Ecotourism and Awareness-raising in Indigenous Communities of Taiwan

Ecotourism and Awareness-raising in Indigenous Communities of Taiwan
Ataw Yupas explains the model of the traditional territory mapping

In 2009, the Taiwanese government proposed plans to build a reservoir in Bilin Valley, in Hsinchu County’s Jianshih-Township. The project was met by the area’s Cinsbu Atayal Community with a determined campaign to halt planning and construction. In 2012, the project was suspended. But what happens now that the campaign has been a success? Is there a guarantee the project will not be restarted in the future? Through Ecotourism and educational activities, the community keeps expanding the network of supporters for its cause against the reservoir, in case planning is resumed.

This article appeared on APN: Asia Pacific News. Volume 7, Issue 1, Spring 2015

Misty trees in Xinguang Elementary's "Forest Classroom" (December 19, 2014)
Misty trees in Xinguang Elementary’s “Forest Classroom” (photo by Roi Ariel)


In simple terms, social movements are organized groups trying to change, or resist a change in society. Often these movements consist of people who have no access to routine institutionalized channels of participation (McGehee, 2001; McGehee & Santos, 2005; Mcgehee, Kline & Knollenberg, 2014).

The concept of consciousness-raising originated from social-psychological theoretical explanations of social movements. Consciousness-raising refers to “an individual’s identification with and awareness of the “battlegrounds” of social conflict. This is an important ‘first step’ to identification with, participation in, and commitment to social movement activism” (Kline & Knollenberg, 2014: 142). It is strengthened through interaction with others who have similar attitudes and values. Awareness of one’s involvement in larger movement gives a person a sense of the possibility of success and more reason to participate (McGehee & Santos, 2005)Consciousness-raising can occur over a longer period or can be the result of sudden or dramatic events. Consciousness-raising also occurs through interactions with members of other movements and relationships with political parties and the media.

An important element of consciousness-raising is seeing the personal as political. Sometimes consciousness-raising experiences may not immediately affect particiation in social movements, but do change support for activism. Consciousness-raising experience may not always result in action, but it may increase sympathy for a cause (McGehee, 2001; McGehee & Santos, 2005; Mcgehee, Kline & Knollenberg, 2014).

Cinsbu Cypress Trail: Learning about the educational system of learning the forest (December 20, 2014)
Cinsbu Cypress Trail: Learning about the educational system of learning the forest (photo by Roi Ariel)


The term ‘ecotourism’ was coined in the late 1980s in acknowledgment of increased sustainable and global ecological awareness and practices. In January 2015, The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) updated its definition and principles of ecotourism to better reflect its experiences with ecotourism over the past 25 years. Ecotourism is now defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015).  “Education is meant to be inclusive of both staff and guests.”

Ecotourism represents a set of principles that were implemented in various global communities, and are supported by extensive industry and academic research. “Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement, participate in and market ecotourism activities should adopt the following ecotourism principles: (1) Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts; (2) Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect; (3) Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts; (4) Provide direct financial benefits for conservation; (5) Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry; (6) Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates; (7) Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities; (8) Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment” (TIES, 2015).

Ecotourism involves a process of educating guests about the host’s political, environmental and social climates. Raising awareness about those three climates can be part of ecotourism activities. Guests can be integrated into the network of the movement and if a campaign arises in the future they might support the host community’s cause. The tourists play a role becoming part of the network.

Ataw Yupas explains the model of the traditional territory mapping (December 19, 2014)
Ataw Yupas explains the model of the traditional territory mapping (photo by Roi Ariel)

Bilin Reservoir:

Located in the high mountains of northern Taiwan, the communities that would be affected by Bilin reservoir are mostly Atayal people (Tayal/Daiyan/泰雅族), an Aboriginal group. They reside in what is considered the “inner mountainous area” at an altitude of between 800m and 1600m, distinguished from communities in the “outer mountainous area” by their lengthier distance from the larger coastal cities. Ancestrally, the Atayal migrated from Nantou County to the northern part of Taiwan in search of more room for their growing populations to hunt and farm. The Atayal originally subsisted off slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting; the former has disappeared, but hunting still continues even though it is illegal in these areas (Simon, 2005; Reid, 2010a).

The Atayal are thought to be the oldest indigenous group to inhabit Taiwan. According to Atayal legend, the Atayal people sprung out from a rockface on the side of a mountain. Currently, there are around 85,600 Atayal people in Taiwan, making them the second-largest indigenous group (Simon, 2005; Lin,Yih-Ren, Lahuy Icyeh & Da-Wei Kuan, 2008).

Nowadays most follow the Christian faith, and to varying degrees, also the gaga, a core value of traditional Atayal culture that is infused with and informs every aspect of Atayal life.

