Balancing Production and the Environment: The Underforest Economy Takes Off

(photo by Jimmy Lin)

(photo by Jimmy Lin)

The plant life of forests is rich and varied. Raising bees on the forest floor can provide an abundant supply of honey, while the bees can also increase the rate at which trees set seed. Raising chickens and growing mushrooms on logs can bring in additional income that helps foresters plant more trees. And when farmers don’t interfere with the forest, and uphold the practice of applying neither pesticides nor chemical fertilizers, they can develop ecotourism in the beautiful, fecund woodlands.

This month we visit the communities of Penglai in Miaoli and Sakur in ­Hualien, to meet people who are making efforts to develop the “underforest economy.” They are sketching the contours of the kind of economy envisioned in the Satoyama Initi­ative, where daily life and economic activity coexist in harmony with the environment.


Driving along the winding mountain road, we arrive at Penglai Village in Miaoli County’s Nanzhuang Township, surrounded by the Jiali Mountain Range and Mt. Luchang. The air is damp and the landscape is wreathed in fog, with a temperature several degrees cooler than in the lowlands. We feel as if we are deep in the mountains, even though this place is only 500 meters above sea level.

For the past two years Ken Chih-you, a Saisiyat elder from Penglai, has been guiding fellow Saisiyat in develop­ing the underforest economy. After starting out with just nine beehives, their operation has grown to 350 hives in 12 apiaries, from which they have thus far collected and sold some 780 kilograms of honey. They also raise chickens and grow mushrooms on wooden logs, and they are sharing their experience with indigenous com­mun­ities around Taiwan.

Protecting the forests

Ken, who is director of the Alliance of Indigen­ous Peoples, once made a TV travel series focusing on indigen­ous communities for the Eastern Broadcasting Company, for which he visited Aboriginal villages throughout Taiwan. He discovered that his own home village was extremely short of resources and very poor. Nonetheless, he says proudly, “We haven’t sold a single plot of land to Han Chinese, and we have preserved the mountain forest intact.”

“However, in the past the policy of the Forestry Bur­eau was that we couldn’t touch a single tree or blade of grass in forest areas.” Ken cannot help but raise his voice as he says; “When I was small, the people of my com­munity all called the Forestry Bureau ‘the Demon.’ This was because the Aboriginal reserve land of our village was right next to an area of forest land, but it was against the law for anyone to cut any wood, so we had a lot of conflicts with the Forestry Bureau.”

But in 2018, the Forestry Bureau and the Saisiyat reconciled their differences and signed a partnership agreement. In 2019, based on the concept of joint management of mountain forests, the bureau commissioned the Saisiyat people to organize forest ranger patrols, which operate around the Danan Forest Road, the Penglai Forest Road, and Mt. Jiali.

When Forestry Bureau director-general Lin Hwa-ching proposed an underforest economy program, people quickly remembered that beekeeping used to be a part of Saisiyat life. Ken Chih-you says: “The most attractive thing to me about develop­ing underforest activities is that they don’t damage the environment. The second thing is that we can use ecological resources to increase indigenous communities’ incomes.”

In 2018 Ken recruited nine fellow villagers, who first went for classes at the Mingde Apiary, after which the Forestry Bureau’s Hsinchu Forest District Office made available an area of thinned forest where they could place beehives. Each person started with one hive, but by now they have expanded to 12 apiaries located in areas where there are Saisiyat communities, including Hsinchu County’s Wufeng Township and Miaoli’s Shitan Township. In 2019, these beekeeping activities brought in income of NT$1 million.

Located in remote mountain areas, indigenous communities lack job opportunities. The underforest economy offers opportunities to revitalize mountain villages. Away Dayen Sawan, head of Penglai Village, declares, “The under­forest economy production and marketing cooperative that we set up now has more than 50 members. New people are joining every month, and we have even been able to attract young people back to the community to help out.”

A way forward for reforestation

In fact, the Forestry Bureau set up an underforest economy promotion team as early as 2016. Developing the under­forest economy is not only in step with the inter­national trends of coexistence with forest ecologies and raising the value of forest-based economic activities, it also offers a way forward for the National Reforest­ation Program, launched 20 years ago.

In 1996, Typhoon Herb swept through Taiwan, causing enormous damage. Landslides and debris flows ravaged large areas of forest. In hopes of restoring the land, the Forestry Bureau launched a raft of incentives and sub­sidies for tree planting under the National Reforest­ation Program. Twenty years on, small seedlings have grown into large trees, but the decline of the timber industry and low incomes for foresters have affected the care and manage­ment of planted forest.

Within the Hualien Forest District, some 2000 hectares have been planted with trees such as Formosan sweetgum (Liquidambar formosana) that nowadays have a low value as timber. In April of 2017 the Forestry Bureau’s Hualien Forest District Office (HFDO) began to use Nanhua Forest Park in Hualien’s Ji’an Township as an education center to promote the underforest economy. They studied how to cultivate mushrooms on logs cut from trees with high carbohydrate content and high lignin—such as Formosan sweetgum, ring-cupped oak (Quercus glauca), and Formosan acacia (Acacia confusa)—as well as underforest beekeeping.

