How can the ancient wisdom of the indigenous Rukai people of Taiwan contribute to the preservation of agrobiodiversity and tackle extreme climate change?
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Harnessing Rukai farming techniques for climate-resilient agrobiodiversity

How can the ancient wisdom of the indigenous Rukai people of Taiwan contribute to the preservation of agrobiodiversity and tackle extreme climate change?

Agrobiodiversity is crucial in maintaining sustainable agricultural systems and supporting local livelihoods. To combat the risks of extreme climatic conditions, indigenous traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is often utilised to address food security concerns.

Despite the global transition to commercial cropping, it does not inevitably lead to significant declines or losses in biodiversity. In Wutai, Taiwan, for instance, Rukai’s indigenous farming practices and social system are key factors contributing to resilient agricultural systems.

Figure 1. Traditional mixed croppings in the indigenous Rukai region
Credit. Author

Local indigenous institutions based on TEK are crucial in enhancing community adaptive capacity. There is much research on agrobiodiversity and TEK in indigenous communities. However, prior investigations have predominantly focused on examining the influence of religion, social values, and taboos on environmental conservation and biodiversity.

The influence of social structures and institutional frameworks on biodiversity has received comparatively less attention. To address this gap, we examine the case of Rukai indigenous farmers to demonstrate how traditional agrobiodiversity farming practices, based on TEK, are embedded in social institutions.

The indigenous Rukai people inhabit mountainous Taiwan, spanning elevations from 430 to 2,736 metres above sea level. The Rukai community is characterised by a hierarchical social structure consisting of two main classes: chiefs and commoners. This social hierarchy extends to land ownership, with two primary categories prevailing: land leased from chiefs for cultivation purposes and land permanently acquired by villagers through ceremonial gifting endorsed by the entire community.

Figure 2. Map of Wutai Region
Credit. Author

Historical background of food security among Taiwan’s indigenous tribes

Before the Japanese colonial government assumed control over Taiwan’s indigenous tribes in 1914, each tribe operated independently, with varying degrees of interaction ranging from friendly relations to outright conflict. Land disputes among tribes were not uncommon, often leading to conflicts, including head-hunting and warfare.

To ensure food security and minimize the risk of conflicts with neighboring tribes, maintaining robust agricultural practices was paramount. Tribes formed alliances to provide mutual assistance during food scarcity while adopting diverse agricultural methods to mitigate potential crop failures. This emphasis on food security underscored the significance of agriculture within the Rukai society.

Land classification, mixed cropping, and agrobiodiversity

Geographic variations (Figure 2) and various cropping systems, such as fallow, rotational plantation, mixed cropping (Table 1), and intercropping, shape the agricultural practices of the Wutai Rukai people. This establishment of a highly intricate plantation system serves to maximise agrobiodiversity and minimise the risk of food shortages in the region.

The Rukai people of Wutai classify their lands into eight distinct categories (Figure 3; Table 1). The landscape is shaped by its geographical diversity, with land use practices influenced by altitude, sunlight exposure, and climatic conditions.

The classification of land into distinct categories reflects the Rukai people’s deep understanding of their environment. For instance, areas like the Sacred Drekai zone, situated above 1,200 meters in elevation, are considered uninhabitable due to malevolent spirits.

While unsuitable for crop cultivation, these areas play a crucial role in preserving biological diversity and ecological integrity, providing vital resources and water for downstream agricultural zones. By preserving these areas, the Rukai contribute to conserving wild flora and fauna while ensuring a sustainable water supply for agricultural activities.

Figure 3. Farmland classification by elevation and sunlight length in Wutai.
Credit. Author

Diverse agricultural zones and mixed cropping practices in Wutai

In regions below 1,200 meters, agricultural experts classify land into zones with diverse climatic conditions, including cold and damp zones (A and D in Figure 3), buffer zones (B, E), and warm and hot zones (C, F). These classifications, coupled with considerations of sunlight exposure, result in six distinct types of farming lands, each suited to specific mixed cropping and cultivation practices. Paddy taro cultivation, mainly found in riverbank fields, highlights the Rukai people’s adaptability to their environment.

