Chen Chi-chung, Vice Chairman of COA:
Public Should Monitor Agricultural Land Use
Tens of thousands of factories have been built illegally on farmland in Taiwan. While manufacturers hope to see these operations made legal, others fear that such moves would encourage the illegal occupation and destruction of farmland, jeopardizing the nation’s food safety.
Public Should Monitor Agricultural Land UseBy Kuo-chen Lu, Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 611 )
Should unregistered factories that have been built in violation of land use regulations be made legal? Council of Agriculture (COA) Vice Chairman Chen Chi-chung is not opposed to this idea as long as two conditions are met: First, the government establishes a line of defense and enforces regulations. Second, enterprises pay for the price differential between agricultural and industrial land to fund the protection of other farmland. He plans to publish a report on island-wide agricultural land use as basis for joint monitoring by the government and the public. Following are excerpts from Chen’s exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine:
Before we discuss whether the COA should approve the legalization of factories that illegally occupy agricultural land, we must first ask ourselves how much farmland Taiwan will need in the coming fifty if not hundred years.
Unless we first confirm a few things, we can't know the answer to this question. According to previously conducted research, the answer could be 800,000 or 700,000 or even 600,000 hectares. It is the COA’s job to first make sure it has a good grasp on future population numbers before it considers how much farmland must be preserved in surrounding areas.
Then there is the question of, if we need 700,000 hectares of arable land, do we even still have that much? I am not talking about farmland in name only, but agricultural land that actually can be farmed. If we don’t have [700,000 hectares] then we simply cannot agree to any land use change for any farmland. The prerequisite for that is that we need to first complete an inventory [of farmland].
800,000 Hectares of Farmland?
In fact, I think we probably do not have that much farmland. Although Taiwan claims it has 800,000 hectares of arable land, we have no idea what grows on this land, since temples, factories and farmhouses have cropped up on many fields, and it is farmland in name only. That’s why we need to take inventory, cross-compare it with aerial maps and cadastral maps, and combine this with on-site surveys by the Agriculture and Food Agency so that all information, including what’s on the fields, is brought out into the open.
If we don’t get this done by the end of next year, I will leave my position. If we don’t proceed in this way, we won’t be able to solve the farmland problem once and for all. Should our inventory find that only somewhat more than 500,000 hectares of land for green plants remain, then our attitude will be very simple: Aside from letting the entire population know this fact, we will not agree to any land use changes for agricultural land from then on.
While this might pertain to the problem of “economy vs. environment,” or “economy vs. sustainability,” how could we have let our farmland gradually disappear for short-term economic [gains]? Under such a framework, we must protect the agricultural use of farmland. The reason why we need to protect it is because there are innumerable positive external effects, ranging from the environment and ecology to food safety.
Blanket Legalization Unacceptable
Let’s take the current situation: If the Ministry of Economic Affairs wants to open up 186 special [agricultural] zones to the unregistered factories inside of them, we need to first understand how the farmland there is being used.
If the land is already ruined, it won’t be feasible for the COA to demand that it revert to agricultural use. But from the stance of the COA, neither can we say we agree to the change, since that would be tantamount to telling every manufacturer across Taiwan to “go ahead and use farmland, even if you use it illegally, because the government will help you find a back door.”
As far as the agricultural sector is concerned, frankly speaking, this would be unacceptable; once we did this, how could we still protect farmland? Therefore, we definitely need some accompanying measures.
First, the government, including the COA and other cabinet agencies, cannot let this phenomenon continue, so the local governments at the front line, in particular, must immediately crack down [on such acts.]
Second is so-called monetary compensation. Based on economic theory, when farmland is turned into D-class construction land, manufacturers must bear the cost difference [between farmland and construction land]. A reserve fund will be set up [with the proceeds] and appropriated to cover costs for the protection of other farmland.
Without these accompanying measures, this would amount to rashly opening up blanket legalization, which would make it even more difficult to safeguard other farmland.
Regarding the Dingfanpo area in Lugang, Changhua County, President Tsai Ing-wen has already given instructions that we must establish a “line of defense” since we cannot let illegal factories spread even further. At the same time, monetary compensation must reflect the opportunity cost of land use, or else all farmland will become construction land, and that would be too high a price to pay for the people of Taiwan. We will only agree that factories can apply for a change of land use to obtain temporary registration and produce legally on the land if these two principles are met.
Public Monitoring to Preserve Farmland
But they must also comply with other additional conditions, such as effluent standards, and we must ensure that they comply with factory management requirements to make Dingfanpo a national model case. Only if the model zone is able to deliver such results can we possibly deal with other illegal factories that have encroached upon farmland, and directly establish land use zoning principles, or else we will never be able to cope with this.
Therefore, we need to set prerequisites; without such prerequisites we will not approve the legalization of factories on farmland. The main prerequisite is that an accurate inventory of current farmland use must be made public.
If [during the inventory] we come across illegal use, the central government is the supervising organ, while the local government must enforce the law. If the local government is not able to enforce the law, the central government must supervise and direct [enforcement]. However, I am convinced that, no matter how we supervise and direct [the process], this will still not be as good as the power of information disclosure and joint monitoring by the people, since the central and local governments will then feel the pressure from people who believe that farmland must be protected.
For a solution, we still need to return to the National Land Planning Act, which will be implemented next year, and divide the entire country into four major [types of functional] zones, with [agricultural development zones for] agricultural production being one of them. We demand that the county and city governments demarcate enough agricultural production surface area to meet our needs for the coming fifty to one hundred years. Subsequently, consolidated, leveled land will be preserved.
If we take land in the category 1 and 2 agricultural zones, meaning regular agricultural land and special agricultural land, then we have about 400,000 to 500,000 hectares island-wide…this is good farmland that we want to preserve. About 700,000 hectares of land is located in category 3 agricultural zones on the periphery of urban areas; this is land that we do not want that much.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz