Electricity Still "New" for Tribe

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May 18, 2009—Tribespeople in northwestern Taiwan had no electricity until the late 1970s and even more recently carried flaming torches at night. But now a research institute has upgraded their lighting systems.

© 2009 National Geographic (AP)

Unedited Transcript

The Atayal tribes people make their home in the midst of the mountains in northwest Taiwan.

According to the Associated Press, in this community, there are 154 members of the tribe making up 28 households. Twenty years ago, when visiting friends at night, it was common for the Atayal to carry a flaming torch ignited by a burning piece of red pine bark to walk through the forest. Taiwan red pine is found mainly in areas above an elevation of 4900 feet.

A villager told the Associated Press that tribes people conserved the wood by cutting only one-third of the bark from the bottom of the tree. SOUNDBITE: (Mandarin) Yuraw Icyang, Atayal Villager: "Our ancestors use the red pine as the main source for our lights or fire. We only use this part of the bark which is rich in sap. The sap flows from the top to the bottom and therefore the bottom part is rich in sap. We can see the sap coming from the hole here."

While the tribe has had a rudimentary electric system since 1979, Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute has replaced old incandescent lamps with a new energy saving system, older tribe members still prefer light by fire. SOUNDBITE: (Atayal) Icyh Sulung, 70-year-old Tribe Leader: "I like the flame made by burning the red pine bark and it doesn't cost any money. But we have to pay for our electricity for the lighting system. I know there is a power plant to generate electricity, but I have no idea if it gives any benefit to the earth or does any harm to the eco-system. I like the original and simple way of making fire as I can see stars clearing in the sky and the shape of the mountains at night time. But when there is electric light, it blocks me from seeing the opposite mountain as it is too bright."

SOUNDBITE: (Atayal) Icyh Sulung, 70-year-old Tribe Leader: "It's more convenient for the children to study, for them to use computers and for us to watch news on TV with electricity and electric lights. But as tribe leader, I still enjoy the traditional way of living. Under the flame of fire using the red pine bark, I can tell my stories and I can share words from our ancestors with the next generation."

The local classrooms are now equipped with energy-saving lighting systems. Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute has tested different kinds of light bulbs and lamps to ensure their durability.

SOUNDBITE: (Mandarin) Lee Li-Ling, deputy director of Energy and Environment Research Laboratories of Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute: "Regarding the application of the technology, we have designed it to control the intensity of the light and the length of time it is switched on. And we also try to incorporate our technology into their culture as they have very good weaving skills. When you visit the tribe, you see them making their own lamp shields by weaving bendable strips of bamboo. It's just a fusion of technology and culture."

For these village children it seems the future is bright.

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