In 2009, the Water Resources Agency (WRA) planned to construct a reservoir in Bilin Valley (比麟水庫) in Hsinchu County’s Jianshih Township, aimed at ensuring adequate water supplies for people living and working in Hsinchu for the next 120 years.

In order to supply the proposed Bilin reservoir with enough water, the agency proposed digging a tunnel from the Dahan River on the other side of Jianshih Mountain, and include a second dam at Xiuluan (秀巒) which is in the upper catchment area of the Shimen Reservoir (Tang, 2009; Reid, 2010b).

Experts questioned whether the reservoir and tunnel would not cause the same damage as Chiayi County’s Zengwun Reservoir did, impacting the geology, rivers, landscape and ecology in the region.

Experts also criticized that there are other, safer solutions available: implementing existing water conservation policies, recycling waste water from industrial zones, building desalination plants to process seawater, and cutting water leakage which bring losses of 22 to 37 percent of the water. In addition, the storage capacity of existing reservoirs could be increased by 30 percent just by dredging them (Tang, 2009; Hsu, 2010; Lee, 2012).

The project would not damage just the environment. The dam wall would be 138m high, meaning that five indigenous communities, more than 5,000 people, would be forced to relocate, and severely harm precious cultural heritage of the Atayal.

The Atayal communities expressed opposition to the Bilin Reservoir plan as they believe the government is trying to push them out of the mountains (Reid, 2010b), bearing in mind previous projects such as the Shimen (石門) reservoir.

During the construction of Shimen reservoir in the 1960s, the Kalashe (卡拉社) community was evicted from its lands.. The community’s migration to different location eventually led to its disappearance (Li, 2007). Residents also believed they would not reap any benefit from the two reservoirs because they would cater only to the water needs of the Hsinchu Science Park (Hsu, 2010).

For the Atayal it was more than an environmental campaign, it was a battle for their land. A meeting was arranged between the head of the WRA and Atayal elders. According to one of the elders, in that meeting, the elders did not let him speak at all, and said that if he ever enters their territory again, they will do what they were doing decades ago as fierce warriors and headhunters killing those who threatened them. He never came back to the area.

However, the community remained watchful. If they saw engineers surveying the area, skilled Atayal, both physically and verbally, would be sent to meet them (and usually to scare them away). The region’s Outer and Inner mountain communities came together to protest, which helped to strengthen the sense of connection between the different communities.

For example, on March 14, 2012, representatives from about 20 groups, including Jian-Shih Anti-Dam Association, and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Chiu Wen-yen (邱文彥), marked the International Day of Action for Rivers urging the government to undertake a re-evaluation of the nation’s water resource policies, especially dealing with the high water leakage rate as an alternative to building more reservoirs and dams (Lee, 2012).

Eventually, in late 2012, the plans were put on hold. The government said this was due to budget problems. However, the campaigners and local Atayal believe it was their activity that brought this project to a halt. The truth is probably lies somewhere in between .

Tkyu: Evening bonfire with a discussion (December 19, 2014)
Tkyu: Evening bonfire with a discussion (photo by Roi Ariel)

Ecotourism in Cinsbu:

In Atayal language, Cinsbu means ‘the place where the first rays of the sun shine and land of fertile soil’. Cinsbu has around 80 families and has a strongly developed sense of awareness of Atayal traditions and knowledge.

With its beautiful mountainous landscapes and hiking trails, Cinsbu has been involved in ecotourism for the past decade. The famous hiking trail (Cinsbu Cypress trail, 鎮西堡檜木) leads to an ancient forest, where huge cypress trees that have survived the logging of the Japanese and the KMT afterwards. Other services include homestays and lodging, a weaving workshop, restaurants, educational spaces, and organic farming.

Cinsbu also boasts Tkyu, a gathering site dedicated to passing on traditional knowledge and skills through classes and ceremonies with community members and outsiders, and the “forest classroom” on the grounds of its local elementary school. There are a few buildings in Tkyu. Each building shows a different aspect of Atayal life and culture: traditional weaving techniques; a model of the traditional territory mapping; tools, baskets and models of housing. In Tkyu there is also a big dining hall and a kitchen where guests eat meals made with locally grown products. There is also a hut where a bonfire can be made, and guests can spend the evening around the fire, attend a presentation about the area and the social-environmental activities and make fresh millet cakes with honey. The Tkyu is also a place for the community to gather and teach children.

During their stay at Cinsbu, guests can experience guided activities, such as a hike to the forest or activities in Tkyu, and are introduced to local knowledge and traditions, and can learn about current issues and problems of the mountainous Atayal communities, including the story of the Bilin reservoir, among other issues.

