Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Chatting with Somebody: Dr. Kurtis Pei, National Pingtung Institute of Technology

Here's where it all began: the local train, slogging the 90 minutes between Tainan and Pingtung (click on any photo to see its page on Flickr).

On Thursday two weeks ago I took the blue train out to Pingtung and the bus to the Hakka town of Neipu to visit Dr. Kurtis Pei at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology. Dr. Pei is the Chairman of the Wildlife Conservation Department at the University, whose gorgeous campus, which rivals Donghwa or Chinan for sheer mountain majesty, dates back to the Japanese period.

Dr. Pei obtained his PhD from the University of Montana. Among his many projects is a program he has been working on for the last 15 years, mapping the traditional terrotiries of the indigenous people. His latest workshops involve training volunteers from local indigenous peoples in the use of GPS systems to map the territories and their resources, and it was for that project that I sought him out for an interview. In addition to our talk, Dr. Pei took me around the Zoo the department runs, partly as an animal rescue center. It houses a number of native Taiwan animals, as well as some exotic animals foolish pet owners attempted to raise in Taiwan.

I learned a lot from this experience. Sadly, one thing a dry transcript can't capture is Dr. Pei's totally enjoyable ironic, expressive, droll manner of speaking. He frequently had me in stitches. On to the interview!

Pingtung train station.


TURTON: So I was told about this GPS project....?

PEI: Traditional territory mapping....right. We are going to have a workshop starting tomorrow for a new project on the traditional territory mapping in southern Taiwan (mainly for Rukai and Paiwan tribes). Actually, we work on various projects on traditional territory mapping in different parts of Taiwan for more than 15 years so far. It is a long experience, but....not much contribution or achievement unfortunately.

TURTON: In what way?

PEI: At first the reason we did the traditional territory mapping was to try to establish a framework to include local knowledge and to involve the local community in natural resources management. But local involvement in, or so call community-based, natural resources management was not a policy of the central government of Taiwan, mainly because of a long history of the lack of trust between the Taiwanese [Han] government and the indigenous people in Taiwan, and, also, because of the government don’t believe that the indigenous people has the ability to manage natural resources at all.

TURTON: In fact, they want the opposite, right?

PEI: Right. They want government management of natural resources. So this, including timber and forest management, wildlife management, water resource management, soil management, everything, is controlled by the central government, before, and today. So to try and involve local communities in natural resources management is all based on the ideals of academia. Many indigenous people like this idea, but not all of them support it.

TURTON: Why not?

PEI: Many of them afraid that the financial support from the central government will decrease. Right now their communities get almost 100% support of the annual budget from the Taiwanese [Han] government. So they are afraid that if they start to do more by themselves, then economically the central government will decrease their support. That's why there are many indigenous people don't support self-rule. A lot of them don't support it. Because...those people already in central government positions, they don't want to become a local government staff with a much dull future. The budget will be lower, the salary will be lower, for sure. If you become the Rukai president but no budget, who cares?

[laughter]. So for many so-called outstanding indigenous people they have already found their position in the Taiwanese [Han] government or society and they don't really want to change. So many of them don't support independence or self-rule for the indigenous peoples. And a lot of people don't want it because they are afraid the Taiwanese [Han] government won't provide them budget anymore, and they cannot afford to support themselves. So they don't want the self-rule or independence from the Taiwanese [Han] government -- it is very difficult. You might have heard that lots of young indigenous people are very excited, they want to become independent. But most of the people in power, with positions -- they don't really support it.

...coming back to the traditional territory thing, it is a nightmare. Many local people, they don't really appreciate this kind of movement. The movement of passing down their traditional culture to the next generation. Thus, the traditional territory mapping has become simply a tool, a tool only to claim land rights to argue with the Taiwanese [Han] government, to get more return from the Taiwanese [Han] government. But they don't really want to become independent, they don't really want to get involved in the natural resource management.

TURTON: So they want leverage, but they don't want responsibility.

PEI: Right! I think up to now, there is no consensus that the indigenous people as a group want this. Still most indigenous people want to live as Taiwanese, or in the city. So who cares about traditional territory!? Even though the Indigenous Affairs Council promotes traditional territory mapping, but they don't really want to do what we want to do, which is involve the locals in the management.
Dr. Pei gave my daughter two of the books he has written for children on wildlife conservation.

