Taitung County (Taiwan) (AFP)
Before heading to the mountains of Taiwan with his homemade rifle, native hunter Tama Talum often sings prayers and makes offerings of rice wine and betel nuts to the spirits.
Talum, 62, was one of hundreds of members of his Bunun tribe to take part in Mala Hodaigian last week, an annual festival that honors both hunters and wild game.
But a shadow hung over this year’s festivities due to a landmark court ruling scheduled for Friday.
At stake is both Talum’s freedom and whether the current hunting limitations imposed on native communities in Taiwan are discriminatory and unconstitutional.
“For indigenous peoples, hunting is a matter of survival and it is our culture,” he told AFP from his bucolic home in Taitung County, in southern Taiwan, where the driver of retired tow truck now grows vegetables and takes care of her 99-year-old mother.
Talum’s legal turmoil began eight years ago when he went to look for food for his mother, who he said was used to eating wild game.
He was arrested for killing a Reeves muntjac and a Formosa serow with a modified rifle, and charged with possession of an illegal weapon and hunting of protected species.
He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
The accusation angered indigenous communities in Taiwan, who began to push back on modern legal restrictions that have shaken their traditions.
As Dahu, a 42-year-old hunter and friend of Talum said: “The court should recognize that hunting is our culture and it is not a crime. “
– Strict limits –
Under current legislation, indigenous hunters are only allowed to use homemade weapons – which they say are dangerous and have caused injury – and hunt on festival days with prior approval.
Talum’s indictment ended up in the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction and prison term.
But the judges also took the unusual decision to ask the Constitutional Court to step in and assess whether the current regulations violate the rights of indigenous communities.
A decision by the same court in 2017 paved the way for Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.
Activists are hopeful that a decision in their favor could begin to correct some of the legal and social restrictions placed on indigenous communities.
The campaign has alarmed some animal rights activists and environmental activists.
But indigenous groups say a balance can be found.
“We hunt game to eat, not to sell it for money,” said Talum, who started hunting with his 11-year-old father.
“It’s not like we go hunting every day or try to eliminate animals. “
– Cultures austronésiennes –
Taiwan’s 16 recognized indigenous tribes led relatively uninterrupted lives for thousands of years before immigrants began arriving from mainland China in the 17th century.
They are an Austronesian people – their languages, cultures, and traditions are much more closely tied to the people of Southeast Asia and the Pacific than to China.
Much like the indigenous peoples of Australia and America, the original inhabitants of Taiwan were wiped out by waves of immigration and faced a long history of discrimination both under Japanese colonial rule and later under colonial rule. dictatorship of the Kuomintang.
They make up just 2.5% of Taiwan’s 23 million people and remain marginalized, facing lower wages, higher unemployment rates and poorer health indicators.
Taiwan has emerged as one of the most progressive democracies in Asia in recent decades, and there is growing recognition that the wrongs of the past must be righted.
In 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen – Taiwan’s first ruler with an indigenous heritage – issued a historic apology for the way the island’s governments had treated indigenous communities.
– ‘Respect mutuel’ –
The campaign for traditional hunting rights is seen as a legal test for indigenous culture.
Hunting skills are passed down from generation to generation. But Talum says his lawsuits have already deterred some young people.
“When we go to the mountains, we are in a good mood but we are anxious when we go down,” he said.
Husung, a 28-year-old professional soldier and member of the Bunun tribe, said he was torn between wanting to follow customs and fear of being apprehended for hunting.
And he fears the hunt will disappear like so many other indigenous customs have.
“How can we pass the tradition on to subsequent generations if we are afraid to go hunting? “
Piya, a 27-year-old dance teacher from the Paiwan tribe, said a legal victory for the hunt would only be the beginning because their communities “still suffer from various injustices”, including the loss of ancestral land rights. .
Much of what was once tribal territory is now designated as a national park in Taiwan, regularly leading to disputes over hunting, fishing and foraging in areas where permits are needed.
“We are the original masters of Taiwan and we want mutual respect,” Piya said.
© 2021 AFP