Although the campaign against building the Bilin reservoir has been successful and the project was suspended, the plan might still be resumed in the future. The anti-Bilin reservoir movement is still active and continues to expand its network. Social movements rely on networks as a means of resource development, social support, and awareness. Tourists to Cinsbu, who are exposed to the issue of the Bilin reservoir, play a crucial role based on the concept of “personal as political”.

After immersing oneself in the welcoming community, consciousness-raising experiences increase the sympathy for the community. This sympathy can also be translated into actions and activism. The tourists (who can be individuals, students, or groups coming through NGOs) take a role of become part of the movement’s network.

Tkyu: Traditional tools and models of houses (December 19, 2014)
Tkyu: Traditional tools and models of houses (photo by Roi Ariel)

From Ecotourists to Supporters:

On January 10-11, 2015, a two-day field trip was conducted as part of graduate level course at National Chengchi University (NCCU), taught by Dr Kwan Da-Wei.

The participants in the course had different personal and academic backgrounds. After the visit to Cinsbu, students shared their feeling and ideas about the visit. Two PhD students explained how the visit influenced them. One said that it was an “eye opener,” and made her think about how she could help the cause. She said that already a couple of days after returning to Taipei she talked with her friends and shared her experience. She stated that she will support the cause in the future if such arises.

The other Doctoral student, who considers himself an environmental activist, opened a Facebook group called “NCCU Friends of the Atayal People 泰雅的政大的朋友門,” in order to stay in touch and share pictures, ideas, experiences, and future activities. Other students expressed sympathy to the community, and explained how there is much for the city dwellers to learn from the mountainous Atayal community.

These examples show how Cinsbu’s Ecotourism initiatives can help educate visitors and raise awareness about political, environmental, and social issues. Visitors become part of the community’s network after they sympathize and want to help. If plans to build the reservoir are resumed, there could be wider solidarity this time, with a larger network of supporters, that includes individual tourist and university students, Taiwanese and foreigners.

In the case mentioned here, it was a mountainous indigenous community, but the same principles can be implemented in other rural communities with a healthy ecotourism industry.

uri Yupas demonstrates and explains traditional Atayal weaving technique (December 19, 2014)
Yuri Yupas demonstrates and explains traditional Atayal weaving technique (photo by Roi Ariel)



Butcher, J. (2008). Ecotourism as life politics. Journal of Sustainable Tourism,16 (3), 315-326.

Coria, J., & Calfucura, E. (2012). Ecotourism and the development of indigenous communities: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Ecological Economics73, 47-55.

Hsu, Jenny W. (2010). “Demonstrators slam government plans to build new dams.” Taipei Times, 13 March, 2010

Lee, I-Chia (2012). “Groups call for action on water.” Taipei Times, 15 March 2012:

Li, Huei Huei (2007). Community Experience and Cultural Change – the Immigration History of Atayal Communities in Shimen Reservoir Inundation Zone. Master’s thesis, Department of Ethnology, National Chengchi University, Taipei.

Lin,Yih-Ren, Lahuy Icyeh & Da-Wei Kuan (2008). “Indigenous Language-Informed Participatory Policy in Taiwan: A Socio-Political Perspective,” Documenting and Revitalizing Austronesian Languages, University of Hawaii Press, pp.134-161.

McGehee, N. G., Kline, C., & Knollenberg, W. (2014). “Social movements and tourism-related local action.” Annals of Tourism Research48, 140-155.

McGehee, N. G., & Santos, C. A. (2005). “Social change, discourse and volunteer tourism.” Annals of Tourism Research32(3), 760-779.

McGehee, N. G., & Norman, W. C. (2001). “Alternative Tourism as Impetus for Consciousness-Raising.” Tourism Analysis6(3-4), 239-251.

Reid, David Charles (2010b). Trip to Marqwang and Smangus. Reid on Formosa commentary on all things Taiwanese — Taiwan Blog:

Reid, David Charles (2010a). Indigenous Rights in Taiwan and the Smangus Case, Master’s thesis, College of Social Science, National Chengchi University, Taipei.

Simon, Scott (2005). “Scarred Landscapes & Tattooed Faces: Poverty, Identity & Land Conflict in a Taiwanese Indigenous Community.” In Indigenous peoples and poverty: an international perspective. Robyn Eversole, John-Andrew McNeish, and Alberto D. Cimadamore, eds. Pp. 53-68. London: Zed Books.

Tang, Mau-Tsu 湯茂竹 (2009): For water, waste not, want not is golden rule. Taipei Times, 13 December 2009:

TIES (The International Ecotourism Society) (2015). What is Ecotourism? [accessed: January 18, 2015].

Leave a Reply