Taiwan's paradise island fights to save its identity

Boats near Lanyu Island beach Lanyu Island's unique culture is in danger of dying out

It is the southern-most outpost of the Republic of China and, it's safe to say, a place unlike any other in Taiwan.

The Taiwanese call it Lanyu or Orchid Island, named after the beautiful flower that has almost been picked to extinction. The locals call it 'Pongso No Tao' or 'Island of the People' in their native tongue.

This mountainous island, carpeted by lush rainforest, is home to the Yami or Tao people. With a population of less than 4,000, the Tao community counts for just one per cent of the indigenous population and is Taiwan's smallest aboriginal tribe.

Tourists have been coming to the island since the 1960s, drawn by its coral reefs and beautiful beaches. But the island also has a dark secret; since the 1980s a storage site on the island has housed nuclear waste from Taiwan's three reactors, met with angry protests from locals.

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The turbulent plane ride to Lanyu only lasts 20 minutes aboard a 19-seater propeller-powered plane, and I counted myself lucky to have secured a seat, instead of having to catch a boat across 65km (40 miles) of choppy Pacific Ocean waters.

Our first stop is to the Tao Foundation offices in Yehyu village just north of the airport. The foundation is a grass roots effort to preserve the Tao culture, traditions and language.

The chairman, Syaman Rapongan, is an expert free diver and also one of the first people on the island to achieve a tertiary education.

"The Tao people are different from the Taiwanese, and we are even different from the indigenous people on mainland Taiwan," explains Mr Rapongan.

View from plane flying in to Lanyu Island Tourists are drawn to the island's scenery and laid-back beach life

The Tao people are of Austronesian descent and share similar characteristics with islanders from the Philippines, rather than the 'mainlanders' from Taiwan.

There is no official government here, no community hierarchy, not even a jail. Lanyu Island has one main road, a black tar snake that's less than 40 kilometres long, and clings close to the rocky shoreline.

Most cars are without license plates and covered with rust after years of exposure to the salty sea air. It's a life in stark contrast to the order and rules-based society of its motherland.

The first tourists began to arrive in the 1960s, lured by the pristine coral reef and the laid-back diving and beach culture.

Sacred land

Some enterprising islanders have set up small shops selling local crafts to earn extra income. But many elderly villagers resent being the subject of snap-happy tourists, who often don't understand or respect local traditions.

To the locals, Lanyu is sacred land - not only crucial to their survival, but also key to the oceanic culture of the Tao people, which is centred on the migratory flying fish.

As winter approaches the elders begin building their boats again to prepare for the next year. The sound of chisel and hammers can be heard around the villages, as a dying breed of craftsmen toil over their intricately carved canoes.

"It's very important for a man in this tribe to make a boat because your status in the village is elevated," explains Syaman Jyawopi, a former bus driver from Taipei who has returned home to help his 80-year old father Syapen with the shaping of next season's vessel.

"For people of my age, [fewer than ten] can now make a boat like this - most of the young people go to Taiwan in search of work or to study," says Mr Jyawopi.

The young people that do remain on Lanyu Island have only a few employment opportunities, and many work in the fledgling tourism industry offering dive trips or boat rides in the traditional canoes.

Nuclear waste storage facility on Lanyu Island Nuclear waste from Taiwan's reactors is kept at a remote part of the island

The stain on this idyllic, remote island paradise is the presence of a foreboding concrete compound on the southern tip of the island, housing 98,000 barrels of low-grade nuclear waste from Taiwan's three nuclear plants.

In the early 1980s, villagers were told it would be a fish cannery. In 1988, Mr Rapongan helped rally the support of the six tribes on the island to protest against the nuclear waste.

"We are very, very angry about this issue. It's very dangerous for our territories, for our ownership and for the environment around the island.

"We see it as an ethnic problem because (previously) the Taiwan government didn't care about the Tao people, but when we began to protest, they began to think about our problem," he says.

The government has said it would remove the waste by 2016. But Mr Rapongan has seen deadlines like this come and go in the past.

Park plans

Ironically, it was this protest that brought the six tribes together to focus on their future.

The Tao Foundation is trying to preserve the traditional tribal language. There's also a movement to designate Lanyu Island as a protected, national park.

But the best reason to visit Orchid Island is to explore Tao culture. Be warned, many people here have become highly sensitive about being treated like animals in a zoo, and photography is a particular sore point. Some locals have been known to demand outrageous fees for taking pictures.

Nevertheless, the Tao people are very warm and hospitable, and the trip is well worth the effort, especially since the unique culture of Orchid Island may be on the brink of extinction.

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