Indigenous Tao way of life under threat

While 2020 will be remembered by many as a year of travel bans and cancelled vacations, the indigenous Tao people of Orchid Island will remember it as the year unprecedented numbers of visitors descended on their once tranquil home. The small island, 90 km off Taiwan’s southeast coast, is home to approximately 4,700 ethnic Austronesian Tao or Yami people, and has in recent years become a popular holiday destination for both Taiwanese and foreigners alike.
But with bans on international travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year Orchid Island has experienced an unexpected surge in domestic visitors to more than 220,000 — putting a strain on both its natural resources and its inhabitants. A community whose livelihood revolves around fishing, anthropologists believe the Tao people migrated to Orchid Island from Batan Island in the northern Philippines around 800 years ago.
They have their own language and belief system, as well as customs such as tatala boat-building, underground houses and taro cultivation. Since 1982, Orchid Island has also housed a nuclear waste facility, which has drawn strong opposition and protests from Tao locals.
Taiwan has enforced tight measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, resulting in only 550 cases and seven deaths. Taiwan’s government encouraged the country’s nearly 24 million population, roughly equivalent to Australia’s, to spend the summer vacation within the country’s borders in order to bolster the economy, offering travel subsidies and discounts. On many days during the summer, ferries to Orchid Island, as well as accommodation on the island were completely booked up.
Many Tao islanders are now engaged in the seasonal tourism industry, working as scuba instructors, hoteliers, restaurateurs and guides. However, with 82,000 visitors over July and August alone, the 45 kilometre-square island’s traditional Tao way of life and ecological balance have been pushed to the brink.
“Here it used to be so beautiful and clean,
but since more people have been arriving, the whole place has become a sewage plant,”
says Lu Mai of the Orchid Island Youth Action Alliance.
To cope with the amount of trash produced on the island over the summer, hoteliers launched a “take home one kilogram per person” scheme aimed at tourists.
The township office similarly initiated a donation scheme of 200 NTD (US $7) per visitor to help with the cost of transporting garbage back to the mainland. But much of what is picked up on the coasts has floated across the sea from countries such as China, Vietnam, and Hong Kong.
For the past seven years, Tao men have organised and undertaken an annual ocean clean-up scheme funded by Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As well as litter and pollution, the increasing presence of Taiwanese fishing trawlers frustrates local volunteers, many of whom are small-scale fishermen.
“Go to the market, you’ll see the catches are getting smaller.
— Thomson Reuters Foundation