‘Gaga’ – a Taiwanese indigenous post-development concept

by Federico Arcuri

The Post-development Dictionary showcases a plurality of alternatives to the western capitalist imaginary of a linear ‘development’. This alliance is constructed by connecting radical notions from the Global South – such as Sumak Kawsay, Buen Vivir, Swaraj and Ubuntu – with eco-feminism, eco-socialism and degrowth in the Global North. One building block of such post-development alliance is the critique of western dualism. To accumulate wealth and power, western colonialists have had to extract exchange-value from an enclosed ‘other’ that necessarily had to be devalued in order to be exploited – ‘nature’, ‘women’, ‘indios’, ‘proletariat’. This exploitation needs an ontological separation between what is seen as nature and human, man and woman, white and non-white, normal and abnormal. Indigenous people all over the world have been resisting such separation. For instance, in the Peruvian Amazon, the Ashaninka people have been resisting extractivism by relying on Kametsa Asaike, a cosmovision that intends the world as “a network of mutually constituted human and non-human actors”. In the Global North, feminist activists and scholars have re-actualized such critique of dualism. This is now also emphasized by proponents of degrowth, who talk about the importance of an ethos of interdependence to build a convivial world.

For my bachelor thesis, I listened to Taiwanese indigenous activists and scholars who are pushing for the revitalization of local ancient non-dualist traditions in a delicate moment characterized by increasing concerns on the island due to climate change, geopolitical tensions, and population loss due to increasing urbanizing pressures from the market. Taiwan (Republic of China, ROC) is almost exclusively mentioned in Western media in relation to the threat of invasion by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), assuming the existence of a monolithic nation on the island resisting such attack. What is ignored is the existence of a minority composed of Taiwanese Indigenous People, the first human settlers who arrived to Taiwan from Austronesian islands more than 6000 years ago. They have been safeguarding Taiwan’s communities and environment for thousands of years, with a history largely characterized by Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese and finally Chinese colonial oppression.


Revitalizing Gaga as a (post-development) tool of resistance

During my stay in Taiwan, I made friends with people belonging to the Tayal indigenous group, the biggest by population, residing in the northern-central part of the island. I had the opportunity to learn about ‘Gaga’ (嘎嘎), a Tayal term referring to a system of norms and values traditionally important to maintain familial, societal, and ecological harmony. At the core of the Gaga philosophy is the belief that everything in the universe is interconnected and that all living beings are part of a larger ecosystem, which means that Tayal people view themselves not as separate from nature, but as part of it, and they strive to maintain a balance between themselves and their surrounding environment.  One way the Tayal people practice Gaga is through their reverence for the land. They believe that the land is not something to be owned, but rather something to be cared for and shared. For instance, water and wetlands are managed by the same rules that govern a Tayal village: a fisherman cannot ‘extract’ more fish than needed, because this would disturb the ‘Gaga’ of the village, meaning the harmony within the community as well as the ecological balance of the river.

Most recently, a study by Silan Wasiq analyzes how Gaga (defined as “the Tayal law”), among other elements of Tayal culture, is being revitalized in recent years. However, they notice a trend to reinforce indigenous identity in a “pale reproduction of how things used to be in old days”. They remind us that “indigeneity is not about returning to a fixed past”, but rather about “writing back against the colonial framework that was imposed on the Indigenous peoples and, in that way, healing from trauma”.

This is arguably what is happening in Smangus, a remote Tayal community that, facing the environmental and social costs of opening to the market economy, reacted by establishing a co-operative social system that ensures democratic decision-making, while sharing the costs and benefits of running an eco-tourism business. The arrival of tourists in the 2000s led to competition for homestay owners to attract customers, creating an incentive for them to “offer extra activities in the forest and to construct more lodgings, many of which were illegal, ugly, and unsafe, so that the villagers risked destroying the scenic beauty that drew tourists to the area in the first place”. To counter these issues, in 2004 the villagers developed a “collective strategy centered on the revival of some of their traditional religious practices”. They instituted a co-operative system called Tnunan, a “Tribal Council” which integrates the Atayal traditional system of values with the necessity of receiving tourists sustainably. The word Tnunan in Tayal language refers to the threads of a basket, which are tightly interwoven like the lives of the people in the village. The ownership of tourism-related facilities, such as the lodging facilities, the restaurant, and the convenience store, is collective; all the members of the co-op share the work of running the co-op business and share its benefits more or less equally. The participating households – most households of the village – are paid based on the shares they hold, plus a monthly fixed allowance (Tang and Tang 2010, 107). On top of this, The council developed a comprehensive welfare scheme that applies to all members in education, medical care, child-rearing, home-building, and marriage.

The experiment in Smangus was arguably successful, as the tourism co-operative helped reduce the social and environmental pressures from tourism. A study by Xu Shuteng shows how the establishment of the co-op was accompanied by the establishment of agroecological initiatives such as Forest Farming, the cultivation of indigenous crops under a forest canopy that is maintained to ensure high-quality production in a sustainable way (Xu 2016). According to Xu, forest farming enhanced the local “food self-sufficiency rate” while creating job opportunities, incentivizing youth to come back to the village. On top of this, as shown by another study, most members of the co-op felt positive about the democratic structure of the new council, stating that they felt free to express their opinions during the biweekly meetings and it was very likely that they would abide by the decision taken by the council.

Miles away in the South, Tayal farmers reacted to the neoliberal imperatives of cash-crops, monocultures and pesticides by establishing the Millet Ark Action. This initiative promotes the cropping of traditional Tayal millet and organizes educational activities regarding traditional farming methods. Due to the pressures of the market and to climate change, most Taiwanese millet varieties have disappeared. The initiative has not only recovered biological varieties of millets used by the villagers in the past, but also pushed for the revitalization of a ‘traditional millet vocabulary’. The Millet Ark Action, by referring to ancestral knowledge , expands democratic participation to the realm of food production and agriculture into a widening circle of associations, showing the central role of non-dualist ontologies in the global fight for Food Sovereignty. As prof. Yih Lin-Ren, one of the activists who founded the initiative,  told me: “for these Tayal farmers ‘Food’, with a capital ‘F’, is not just the food itself. It also embodies all the social relationships in which demanders, producers, and the food production environment interact with each other”.

Even if incomplete, given the very limited scope of my research, I hope that these two stories can show that there is indeed a pluriverse of non-dualist philosophies, even beyond the ones included in the Pluriverse dictionary. As degrowthers, we need to listen to scholars and activists from the Global South who are re-interpreting, revitalizing and re-shaping some of these identities and knowledge in resistance to the pressures of a totalizing capitalist world-system.

Disclaimer: My BA thesis “Taiwanese Indigenous People and Food Sovereignty: Exploring Cases of Resistance to Neoliberal Agri-food by Taiwanese Indigenous Communities” was made possible by a scholarship given by the Ministry of Education of the Netherlands which allowed me to be in Taiwan for 6 months.  I went to Taiwan as a white, straight European man, and my eurocentric gaze definitely affected the way I saw the reality of the island. My BA thesis consisted simply in a case study analysis with a few interviews and a literature review. With this blog I do not intend to show how revolutionary any of these indigenous philosophies can be, or to attach any specific label to them. I simply highlight the importance for degrowthers to listen to a pluriverse of non-dualist voices.



The opinions expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect those of R&D, but are those of the author.

Federico is a student at ICTA-UAB for the Master in Political Ecology, Degrowth and Environmental Justice. He is active in Degrowth.info in the Italian degrowth association, and now an intern at R&D, organizing the degrowth summer school. He is broadly interested in degrowth policy-making and post-growth geopolitics, in particular in relation to China.




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