Houston Community News >> Taiwan's Dark Village Sees the Light

9/10/2007 Taiwan (BBC)-- So it is something of a surprise to discover that there is still one place where people live - along Taiwan's sparsely-populated east coast - which is not connected to the electricity grid and has no access to power.

It is an aboriginal settlement, known locally as the Dark Village, nestled in a valley in Hualien county.

Legal disputes over the land are the main reason the site never got connected to the mains grid.

Decades ago, the area was taken by the government and developed for forestry.

But today the local people - members of the Amis tribe, one of Taiwan's 13 officially-recognised aboriginal groups - are trying to reassert their ancestral land claims.

Mixed views

As the sun sets, we drive to the Dark Village - about half an hour away down a narrow, dirt road, which was built just one year ago and is often cut off by falling rocks during heavy rains and typhoons.

It is dark - very dark - when we arrive.

The community live in about a dozen basic, corrugated iron houses in the Dark Village for about half a year, during the main planting and harvest season.

The rest of the time they live in another nearby village, Talanpo, which is connected to electricity.

The tribe uses wood fires for cooking and baking their locally-harvested crop, the daylily, an edible flower traditionally used in Chinese cooking.

Oil lanterns provide some light. They have lived like this for decades.

But just a few months ago, the government installed electricity poles near the settlement to pump water from nearby streams to Liushidan Mountain - an increasingly popular tourist spot with stunning views of the island's Central Mountain Range, where restaurants and hotels are springing up.

It has opened up a divisive debate among the tribe about their own future, particularly between the young and old.

Community elders, like 66-year-old Potal, are keen to see electricity installed.

"I really, really want power in the village," he said. "I've been living there for so long, but now I want to enjoy some modern facilities.

"I'd like to put fresh food in the refrigerator. I don't want to have to heat up wood for fires to cook every time I want to eat. I've been waiting for this for such a long time."

Kiko, a 63-year-old grandmother, agreed. "Not having electricity is like being blind," she said.

I ask her what is the first thing she will do if the village gets electricity. She reels off a list of goods - a refrigerator, a washing machine, a television set and a mobile phone.

But while village elders are excited by the prospect of electricity, younger tribal members are less keen.

Masawo, 28, used to work in the city but returned to the village when his parents died.

He talks of a special community spirit, which he fears may disappear forever.

"Without electricity, people get together after work; they share things with each other, tell stories. I think it's a better life.

"It's not necessary to have electricity. You can wash clothes by hand. With no TV, we have more time to chat and discuss together."

And even though the women spend much of the time in the kitchen cooking and cleaning by hand, mother-of-four Okoc is also reluctant to see change.

"I like things the way they are. Here we use oil lanterns, like in the old times. It seems better like that. If you had power, you wouldn't be able to see all the stars, and all the natural living things, like frogs and other animals, would run away."

Christian faith

At day break, I join the tribe, who are Christian, as they head to the fields to pick daylilies - shortly before they set off for Sunday service in church.

The daylilies need to be harvested and dried just before they bloom. And everyone pitches in, turning to a traditional Amis work exchange system called Malapaliw, in which farmers help out every family in rotation.

Their Christian faith and a strong community spirit is why younger tribal members now say they do not want to see any more arguments and will respect the views of elders who are so keen to have electricity.

But one compromise could be solar power, which would fit with the tribe's desire to develop projects such as eco-tourism and trekking and retain the character of the local environment.

Presbyterian church leader Rev Chang Ying-mei - who has been instrumental in helping the village think about how it wants to develop in the future - hopes the advent of electricity will bring only superficial changes.

"Power won't change their lives..." she began to say, "but who knows? People's desires are endless.

"I'm positive about the future because the village spirit is strong," she added.

"But one thing will change. The name, the Dark Village, will have to go."

Contributed by BBC News