“We couldn’t be evacuated in time,” said Tung Wen-ming, community officer in the southern Taiwanese town of Rinari. He recalls the 8 August 2009 day. One of the deadliest typhoons in Taiwan’s history, Typhoon Morakot, struck Taiwan and devastated his former home, the indigenous village of Makazayazaya, a thousand metres above sea level on the slopes of Baibin Mountain in Pingtung County.
The storm washed out a road to the town, bringing massive swathes mountainsides down to the valley below. This brought with it over 600 lives. Many of them were in the mountains surrounding Makazayazaya (Pingtung) and Kaohsiung.
Tung and the 500 Paiwan natives who inhabited Makazayazaya survived the devastation. They were forced to flee their homes after Morakot dumped more than 2,500mm of rain in areas to the south. This left behind their traditional farmlands, and their ancestral burial grounds.
Tung, along with Hsieh Wen-yen, head of the local Paiwan hunting association, were among those in charge of the village’s emergency evacuation procedures. The county government told them they were on their own, for now. “The government asked us to evacuate to the elementary school gym,” Hsieh told Climate Home News.
They were eventually moved to Rinari, a mountain village nearby that is vulnerable due to landslides as well as typhoons, several months later. Between three and four typhoons on average strike Taiwan each year, causing billions of pounds worth of damages. Owing to Taiwan’s steep terrain and regular seismic activity, it is one of the most landslide-prone countries in the world. Many occur in areas that are sparsely populated, such as the Makazayazaya or Rinari area. Every year, many lives are lost.
None of the people who left Makazayazaya during the days following Morakot thought they would never return to their ancestral homeland for more than a decade. They are still trying to retake the ancestral home. This is due to a lack in Rinari jobs, access to traditional farmlands, and a new community they feel culturally disconnected from.
They cannot return to their village of origin due to a lack on their part of resources and a lack on the government’s side.
After the storm
Many Makazayazaya residents stayed put during the storm. They rode it out, unable or unwilling to leave the mountainside as the wind and rain washed away the roads. They returned to school after the storm had passed. After heavy rains, the mountain, rich in loose slate that the Paiwan once called home, became unstable.
Landslides were a major concern. Just across the valley to Makazayazaya where flows the Ailiao River is Kucapungane, which was populated by Rukai, was completely destroyed.
Dabu Lavakavu is a Paiwan guide, who also left Makazayazaya. He believes that this was the land taking revenge on a country suffering from human-generated land and air degrading.
The Environmental Performance Index places Taiwan at 140 out of the 178 countries for its exposure to PM2.5. This is due to the country’s rapid industrialization in recent decades. “If you take something from [the land],” said Lavakavu, “it will ask for something in return.”
After the evacuation some, like Elleng Vavulengan, leader of the Makazayazaya Paiwan, wound up staying at Bei Yei Elementary’s temporary shelter for months. In the early stages of planning, they were told that they could move to another town after they had stayed at the school.
The Pingtung County government and World Vision Taiwan paid $1 billion New Taiwan Dollars ($36 million) to build the town over the course a year. The name was Rinari, a Paiwan word meaning “we greet each other with politeness” – appropriate for a place that was once an important site of trade between the area’s indigenous peoples and Han Chinese immigrants.
Vavulengan knew Rinari as the land it occupies was her family’s ancestral home in the days prior to the Japanese Colonial Era (1895-1945). After World War II, the Taiwan Sugar Corporation (TSC), which is run by the government, took over the land.
For 30 years, the Makazayazaya Paiwan had been lobbying for a right to relocate to the Rinari area, Vavulengan’s daughter Eljayum , an elected member of the Rinari town council, told Climate Home News.
“When we were in the old community, the roads were constantly washed out by rain,” Vavulengan said “We submitted the last petition to move four days before Typhoon Morakot hit.”
Rinari, home to the Makazayazaya people, is a 30 hectare expanse. Paiwan and Rukai, who came from two villages that were abandoned after Morakot, also live here. The area is levelled by machinery 200 metres down the mountain, and only 20 to 30 minutes away by car from their homes. Rinari is home for approximately 1,500 people. It is Taiwan’s largest indigenous settlement.
Rinari appears to be a mountain village model from the outside. The homes are free to those who were displaced by the typhoon. There are two types of bungalows and a basic duplex with two stories. The people who are forced to relocate are facing multiple crises. Eljayum Vavulengan stated that there is a lack of jobs.
“For the men, they will have a job like driving trucks, delivering food. Or they will help building houses, fixing roofs,” she told Climate Home News. “For the women, some of them stay in the house or take daily jobs like cleaning, or in a restaurant.”
One thing is a lack of jobs; another is environmental threats, exacerbated due to climate change. Li Hsinchi, a researcher at National Science and Technology Center for Disaster Reduction has been studying and assessing rainfall and landslide risks in Taiwan for over ten years. His projections predict that the Rinari area will see an increase in precipitation of 5 to 10% by the end century.
“They still face a lot of threats from landslides,” said Li, adding that the risk of those landslides will increase in the coming years.
Paiwan also feel a strong sense cultural disconnect from Rinari.
“[The government] just built it how they wanted it,” Eljayum Vavulengan, the mamazangilan’s granddaughter, goes on. In Makazayazaya, she says, “We had land next to our houses so we can grow our crops, and a small yard so we can gather round together. But [in Rinari]There was no land. Rinari was empty at the time that some elders arrived. Some died. I think it’s because they couldn’t deal with the emotions.”
