Beautiful Rural Taiwan Losing Battle Against ‘Garbage Waterfalls’

Beautiful Rural Taiwan Losing Battle Against ‘Garbage Waterfalls’
從山上回頭看嘉蘭部落。Photo Credit: 徐樂
What you need to know

Mountain villages are slow to adapt to the fallout of their newfound consumerism.

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By Hsu Le (徐樂)

I think for most people like me, the first time we come in contact with nature, our impressions are sweeping vistas and deep seas; a sense of wonder that pervades the senses. When I studied abroad, I was always impressed by the pure, unspoilt nature of national parks. When I returned home to Taiwan, I snorkeled in Lanyu Island through crystal-clear seas and a whole textbook worth of fish.

Maybe this raised my expectations too much; I developed a constant urge to go further into the wilderness, which is how I ended up in a mountain village in Taiwan’s eastern Taitung County during the course of my mandatory military service.

Before arriving in the small village of Jialian (嘉蘭), I had more experience in the mountains of the United States than in Taiwan itself; it would be a new experience in these cold stone houses.

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Photo Credit: 徐樂
A cold stone house in Jialian, Taitung. Traditional structures such as these are interspersed with those built using modern techniques.
Everything comes from the mountains

In nature, everything we need is hidden around us. Mountains, water, arable land, and seas all shape the way people interact with their surroundings, and we are fortunate to have all this in such a small island as Taiwan. For thousands of years, people have lived here, close to the earth in an environment rich with resources.

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Photo Credit: 徐樂
A clean mountain pool outside Jialian.

In modern life, however, distances all seem short, industry is developed, life is convenient and entertainment is just a click away. We are never physically far from the mountains, but sometimes they are obscured from view.

Jialian sticks to its pre-7-Eleven past, preserved only because it is an isolated alcove on the eastern edge of Taiwan’s mountains, inconvenient to get to and far from any “center of progress.”

Old legends

The indigenous Paiwan people have a legend; they say that there is a man named Bali (巴里) who has red eyes that wither and destroys anything he looks at. This story is fairly widespread in the area, but few know that it comes from Jialan – Bali supposedly lives in a cave above the nearby Jinfeng waterfall.

Supposedly, nobody wanted to live there in the past, so the only people who settled there were those who migrated east with nowhere else to settle.

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Photo Credit: 徐樂
A cave behind this waterfall is the supposed home of a Bali, a monster in local folklore.

Now, every little village seems to be opening up to attract tourists and the development they bring, some more authentically than others. The Paiwan culture and its reliance on forest resources, however, remain true to their roots – more than a dozen local tribes have quietly inherited and passed on history and culture for generations.

But beautiful Jialan has a dark side, one more real and foreboding than a red-eyed old man.

Clearing the garbage waterfall

During the course of my stay, I participated in a routine clean up around the village and came across something that made my jaw drop – a waterfall of garbage streaming down the side of the mountain, right outside of town.

The overflowing midden was not far from a 100-year-old tree, perhaps as old as the village itself. The tree looked as if it could have been a community gathering spot at one point, but now it was half-buried under layer after layer of plastic bags, construction waste and whatever else the community no longer had any use for.

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Photo Credit: 徐樂
Local residents couldn't make a dent in the garbage they were producing.

One of the elders told me how it ended up like this: they used to rake garbage up, packing it out of the village as it built up, but even after they tediously separated it and filled truckloads, there was seemingly no effect on the trash heap. They finally realized that they couldn’t possibly dispose of this much trash, so their solution was simply to bury it.

This was obviously a short-sighted solution – the next typhoon would send all this rubbish into the creek, contaminating the area once more. Why do they do it then? The elders said that they would burn it eventually, but what about the glass and metal?

In the garbage pile was an RT Mart membership card; it was obvious that this garbage had slowly been accumulated by the community. Maybe in the past, Jialian was a sustainable place, but it had since sown the seeds of its own destruction.

And it’s not just Jialian that will be affected – if this precarious upstream village is ever destroyed by a landslide, the stream of garbage will flow down to the lower reaches of the river, where crab traps and fishing are a lifeblood of the local economy.

This small island country

After so many years, we have come to regard ourselves as an important, developed country. We have opened ourselves up to the world, built houses, built factories. We bury waste as we see fit; new resources are always available. We have the luxury of buying what we want and figuring out how to dispose of it later.

We now think of trash disposal almost as a human right – disgusting waste is taken away without much thought. The problem hasn’t really been solved at all, just shunted down the hill somewhere.

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Photo Credit: 徐樂
Contamination from the garbage threatens the entire local community.

Perhaps Taitung is the closest thing Taiwan has left to an unsullied land and maybe Jialian still has a chance to retain some of its environmental resources. But to do this, local people need to balance the advantages of modernity with the need to preserve their local environment. Local mindsets need to catch up to material culture.

I was grateful to see what a forest in Taiwan could look like; with streams full of tiny shrimp and crabs, trees full of monkeys, and rare birds flitting through the trees. I can only hope that this place will continue to thrive, and that our elders can continue to watch our progress with pride.

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Photo Credit: 徐樂
Paiwan people used to say that lazy people ate crabs – all you had to do was flip over a rock. Crabs have recently become rare in the area.

Read next: Taiwan’s Waste Reduction Miracle

An unabridged version of this article can be found here.

Translation: Morley J Weston

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