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Aborigine Tribes Suffer After Quake

November 3, 1999

WANFENG, Taiwan (AP) _ Piles of purple eggplants slowly turn black as they rot in the sun in this mountain village that was cut off from the rest of Taiwan by last month’s earthquake.

The farmers who grow the vegetables for their livelihoods squat in fields nearby, worrying about how they’ll recover the money they lost when the killer quake blocked roads and tunnels they used to haul their produce to market.

In this tiny village, most of the several hundred residents belong to Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes _ impoverished people who could least afford an economic loss. Isolated by the quake damage, they can’t sell their produce to get the money they use to buy other food staples and necessities.

To make matters worse, the aborigines’ lack of political influence and special legal status as tribal people all combine to make recovery harder for them.

Wanfeng is one of central Taiwan’s poorest villages, a clutch of tiny clapboard houses along four narrow streets filled with stray dogs and dirty children. Wearing wide-brimmed hats, aboriginal women kneel in the dirt and plunge sharpened sticks into soft earth, searching for sweet potatoes to fill out their dinner.

During better times, the women would have bought rice and canned goods from the local shop with the cash from their vegetable sales.

But when Taiwan’s mammoth quake hit last month, landslides cut off the road that is the village’s lifeline to markets, devastating livelihoods in an area where incomes rarely top $6,250 _ less than half Taiwan’s average.

Most of the 2,400 deaths from the Sept. 21 quake occurred in the mountain and flatland communities below Wanfeng. Isolated villages in the mountainous center of the island were among the last to receive help and will likely benefit least from long-term aid.

Government benefits will cover only part of the villagers’ losses, and that only for legally registered farmland _ much more produce is grown on common tribal lands that aren’t registered. Villagers also face a unique problem in rebuilding because their land is specially categorized as aboriginal land that cannot be sold and is therefore worthless as collateral for a bank loan.

Taiwan has nine major indigenous groups with a total of 400,000 people, or 2 percent of the island’s overall population. Claiming that relief policies discriminate against them, 400 aborigines traveled to Taipei last week and protested at one of the capital’s main tourist sites, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

``They keep telling us the aid will come, but we haven’t seen any yet. I don’t know where it’s stuck,″ said Evel, who like many aborigines use only one name.

Chen Hsiu-chu, Wanfeng’s village head, said she relies on government officials in the nearby town of Wushe for her information. She said she knows nothing of the extensive aid being offered by private groups.

For now, the outlook is bleak.

``We’re scared all the time. and there’s no money to fix up the house,″ said Savong, an aboriginal woman whose house’s roof and walls were shattered by the quake.

Mountain roads and tunnels might all be cleared and repaired in two months, but that depends on the speed by which special budgets can be allocated, said Cheng Cheng-feng, secretary of nearby Jenai Township government.

Extra funds will also be needed to fix irrigation systems, said Cheng, who estimated agricultural losses at up to $1.8 million.

Jenai is home to 10,000 people, 80 percent of whom are aborigines. It’s still early to tell what the long-term effects of the quake will be on the region, but it’s likely people will leave, Cheng said.

``It just gets tougher to make a living,″ he said.

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