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Stories of the Brave and the Perseverant

Huashan turns to its past to flourish after 921 earthquake

 
九二一地震之後的風災及大雨引發土石流,重創華山。經過地方人士的重苦經營,重建工作見到成績。華山的咖啡產業創造商機,讓這處曾遭土石流蹂躪的地區成為山林旅遊的特色景點。
 

By Y.L. Kao CNA staff writer
 
When a magnitude 7.3 earthquake rocked central Taiwan on Sept. 21, 1999, the village of Huashan in Yunlin County's Gukeng Township was initially spared, far enough away from the quake's epicenter to withstand the blow.

But in the hours and days that followed, Huashan was battered by a series of landslides. The earthquake had shaken loose soil and trees on nearby mountain slopes, and powerful typhoons sent them cascading down into the village and the surrounding area.

Roads crumbled and houses, buildings and bridges collapsed under the weight of the buckling mountains.

Despite the destruction, Huashan has since pulled itself out of its nightmare to become a prosperous community, fueled by a crop that had been the town's trademark decades and even centuries earlier: coffee beans.

The coffee trade has enabled Huashan to reposition itself as a tourist destination with its famous Taiwan Coffee Festival, splendid night views and mountain forest landscapes, beautiful walkways and Koji pottery art.

With the help of the Yunlin County government and NT$600 million from the Soil and Water Conservation Bureau, the township also built the country's first debris flow education garden in Huashan three years after successive disasters.


Soldiers worked hard to return disaster areas to normal. (Oct 16, 1999 CNA)

The garden, which features natural landscapes and new equipment, such as flood drainage facilities, is a model for the control and prevention of debris flow, according to Yunlin County Councilor Hsieh Su-ya, who played an important role in Huashan's rebirth as head of Gukeng Township between 1998 and 2006.

The unique showcase not only helps protect the safety of local residents but also gives provides a boost to the local economy, she said.

Many of the park's water conservation features, such as sabo dams, slit dams, and sediment control dams, were environmentally engineered and built with locally available mud and gravel to prevent flooding, Hsieh explained.

Though the garden is one of the area's landmarks and has had a positive economic effect, it's coffee that sparked Huashan's economic revival.

"The transformation of Gukeng to prosperity did not happen overnight, " Hsieh said, recalling how hard she tried to create a unique agricultural brand for the township even before the earthquake hit.

She considered oranges, bamboo shoots, and tea, but after a meeting in 1998 with Chang Lai-en, a local coffee farmer in Gukeng's Hebaoshan region and a pioneer in the coffee business, Hsieh embraced the crop's potential because it evoked memories of Gukeng as a coffee growing town.

"Suddenly the answer arrived as though a gift from the gods," she says. "I realized at that moment that coffee was the best fit for us to go from traditional farming to recreational agriculture, or agrotourism."

According to the 50-something Chang, Gukeng was already planting coffee when the Dutch occupied Taiwan in the 17th century, and because of its high quality, it was all shipped overseas.


Soldiers built lavatories for Yongchang primary school. (Oct 10, 1999 CNA)

Hebaoshan, nicknamed 'Coffee Hill,' and the surrounding area used to be covered by coffee plants, he said.

The golden age of Taiwan's coffee industry started in 1902, when the colonial Japanese government decided to develop this lucrative crop, mainly in Gukeng, which had suitable soil and a subtropical climate.

Though Hsieh had taken to the idea of coffee in 1998, little was done until the township was shaken by the earthquake and subsequent landslides.

Farmers were encouraged by the local government to plant coffee to protect the topsoil, according to coffee grower Chung Chiu, who previously grew bamboo shoots.

"So we switched to coffee growing, " Chung said. "Coffee was our best hope to pull us together after the disasters."

It wasn't until four years later, however, that the community really made a name for itself when Hsieh launched the "Taiwan Coffee Festival" at a cost of NT$3 million.

Aside from raising the visibility of the rural township and putting a spotlight on the coffee industry, the event also generated NT$200 million for the local economy. Revenue from the festival soared the next two years to about NT$400 million and NT$1 billion, respectively.

Building on the success of the festival, the Gukeng Farmers' Association inaugurated a recreational agricultural center in October 2003, designed to hold training sessions on making coffee and special exhibitions, Hsieh said.

Another draw, the Literature Walkway, a brainchild of writer Ku Meng-jen, was inaugurated in 2004 when Ku was chief of the Yunlin County Cultural Affairs Department. A year later, Ku launched the Huashan Poet Festival.

The walkway stretches a distance of more than 600 meters and matches works of famous writers set in Yunlin County with the beautiful surrounding landscape.

The combination of nature and literature, along with the lure of locally grown coffee, attracted an estimated 1 million tourists a year to the mountain village of 35,000 inhabitants for much of the decade -- and the commercial impact is clearly evident.

More than 100 coffee shops and homestays have been set up in the greater Huashan region, earning a good share of the hundreds of millions of Taiwan dollars from tourists that pour into the area annually.

"Our business is booming, with a good influx of visitors who come to Huashan just to enjoy a cup of coffee, " said Lai Song-chi, a coffee shop operator who settled down in Huashan after the 921 earthquake.

Huashan's economic prosperity, however, has not been immune to the country's economic slump, as tourist numbers have plummeted within the past year.

Hsieh says the region must find innovative ways to revitalize itself again, such as improving coffee growing and roasting techniques, integrating sightseeing resources, developing regional agricultural products and tour itineraries, and improving the quality of tourist attractions.

But is hard to believe that any of those measures will live up to the tremendous boost the humble coffee bean gave to Huashan in pulling it out of its nightmare after the earthquake in 1999.

 
 
 
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