Land II: We Built You a House, Now Get Out the Village

“Land long occupied is a lived experience, and individuals and groups derive much of their identity and cultural vitality from a deep sense of attachment to particular lands, landscapes and places. Conversely, loss of land often traps indigenous communities in a cycle of poverty and anguish that strikes at the very essence of who they are”

Aiken and Leigh, 2011: 477

The previous post highlighted the uneasy macro-politics surrounding Taipei’s indigenous land rights. This post brings us closer to the lived geographies of indigenous settlements, highlighting how contrasting ideologies of ‘’home’ and ‘land’ exacerbate Taipei’s yuanzhumin (indigenous people)  struggles to claim space within the city.

On the southern outskirts of Taipei lies Sanying village (abbreviated SV) – a yuanzhumin settlement situated along Taipei’s Dahan river.  Prima facie, SV’s rustic appearance (fig.1) provokes imaginations of tranquil, humble lifestyles. This veneer of simplicity, however, belies the socio-political struggles that its yuanzhumin endured since 1994 – against forced demolitions and developmental pressures to relocate nearer to the city. 

Fig.1: Against the backdrop of distant skyscrapers in Taipei, Sanying Village is home to approximately 40 indigenous yuanzhumin households. At the front gate, the purple flag flying high reads “We protest our forced eviction”.
Source: https://www.thenewslens.com/article/98172

Sanying Village: Origins

As with most informal indigenous urban settlements, the history of SV dates back to Taiwan’s economic takeoff in the 1980s. Due to high demands for industrial labour, this period saw an influx of yuanzhumin from neighbouring mountains into cities seeking better job prospects. However, since most yuanzhumin can ill-afford the exorbitant property prices, they typically establish spontaneous settlements on unoccupied land parcels along Taipei’s rivers.

Crucially, these spontaneous villages symbolize more than just a roof over yuanzhumin’s heads. For the minority yuanzhumin working menial jobs in Taipei, ‘living closer to nature’ has enabled them to carve out meaningful livelihoods on their own means – via subsistence farming (e.g. chives and cabbages farming, chicken rearing) and establishing familiar networks of community support (Guo and Huang, 1999).

Therefore, in SV, ‘land’ is tethered to broader geographies of home, community and a way of life – it is within these unformalized, non-concretised urban natures where cultural identities of self-reliance and communal socialities are grounded upon:

It’s spacious here, you have more freedom. However, the big buildings in cities, there’s rules and boundaries. It’s really better here with everyone, we can just kill a chicken, have a barbecue together over beer and meat… Over here, when I step my foot down in the soil, I feel grounded and connected.
–  A’Xiong, on his preference for staying in Sanying Village instead of the city.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wP5AaT5X5ag&t=1891s

The soil (land) is my life, it is the yuanzhumin’s life. This land is capable of sustaining a community and is meant to be shared … after all, since ancient times, yuanzhumin have always relied on these lands for survival.  
– Granny Pan, on her vegetable fields in Sanying village 

Source: https://www.peopo.org/news/217207

Contrasting Ideologies of ‘Land’ and ‘Home’

However, SV came under threat when it was first issued an eviction notice in 1994. Under Taipei’s watershed management plan, SV was declared a flood-prone zone and its residents ordered to relocate due to their lack of tenure. To accommodate this relocation, the government pursued a ‘build first, demolish later’ directive, building discounted rental flats to rehouse SV’s yuanzhumin, following which the demolition of SV will later commence (Lai, 2011).

Despite this arrangement, most yuanzhumin rejected this offer and refused to relocate. This political deadlock will persist for 18 painful years – during which excavators were repeatedly sent to demolish SV, while its residents doggedly rebuilt their houses again, at the exact same spot:

At its core, these political tensions are rooted in conflicting ideologies of ‘land’ and ‘home’.

By the standards of Taipei’s Han-chinese majority, the ramshackle houses of SV may be deplorable.  However, this is valid insofar as ‘home’s’ purpose is to deliver the comforts of modern living – providing water/electricity, a hygienic living environment and a secure roof impervious to the elements. It is against these principles where Taipei’s municipality – with its offerings of heavily-discounted rental flats – justified its actions of evicting ‘stubbornly difficult yuanzhumin’.