TURTON: So what's the difference? What's their view?

PEI: Their view is to make us a tool, to bargain, to argue, to get more from the Chinese government. Have you read the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law? There should be an English version. Take a look! Because this law was passed more than three years ago. It gives lots of rights -- lots! -- including resources rights, land rights, water rights, ocean rights -- lots! And in that law, the last item says that three years after this law is passed, all existing laws should be amended or changed accordingly. But the forest law never did that, the wildlife conservation law never did that, the national park law never did that, and the ocean law never did that. So not much achievement, I would say.

Pingtung bus station, where I hopped a bus to Neipu.

TURTON: What aboriginal groups are involved with this?

PEI: Many! For example, many community development groups are involved with traditional territory mapping. But when I say fifteen years we don't really have a group. When you do something for ten years you are expecting that the local people will be able to do lots of things by now, that many people would be trained, but this is not the situation. Many people attend the workshop but in the last fifteen years there have been many workshops concerning traditional territory mapping but you will see the same faces over and over again. The workshop will go for two or three days and that's it. No follow up. For example, there are no jobs. No positions open for which the trained people can be hired to do something seriously. So you see the same people over and over again, because they are mostly retired teachers.

TURTON: Are they all indigenous peoples?

PEI: Yes, they are a group of people, retired teachers and government officials, and they have regular pension coming in and they are free. They attend lots of workshops -- traditional territory management, local development workshops, social work workshops, old people care workshops...[mutual laughter]. Lots of workshops. But there is no position. We have lots of volunteers, but they don't really train themselves as specialists outside the workshop. Fifteen years after....[shrugs]

TURTON: More like one year, fifteen times.

PEI: Yeah...so the situation is like this mainly because people don't treat traditional territory mapping seriously. They don't think it is a good thing for the future. The government doesn't really give it a budget. What we should do is have one year training and you pay them, you pay your students, so they don't need to work. Government support, like for exchange students to go overseas to learn. That's how we should treat the indigenous people, with the same kind of attitude. We should give a year to learn everything about GPS territory mapping, and when you go back to the communities, there is at least a part-time job you can do. You know, you go out hunting for ten days, then you do traditional territory mapping for ten days. At least you provide something. But now they use lots of money to provide for people like me to do it, but that is not so effective. They can pay two indigenous people for what they pay me and my assistants. But they only do short-term training, and no job.

TURTON: So there is no structure.

PEI: Right.

The stunning grounds of Pingtung Tech.


TURTON: Before GPS, what were they doing? How were they mapping?

PEI: The way I like most is to make a 3-D model and have the elders sit and look. The model is as big as this room -- mountains, rivers, color -- and the elders sit there and discuss. We did that for Hualien and for this area. We made a 3-D model. In fact one still sits in a local elementary school, and the elders, when they have time, they go there and put a mark on it. And they can discuss, following their memory going through the mountains. But because making this model requires skills....see, this is what I am talking about. Nobody learned! When we started to do this 15 years ago, I hoped someone from the village would learn, and we could go back to training. So people would come, attend the workshop, but go back and do nothing. I was thinking that each village or each tribe would get trained in making 3-D models. They could that for more than their traditional community, and put it in public place, and the elders could sit and do their marking, with the young people helping them. You can see that the one in the school of the Dawu Mountain has lots of marks.

TURTON: Which people did that?

PEI: the Rukai. That's my favorite method. The next best way would be to take them on helicopters and fly into the territory and have them spot it from the air. But you need well trained pilots and well trained elders! [laughter] But we haven't done that yet. Because Taiwan's terrain is so steep, the elders cannot climb any more, so my thinking was to take them in from the sky. Instead of that, we are now using Google. We pretend we are flying. [Laughter]. This is cheaper than 3-D models and we can show it on the big screen. We did that for the Rukai and it is not as real as a 3-D model, and you need to have somebody who is really skillful in doing the locating and in rotating the 3-D image and zooming in and out. Also, the resolution is poor for the mountain areas. It is not as good as a 3-D model.

We have also taken a 70 year old man who took a dozen young Rukai back to Dawu Mountain for ten days, following their migration route. The Rukai came from the Taichung area 800 years ago, according to their oral history. At that time, the 70 year old man can still walk for ten days. Not any more. You can train the young to be skillful in videos and photographs, GPS positions, and so on. This ten day trip was our first time for the traditional territory mapping, and also the last time. I don't believe there is any other place where the elders took the young people to form a team...

