Sunday, September 30, 2007

Smangus Tree Battle

The aboriginal town of Smangus has found itself in that ugly spot between official intransigence and local traditions -- and so far imperialism is winning. The Taipei Times gives a brief account:

A group of Atayal Aborigines from Smangus Village in Hsinchu County yesterday said they would appeal a Taiwan High Court ruling that sentenced members of their tribe to prison terms for removing a fallen tree in their village forest.

"We did not steal anything. We live there and of course we have the right to handle the environment were we live," said Icyeh Sulung, head of Smangus Village, in front of the court yesterday.

"We will appeal this case to the Supreme Court," he said.

The high court sentenced three men from the village to three months in jail on charges of theft for removing a fallen tree on Sept. 1, 2005, from a forest. The men said they removed the tree because it was blocking the road after Typhoon Talim blew it down.

The three villagers moved the tree to the side of the road after cutting it free from its roots. The Forest Bureau then removed the tree, leaving only the stump.

The three villagers removed the stump and roots and took it home, intending to make the root into a piece of commemorative art.

The high court judges said they respected the fact that the tree was located inside the village, but added that the forest belongs to the bureau and not the villagers.

Removing the remaining part of the tree was illegal because it belonged to the government, the court said.

What happened is that a tree blew down in a storm, and then the aborigines move the tree, and took the stump home. The government's view is that the stump belonged to the government, so taking the stump home was theft.

A three-month sentence for stealing a stump? All over aboriginal lands river beds have been illegally mined for gravel, forests chopped down for illegal bamboo and betel nut stands, animals are regularly poached, land is grabbed by developers for resorts and recreational farms, streams and reservoirs polluted by untreated run-off, but if a couple of aborigines take out a stump, suddenly It Is A Really Serious Thing. It reminds me of the kind of mindset one might find in the Raj, when in the midst of an El Nino-driven famine that killed millions, the British insisted on collecting every last penny of tax from farmers starving to death....somebody in the government needs to apologize loudly to these men.

Global Voices Online, a great source for local commentary, has a collection of stuff. One poster observed:

Whose mountain is it? Whose forest is it? This is always a controversial question.
Both Japan government and this government confiscated the mountains, and the ownership of the traditional land of the aboriginal people is always an ignored issue. Although there are many name-rectification actions that showed the respect to the aboriginal people, these actions only put on a beautiful doorplate while they don't have proper ownership of their homeland. All the aboriginal people know that the Forest Bureau is the largest landlord of the mountain.

Too true. There is actually a police force tasked with stopping illegal logging and poaching, created in 2004, according to this Taiwan Journal Article:

"It is high time we address these issues. With this new, specialized task force we hope to make tourism safer in our forest areas and react more quickly in the event of forest fires. We are in dire need of better control over poaching and illegal deforestation," COA Chairman Lee Ching-lung was reported as saying in a local English newspaper.

Police officers with powers of arrest will be stationed at government forestry agencies, including the Taiwan Forestry Bureau (TFB) and the bureau's regional offices throughout the island. Officers from the government's forestry departments will work alongside the new police force to deter violations. Local government spokesmen have welcomed the creation of a police force dedicated to protecting Taiwan's forests.

"We have faced many difficulties guarding the forests," said Yeh Sian-liang, head of the TFB Chiayi office. "Regular forest rangers are not equipped with professional training, nor are they empowered with the authority to arrest people who break the law." According to Yeh, his office is responsible for patrolling forested areas in no fewer than seven counties, including Nantou, Yunlin, Tainan and Kaohsiung. This is an area of 144,979 hectares of state-owned forested land.

As always in Taiwan, the law is ignored if someone is making money. Reality is thus, according to another Taiwan Review article:

Lee explains that large tracts of state-owned forests are rented to farmers. There is a provision in the lease that 70 percent of the land they rent should be forest, but those farmers mostly ignore it, planting cash crops like tea and betel nuts instead. They also frequently build roads that block vital waterways. "I warned years ago that these places were fragile, that people shouldn't be living there," he says. "But all they see is quick financial profit, not the lurking danger. And even though the farmers were using the land illegally, the Council of Agriculture still went right on sponsoring them [by subsidizing certain crops, including tea]. This shows lack of cooperation on the part of concerned government agencies."

In other words, take a stump home from a windfall tree, and you get a three month sentence. Deforest the land that you've rented from the Forestry Commission, and... nothing happens. And the DPP government wonders why it can't fix its relationship with the aborigines!Sure, these policies date back well into the KMT period -- but the DPP can hardly complain about Chinese expansionism, and then turn around and do the same thing to the aborigines. You can bet that come election time, the Smangus tale is going to be told and retold in aboriginal hamlets all over the island. I hope someone in the DPP will step in and fix this problem pronto.

UPDATE: David says you can sign a petition on the Smangus blog.


maoman said...

Is there a petition where I can express support for the Smangus 3? I'd sign it in a flash.

Michael Turton said...

Me too. David Reid might know.


David said...

You can sign a petition on the Smangus blog.