Cropping SystemsAgricultural Drekai
(wet and cold)
Kabiceacelrake
(buffer zone)
Labelabe
(warm and hot)
Altitude (m)900~1200600~900< 600
Temperature13.0~20.820.8~22.622.6~24.4
Sunlight Time (Short)(A) Dry Taro Mixed Cropping(B) Dry Taro, Peanut, Millet
or Sweet Patato Mixed Cropping
(C) Dry Taro, Peanut, Millet or
Sweet Patato Mixed Cropping
Sunlight Time (Long)(D) Dry Taro or Millet Mixed Cropping(E) Dry Taro, Peanut, Millet or
Sweet Patato Mixed Cropping
(F) Peanut, Millet or
Sweet Patato Mixed Cropping
Water Swamp(G) Paddy Taro Mixed Cropping(G) Paddy Taro Mixed Cropping
Table 1: Different Mixed Cropping Systems in Different Climate Zones

Mixed cropping is a prevalent agricultural practice in Wutai, where farmers cultivate multiple crops together to maximise agrobiodiversity and minimise the risk of food shortages. This practice involves growing crops such as millet, upland taro, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and paddy taro in combination, leveraging the beneficial interactions between different plant species. Factors such as physical space, soil properties, and crop duration influence the selection of mixed cropping systems, resulting in a complex and diverse agricultural environment (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Seeds are mixed to plant
Credit. Author

Social institutional support for agrobiodiversity

Social institutions play a crucial role in supporting agrobiodiversity within the Rukai society. Despite historical challenges, including Japanese and Chinese colonial rule, the Rukai people have preserved traditional farming practices and social structures. Four key social institutions exemplify this symbiotic relationship between social and agricultural activities: land use norms, social reciprocity, rites and ceremonies, and social competition for honour.

Land use norms dictate how land is allocated and managed within the community, ensuring equitable distribution and sustainable use of resources. Farmers often own several small plots of land in different climate zones (Figure 5), cultivating diverse crops while allowing some land to lie fallow. This practice not only promotes agrobiodiversity but also mitigates the risk of crop failure and pest infestation.

Figure 5. Land ownership and distribution by individual families in Wutai. Each household is represented by a unique colour. Six red-coloured lands are owned by the same family, scattered in three different climate zones.
Credit. Author

Social reciprocity fosters mutual support and cooperation among community members, with surplus crops often shared among neighbours, friends, or relatives as gifts. This tradition promotes seed exchange, thereby preserving crop diversity and strengthening social bonds within the community.

Rites, ceremonies, and social competition

Rites and ceremonies play a significant role in Rukai agricultural practices, with crops often featured prominently in cultural celebrations and rituals. Millet, for example, is used in various ceremonies, with specific varieties selected for their symbolic significance. Traditional bridal gifts often include a diverse range of commodities, including millet, paddy taro, and millet wine (Figure 6), contributing to resource circulation and biodiversity preservation.

Figure 6. Bridal gifts in a marriage ceremony
Credit. Author

Social competition and honour further reinforce the importance of agriculture within the Rukai society, with individuals recognised for their contributions to farming and community wellbeing. Hunters who capture significant prey or farmers who produce exceptional yields are accorded high status and honour within the community. These social competitions uphold social order and cultural traditions while incentivising excellence in agricultural practices.

Key actions for addressing climate change

Promoting Agrobiodiversity: Encouraging the cultivation of diverse crops throughout the year can enhance resilience to climate change. Agrobiodiversity can be achieved by promoting diverse cropping systems and traditional agricultural practices.

Community-Based Adaptation: Community-based adaptation approaches empower communities to identify and implement context-specific solutions tailored to their needs and priorities.

Preserving Traditional Knowledge: Indigenous peoples often possess valuable insights and adaptive strategies developed over generations in response to local environmental conditions. Supporting efforts to document, preserve, and transmit traditional ecological knowledge can enhance adaptive capacity at the community level.

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Journal reference

Ba, Q. X., Wang, H. Z., & Wang, M. H. (2023). Agrobiodiversity, Social Institutions, and Indigenous Farming Practices: A Case Study of the Rukai in Wutai, Taiwan. Human Ecology51(6), 1127-1140. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-023-00463-4

Hong-Zen Wang is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology and serves as the Director of the Austronesian Studies Center and the Dean of Si Wan College at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. His recent work focuses on indigenous agricultural and social development, as well as queer entrepreneurship.

Qing-Xiong Ba is an indigenous Rukai scholar who works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and serves as the Deputy Director of the Austronesian Studies Center. He specialises in traditional agricultural and ecological knowledge.

Mei-Hsiang Wang is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology. She is a board member of the Cultural Studies Association and the Laiho Cultural & Educational Foundation. Her areas of specialization include the Cultural Cold War of Southeast Asia, Sociology of Culture, Sociology of Art, and Taiwan Indigenous Studies.