Fig.2: Under Taipei’s ‘build first, demolish later’ directive, the Long’en rental flats were constructed to rehouse the yuanzhumin. However, the majority of Sanying village refused to relocate here, expressing that high-rise modern living was incongruent to their lifestyles.
Source: https://www.thenewslens.com/article/98172

Crucially, the state failed to understand that ‘home’ is a “highly fluid and contested site of human existence” that embodies culturally diverse value systems (Blunt, 2005:512). For the yuanzhumin, the socio-spatial norms of high-rise living run contrary to their understandings of a meaningful life, which is grounded upon an intimate relationship with the land. Notably, Lai (2011) found that relocated residents often lament the loss of a beloved communal identity, compounded by experiences of racial discrimination:  

Images Source: X

Towards mutual respect? – the neo-urbanised yuanzhumin

Today, SV as we once knew it is no more. After almost 2 decades of relentless community protests, the Taipei municipality compromised with a “333 house financing model” (fig.3) to co-construct new dwellings that aligned with state notions of ‘formality’ yet catered to yuanzhumin’s cultural lifestyles. Post-completion in 2016, it finally saw the relocation of yuanzhumin into refurbished houses:

Images Source: X

Reflecting upon SV’s struggles is salient especially considering Taipei’s political verbatim to ‘undo the wrongs’ of historical yuanzhumin oppression (see: previous post). Fundamentally, SV exemplifies that normative governance logics (of modernity and progress) can systematically exclude alternative notions of ‘meaningful landuse’. In fact, despite its apparent resolution, the ‘333 model’ did ultimately uproot SV’s residents into ‘formal’ houses branded as an indigenous cultural attraction. Beyond the apparent goodwill of providing better quality housing, this raises questions regarding the sincerity of state efforts to truly accommodate the needs of SV’s yuanzhumin.

Ultimately, SV reiterates that governing nature (land) means grappling with its complex social relations. As cities strive to promote the universal ‘rights to the city’, SV reminds us that this lofty goal is complicated by sticky political questions on how urban natures should be used. Often, it is hard to reconcile everyone’s interests, but it will most definitely help if we come from a place of understanding – to walk the proverbial ground before reworking nature to our desired ends.  

Fig.3: A poster created by community activists protesting the demolition of Sanying Village. Set against a collage of yuanzhumin residents, the yellow striking words read “land is not a commodity”. The longstanding struggles over land use – while eventually resolved via the ‘333 model’ – reflects the dissonance in environmental logics between Taipei municipality and the indigenous yuanzhumin. Evidently, there is still a long way to go to reinstate environmental justice for Taipei’s yuanzhumin.
Image Source: : https://www.geog-daily.org/morethanhuman/sanyingbuluo

(838 words)

Bibliography

Aiken, S. R.  and Leigh, C. H. (2011) “In the way of Development: Indigenous Land-Rights Issues in Malaysia”, Geographical Review, 101, 4, 471-496.

Blunt, A. (2005)  Cultural geography: cultural geographies of home”, Progress in Human Geography, 29, 4, 505-515.

Kuo, C. Y. and M. Y. Huang (1999) “A study on urban aborigine’s hardship in making their livelihood: three case studies”, Hung Kuang University Press, 59, 60-77.

Lai,  Y. Y. (2011)  “Analysing the Problems of Urban Public Rental Flats: a case study of New-Taipei Sanxia Long’en indigenous public rental flats”, 2011 Conference on Community Development, Chinese Cultural and Societal Welfare Foundation.

2 thoughts on “Land II: We Built You a House, Now Get Out the Village

  1. Hi, thanks for a great post. I think informal housing often has quite negative connotations and its really important to also discuss the cultural and social significance of these sites. The idea that people feel they have more control, are less restricted and feel more grounded in less ‘developed’ areas is not something I had really considered before.

    Liked by 1 person

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