A SE Asian monitor lizard rescued from a local pet owner.

...and now we are going to start a new project which is having the hunters, some young hunters, take us back to the traditional hunting territory....my idea is to use the young people who already have hunting experience take us back to their traditional hunting grounds, and we map their hunting field. Usually the path is lined with traps. They are very experienced in finding game trails, or finding the exact spot where the animal will walk. They can set only fifty traps and fill many of them, out of a huge forest! They are very skilled and very sensitive. We want to learn from them their understanding of the animal's behavior. Hopefully this can contribute to the future wildlife management.

But again...[mutual laughter] we hope that they would like to do the natural resources management, so this is only for the future. We don't actually know whether this is going to happen or not.

The attractive co-ed who walked me up the road to the university. She told me that Pingtung Tech has the biggest campus on the island.

TURTON: in addition to the technology skills they need, do you also teach interview and note-taking skills?

PEI: Yes, but again...[laughter]...no structure. You see old faces...even the workshop tomorrow is for two days, and still the old pattern. This is what the Indigenous Affairs Council wants. I recommended to them that they treat this more seriously. Natural resources can be very important to their economy, especially since the Indigenous Peoples law was passed. They say they want to do natural resources management because they see that money, they want to manage the park, they want to manage the water, they want to manage this, they want to manage that, but they are thinking: they want to sell this, they want to sell that. [laughter] "Manage" means "sell." They have no people to do management, and they have never prepared people to do that. The Indigenous Affairs Council doesn't have a department of natural resources.

One of the buildings housing Formosan Macaques.

TURTON: No formal recognition that natural resources are something they need a structure for. What are the reasons for this? Is it the local-central government political issue? Indigenous attitudes toward....

PEI: I think the most important thing is the attitude. They are not active enough to prepare themselves for this. Because there is no incentive or interest, even for traditional mapping activities.....there's a side product of traditional territory mapping: the history. Where they are from, what kind of people they are. The history will be reconstructed from this process, and the culture can be enriched. But....not yet.

I know you are thinking that this beautiful eagle looks funny, but you can't quite put your finger on why. So let me tell you, and ruin your day: the person who owned it before it was rescued cut its left wing off so it couldn't fly away.

TURTON: What about friction between aboriginal groups? The Rukai say "that's our river" and the Bunung answer "No, no, no. That's our river!" Do you have that problem?

PEI: Yeah, sure, sure. Between tribes, and within tribes. There are areas that are not clear, and others...for example, we had one example in Taitung. In the southern part there's a town called X. The Paiwan there are not the original Paiwan from the area. The original Paiwan people were moved to Pingtung 100 years ago by the Japanese government. They were forced to the west. The people who live in X today came to that place after the Paiwan moved. They are also Paiwan. Forty years ago part of the original Paiwan moved back. So now the two groups live in the town of X, and they both say X is theirs. Lots of these kinds of issues haven't been seriously discussed. How do we deal with it? Traditional way, negotiation, or what? When you use traditional territory mapping as tool to reclaim your land rights, this will happen. Another example is the Rukai, who claim their traditional territory extends over the mountain to the coastline of Taitung.

TURTON: That is all Paiwan and Bunung now.

PEI: Right. And when they say "traditionally" they mean the "Big Water" era thousands of years ago. So these issues haven't been discussed yet in the Indigenous Affairs Council. For too many years they have still relied on Taiwanese scientists. You would expect someone would have come out after 15 years, but not yet. I have seen this in other projects I have been involved in too.

A gibbon watches me suspiciously. During the 1980s there was a fad for owning gibbons and orangutans as pets here in Taiwan. Naturally an ape is not a suitable pet, and they were soon disposed of, left in boxes in the streets or dumped by the side of the road. They were rescued and now are found in zoos all over the island. The gibbons here frequently share their cages with ducks. Sometimes gibbons do not like each other, and are indifferent to other animals, but for some reason ducks stimulate them. For depressed gibbons, the department recommends duck therapy.


TURTON: How many aborigines are in the wildlife conservation department here at Pingtung Tech?

