They are also required to spend Saturday and Sunday serving tourists living in their chalets while Friday is the day of rest.

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