The forest honey produced at Penglai in Miaoli’s Nanzhuang Township has different natural flavors depending upon the season and the location of the hives. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

The forest honey produced at Penglai in Miaoli’s Nanzhuang Township has different natural flavors depending upon the season and the location of the hives. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Bees: An environmental touchstone

Section chief Chiu Huang-sheng and specialist Lü Kunwang of the HFDO both sought out teachers to educate themselves about mushroom growing and bee­keeping, learning by doing before going on to guide foresters. However, the process was not all plain sailing. When inoculating logs with mushroom spawn, initially they faced the problem that the inoculation failed and penicillium mold grew on the logs rather than mushrooms. But in the second year their success rate reached 100%. They also encountered problems with beekeeping. One day they found the ground around the hives littered with dead honeybees after the bees were attacked by Asian giant hornets.

To prevent the incursions of these “terror­ists,” at first they put up protective netting around their beehives. But the hornets would just climb all over the netting and stare in ferociously at the little honeybees, so that the bees didn’t dare venture out to collect nectar. They were unable to find effective solutions either on the Internet or in books, and when they asked professional bee­keepers, they learned that the bee­keepers all used pesti­cides to eradicate the hornets.

However, a core value of the underforest economy is to be environmentally friendly, so they rejected the use of pesticides. In the end, they hit upon a ­solution by chance. After some beehives were moved into a shed with several windows, Lü Kunwang noticed that the bees could choose any window to fly out to collect nectar, while the hornets grew tired of circling around and just left. Inspired by this observation, Lü had workers surround the apiary with protective netting with a mesh size of eight millimeters, large enough for the bees to go out but too small for the hornets to get in. This inven­tion dispelled the threat posed by the hornets.

Nevertheless, however vicious a killer the Asian giant hornet may be, it is not nearly as serious a threat to honeybees as are pesticides. Lü notes that when the bees are in flight on their way to collect nectar, if they encounter pesti­cide spraying at betel nut plantations or vegetable farms, they might be able to just make it back to their hives, but there will be piles of corpses inside and outside the hive. This is why people say that beekeeping is the best indicator for measuring the health of the forest ecology.

Restoring community vitality

A common problem for economic development in remote mountain forests is that the labor force in mountain villages is limited in size and is aging. For example, to develop the underforest economy the Forestry Bureau encouraged foresters to take up mushroom farming. But to grow mushrooms on logs, typically about 150 logs totaling four metric tons are drilled and inoculated with mushroom spawn, after which they have to be piled up, turned over, stood upright, and knocked over, all on slopeland. Some elderly foresters had no interest in cultiv­at­ing mushrooms because they could no longer handle the physical labor required. However, in the process of learning how to grow mushrooms, Forestry Bureau staff were able to mediate the direct sale of logs to mushroom farmers in other areas through the Shui­lian Cooperative at a cost of NT$5500 per ton, including transportation (in the past the foresters sold the logs to middlemen at NT$900 per ton). In 2019 the co­opera­tive sold 62 tons of logs while avoiding exploita­tion by middle­men, thereby raising the incomes of foresters.

In March of 2019 the Nanhua Forest Park received a telephone call from Amis, Bunun, and Sakizaya members of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, who were calling at the suggestion of Ken Chih-you and Forestry Bureau director-general Lin Hwa-ching to ask if they could come and learn beekeeping.

Nu Watan u Kumuti, former chief of the indigenous community of Sakur (Chinese name Sagu’er) in Hualien City, provided land where the trainees could place their beehives and grow mushrooms. Group members took shifts together to take care of the bees, writing up records for their days on duty and sharing information on the bees’ condition via a Line messaging group. Over the past year they have gone from 15 hives to nearly 100, and have even attracted observers from communities in Hualien’s Wanrong and Haiduan townships.

Economic stimulus from ecotourism

Nu Watan u Kumuti, who teaches the Sakizaya language and is director of the Hualien County Indi­gen­ous Peoples Eco-Friendly Industry Promotion Association, says earnestly: “We started beekeeping in hopes of develop­ing an industry in indigenous communities, perhaps even with every household keeping a hive, so that young people from our communities can see that something is being done. This will bring their hearts and minds back home, so that they return to the mountain villages and we can hand the baton to them.”

One of the alliance members, Lin Jinfu, former dir­ector of the Economic Development Department at the Council of Indigenous Peoples, echoes Sakur community chief Xu Cong when he says: “Developing the under­forest economy is an eco-friendly policy. We can turn apiaries into classrooms where students from neighboring schools can come to learn about nature. In combination with the nearby Sakur Waterfall and Sakur Trail, and the wild vegetable market, they can also be part of the founda­tion for developing ecotourism.”

Ecotourism, which generates economic benefit from nature conservation, is part of the development blueprint that Ken Chih-you has for Penglai: “We want to restore the culture of traditional Saisiyat dwelling houses, and with beekeeping underpinning the eco­system, the Saisayat communities around Mt. Jiali are the ideal location for developing ecotourism.”

“It’s very touching to see indigenous communities like Sakur that want to pursue environmental education and ecotourism.” HFDO director Yang Jui-fen notes that beekeeping is the best evidence that a village is eco-friendly. Moreover, by linking the com­mun­ity with forestry production, diverse industries can flourish. Developing the underforest economy is a bottom-­­up approach to revitalizing the economy in mountain villages while also protecting the environment, so that productive economic activity and the ecology can co­exist. This is the core spirit of the Satoyama Initiative.