PEI: Right now we have....one...out of 40. Concerning training people for the future, I suggested that it should focus on promoting ethnic development, trains specialists from the indigenous ethnic groups, trains natural resources managers, trains teachers for disciplines other than PE…etc. For too long that we, the Taiwanese, provide education opportunities for training indigenous people for their roles in Han society: policemen, soldiers, nurses, and athletes. So "ethnic development" means making nurses to take care of Han people! So the scholarships given by the Han came back to their own society, not really to the indigenous society. Many indigenous people are policemen and soldiers, because Han don't like to take those positions. So for a long time this was not for the sake of "community development." Instead it fostered mainstream society. My suggestion is that if you had an ethnic college, like the College for Indigenous Studies of the National Tunghua University, it should do ethnic development! Training skilled individuals for future needs like social work, legal workers for when indigenous people run afoul of the Han laws, foresters for the giant forests. Don't make it another place to house ethnologists and anthropologists!. We already had that at NTU and NCCU! There is no need for another to train anthropologists.

Another suggestion I gave the Indigenous Affairs Council was to use something like the United State Government coops with local universities. In Montana, the university professors at the U of Montana train fisheries and wildlife specialists. This way the wildlife service doesn't need to create a university to train specialists. Instead they contract with many universities to train the specialists they need and pay for the extra faculties required for providing the training. So I suggested this for the indigenous people of Taiwan. Indigenous Affairs Council contracts, for example, the Department of Forestry of the NTU to take so many indigenous people at NTU every year and the Council pay the salary of additional professors needed for the department. The Council can stop train more foresters once the number of specialist for managing traditional territories is fulfilled, and the budget of hiring faculties can be moved to train specialists for another discipline in another contracted university. Good for everyone -- the university gets additional teachers, the indigenous people need only employ a couple dozen professors every year for training specialists they need, and there is no need to pay for classroom building, facilities purchasing, their maintenance,…etc. And, most important, the students get the best education....

Two views of the Zoo's Formosan Macaques, some of which share their spaces with orangutans.

TURTON: So what will happen in the end? All this knowledge of the territory will be lost? The pull to assimilate is just too strong?

PEI: Well...at least, they are still collecting. Our own collection is not good, because we are not them. We don't speak their language or know their science and philosophy. For example, the Rukai are a hierarchical society. They have a tomu, like a chief or king, it is hereditary. And they have ranks -- Big tomu, Number 2 tomu, and so on. So we called him the King initially. But he is not a king. They have to do service to the people, and they don't give orders. The elders come from the 'common' people, while the nobles are tomu. The decisionmaking is done by the elders and the tomu do the announcements.

Dr Pei discusses the cage for the imported parrots.

TURTON: This sounds like something descended from the old Dutch system.*

PEI: Maybe, I don't know. Before we thought the tomu will own the land of the group. So before we said that the tomu owned the hunting territory of the community, and each community will have more than one hunting ground scattered in the territory. Ten or fifteen years ago I thought they owned the territory. But it is not -- it is not ownership. It is a totally different system. But we have a certain image from the Han Chinese language. Even young people today learned a lot from the Taiwanese and they have a Taiwanese philosophy. Even they misinterpret their own culture. Without the right language and the right way of thinking, you cannot collect the right knowledge of local or traditional culture. We try to do lots of recordings but there is always the difficulty of interpretation. My suggestion to the indigenous people was that they should have two kinds of people, other than specialists for natural resources management. They need people who have the ability to translate traditional knowledge into modern language..

Circuses and animal parks frequently go bankrupt, leaving their big cats for places like the Zoo. Dr. Pei told me that former AIT Director Raymond Burckhardt used to spend a lot of time at the Zoo here, and this tiger was a favorite of his.

Like climbing techniques, for example. There are lots of local indigenous people who are very good in climbing. They bring few things with them, but the way they walk, the way they save their energy, the way they prepare themselves. Today in Taiwan we hear about the American or European climbing methods, but Taiwan also has its own methods -- the Paiwan, the Rukai, the Bunung, all have their own way. For example, eat seriously and they don't drink water. Instead, they eat lots of starch so the starch will burn and produce water in their body. When they are in the mountains they eat lots of starch and they don't feel thirsty. There is lots of food in the wild so they don't need to carry much. What we need is trained athletes from the indigenous people to systematize their methods.

Another example. Many hunters can really hunt, because they understand animals, their customs and behavior. They know a lot about trees too, because animals depend on trees. This kind of knowledge can be useful, for example, in honey production. This kind of knowledge can be used to fine tune an existing industry and produce unique honey. No Chinese knows this knowledge. You can use the old knowledge to do new things. Use traditional knowledge to create environmentally friendly industry.