Since time immemorial, farming has been culturally important for the Paiwan. The staple crop of their diet is millet. The struggle for their traditional farmland rights is ongoing. During harvest and growing season, the Makazayazaya Paiwan still commutes from Rinari back to their farms in the old village. TSC still holds a plot next to Rinari that once belonged to the Paiwan.
The plot is small, 70 ping (231.35 square metres). Tang Jian Sheng, Rinari community leader, went by Cemelesai in Paiwan. He formed the Typhoon Morakot Human Rights Committee to lobby for the restoration of the Rinari plot.
“We tried a lot of times,” said Tang, “but there is a policy that restricts us from receiving the land, and also restricts the government from selling it. So, we’re working on that.”
It is not clear why TSC has so far refused to sell or return the small piece of farmland to the Paiwan people of Rinari. The corporation declined to comment.
“I don’t know any law that would prevent the sale of such a small piece of land,” Shu-mei Huang, associate professor at the National Taiwan University, told Climate Home News. She pointed out Article 53 of National Property Act which states that land less than 1,650 m2 in size (the Rinari parcel is 230 m2) can be sold by public tendering.
“As a state enterprise, Taiwan Sugar is regulated by the act,” said Huang.
Professor Sasala Taban, of the National Sun Yat-Sen University’s department of sociology, is a specialist in the study of Paiwan’s traditional territories. Climate Home News was informed by him that Rinari’s land was nationalized by the incoming Japanese government and Nationalist governments. Policies have been changed to allow for more indigenous reserve. “But the percentage is very small,” he said. “With the colonial mindset, the possibility of the state returning the land to the aborigines is almost non-existent,” he said.
“We have no place to bury our dead, and we have no fields for crops,” Hsieh Wen-yen said, summing up the problems his people still face to this day. “We also need more space for our descendants,” he said, noting the homes in Rinari are starting to deteriorate. He worries they won’t survive the next Morakot.
Rinari residents are not allowed to add to their homes. Neither is the government permitted to build new housing or commercial properties. Climate Home News was told by the government that funds will be allocated for housing repairs. If the younger generations want to start families, they must move.
“We wish the government could have offered us the right to rebuild or alter the houses as we see fit,” says community Leader Tang. “Long term, there are not many opportunities for the youth here,” he said. “The most potential is in the tourism industry, so we wish we could develop that.”
The fact that Rinari’s homes are not zoned for commercial use is a significant roadblock to the development of the tourism industry. There are no concessions to build new structures. The approval process for private homes being used as tourist homestays is complicated and long. Only one Rinari home has been permitted to rent out its space.
“We have to pay for all of the inspections and licensing fees and hire a licensed inspector to come and check everything out and make sure everything is up to code. That’s very expensive,” said Tang.
Cai Wenjin, vice director of Pingtung’s department of indigenous affairs, stated that Rinari homes are resilient and can withstand earthquakes of magnitudes between 7 and 8. Housing repairs in Rinari have been funded with $45 million New Taiwan dollars ($1.6m), from 2021 to 2023.
Cai said that Rinari’s county government doesn’t have plans for business development.
He also said that residents of Rinari may decide to return to Makazayazaya after years of constant lobbying. But there’s a catch.
“They can move back to the place where they used to live as long as they return the permanent houses to the government,” Cai said.
This means that people can return home to their village, despite having to rebuild or repair homes that have been neglected for 12 years in Makazayazaya and losing the homes they call home in Rinari.
“The reality is that not everyone here can afford that,” said Tung Wen-ming.
The people of Rinari are determined to make Rinari a better place, despite the threats to their culture as well as the livelihood issues that climate change has placed before them. Vavulengan is the councilwoman. She will be focusing her attention on geological surveys in the next months. This will help determine whether Rinari can be expanded for commercial and residential purposes.
“In the future we’ll have to rely on ourselves to build houses for ourselves,” she said. “I just pray to god we’ll never experience something like Morakot again.”
In the school at Rinari, constructed at Vavulengan’s insistence, children are taught the Paiwan language. They have a cultural class in which they learn things like the origin story of their people, how they became known as “the children of the sun”. To keep them busy, elders can enroll in continuing education courses.
Eljayum Vavulengan wants to stay in Rinari following completion of her master’s degree in Pingtung City. She hopes to turn her grandmother’s old house in Makazayazaya, still standing, into a museum.
“I feel our culture is passing away,” she said. “I want to come back here, and I want to stay here. I feel like if I leave, no one is going to help my community or my family.”
The older Vavulengan is a self-employed coffee bean seller. She sorts and roasts the beans in large screen racks on her front porch. A slate totem marks the entrance as the Paiwan leader’s home. She would return to Makazayazaya as quickly as possible, just like all the elder Rinari. She said that it is important for Paiwans to be buried near their ancestral graves, but it is not certain if they will ever return.
“It’s where I was born, and I miss it. Everything was good.”
Main image by Tobie openshaw: Eljayum Vavulengan is the granddaughter of the leader at the Makazayazaya Paiwan. This article is part of a climate justice reporting programme supported by the Climate Justice Resilience Fund.
Source: Climate Change News