An alpha male issues a challenge to the monkeys in the adjacent display area.

TURTON: Do you get much opposition from the Taiwanese for what you are doing?

PEI: Sure, and from the indigenous people too! For example, I think traditional hunting knowledge is really important, and I prefer wildlife management to wildlife protection. I prefer sustainable use rather than no use but lots of illegal use -- the latter is the situation today. Lots of Taiwanese don't agree with this idea. They think I am promoting something that will take the indigenous people back to the old ages -- eat raw meat like a thousand years ago. Lots of Taiwanese think hunting is uncivilized and it is a very old tradition and we should forget about it. We should be civilized. Lots of indigenous people think this way as well! "Professor Pei wants us to go back to 500 years ago! Thanks but no thanks!"

What animal is this? Test your knowledge....

...My thinking is, that when you live in a place for a long time, your language, your culture, your thinking, must be close to the land. Otherwise you couldn't survive. If your language cannot describe your environment accurately, you will die.... So you need to have good language to describe what is happening. I believe that the longer you stay in a place, the more your language and culture come to fit it. So the indigenous people' way of thinking and their language should be the best to describe the phenomena of Taiwan. After that, Taiwanese and Hakka should be next, with 400 years of history on this island. Although they are not as good as the indigenous languages, they are way better than Mandarin, which has only been here for 60 years. Mandarin expresses what happens in China much better, not here! And so here we too are now using mandarin with the mandarin way of thinking! But we Taiwanese don't know the languages of the indigenous people, and we never learned from them. Instead we are trained in the American way of thinking, for a temperate country! Even Taiwanese don't value our own traditions!....

In Taiwan leopard cats are endangered. But I have a student who is studying probably Taiwan's only viable population of leopard cats up in the Hakka communities in Miaoli. Even though Taiwanese and Hakka both do agriculture, but interestingly, in the countryside inhabited by Taiwanese, there are very few leopard cats left, but in the Hakka countryside, there are many. Why? We don't know yet and hopefully we will have better understanding by the time when she finish her study.

TURTON: Fascinating.

In Pingtung I stopped at an impressive Ming Dynasty Temple just around the corner from the train station.

Interview was conducted from 4:00 pm on June 26, 2008, in English and Chinese. I gathered well over an hour of material, which is condensed here. It was recorded on my Canon Powershot S5 IS. One thing: I came prepared for a different interview, one regarding a successful project. Note to self: next time expect nothing.

*The Landdag. See Tonio Andrade's excellent article collected in Eclipsed Entrepots of the Western Pacific: Taiwan and Central Vietnam.

Inside the temple, worshipers have left their requests for the gods to grant.


Anonymous said...

Great interview Michael.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a superb, eye-opening interview. Thank you for taking the time to transcribe it.

I suspect that the toumu vs commoner system of indigenous decision-making has nothing to do with the Dutch; there was simply no contact between the ancestors of the groups described here and people in the Tainan area.

marc said...

Fascinating interview, Michael. It really opened my eyes to the tremendous cultural and social complexities of this island.

I'll never generalize about any group ever again!

Anonymous said...

Really cool. It's so different when you hear a real expert on Taiwan talk. Just like the last interview. Better than mulling over idiocies by pundits far away and completely ignorant of Taiwan. Thanks Michael.

Anonymous said...

It's really great to read this and hope some of Dr. Pei's suggestions will be taken by the authority soon.

chinaphil said...

This is why bloggers rule. Where else would I be able to find out that "For depressed gibbons, the department recommends duck therapy"?

More seriously, reports from people on the front lines of social programs always make you think again about motivation and identity. It's also great that as a blogger, you don't have to create some kind of false balance or conflict by presenting people who disagree with this guy. We can read what he says and accept it (or not) on its own merits.

One thing that immediately struck me, though, was the strangeness of his mapping project. It seems to assume that traditional lands were fixed and stable, and that different groups recognised each others' claims to the land. I'm sure all of those assumptions are wrong in some measure.

Anonymous said...

Hong Kong citizens say they are Chinese


andy.kalabasa said...

Hi Michael,
This is utterly fascinating. Is there any chance you can have the fully recorded session downloadable as a podcast?