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Taiwan's Fractured Farmlands


Taiwan's Fractured Farmlands

Source:Ming-Tang Huang

High oil prices and food shortages are suddenly making globalization seem less than invincible. As local economies regain the initiative, can Taiwan's land and farm policies keep pace with the modern era?



Taiwan's Fractured Farmlands

By Sheree Chuang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 399 )

"Stealing money!"  "Stealing Grain!"  "Stealing Land!"

These were originally lines in an advertisement for an online computer game popular in Taiwan. Little did anyone know they would be played out in the real world.

Famine and food shortages have hit the world this year in almost unprecedented fashion. Egyptians have been trampled to death in riots over bread, hungry Haitians attacked their presidential palace, Indonesians rioted to protest high grain prices, and Indians have taken to the street to express their dissatisfaction. With Vietnam and Thailand halting rice exports, the Philippines has lost its major sources of imported rice and faces a grain shortage crisis.

In Taiwan, the government has confidently declared that Taiwan is 90 percent self-sufficient in rice with three months supply in reserve and the ability to immediately plant tens of thousands of hectares of fallow land as needed. But according to Council of Agriculture statistics, Taiwan's food self-sufficiency ratio on a caloric basis is only 32 percent (Table 1), lower than Japan's 40 percent, South Korea's 42 percent, China's 95 percent, the United States' 122 percent and France's 329 percent.

Taiwan's self-sufficiency ratio for cereals, which was 54 percent 10 years ago, has fallen to 44 percent today, and self-sufficiency in wheat and corn are well below 10 percent. The decline can be attributed to Taiwan's efforts to import more American grains in the recent past to balance the country's trade surplus with the U.S. Within the past 10 years, Taiwan has abandoned the cultivation of bulk cereals such as wheat and soybeans, while cutting corn production 70 percent, leaving it totally reliant on American imports. As a result, when international prices of cereals rise, Taiwan's flour, cooking oils and fats, bean processing, and animal husbandry sectors suffer the biggest blows.

Crops and Housing Battle for Land

A country's agricultural sector is much like water 'it can support a boat but can also capsize it. As parts of the world suffer from famine, it is easy to be seized with concern over the impact Taiwan's land usage policies of the past will have on its sustainable development in the future.

Taiwan has 260,000 hectares of land planted with rice, and nearly the same amount of land, some 220,000 hectares, that lies fallow. Of this, nearly 80,000 hectares is retired farmland (Table 2).

In the last 10 years, 46,000 hectares of farmland '1,700 times the area of downtown Taipei's Daan Park 'has disappeared from Taiwan. Of that, about 15 times the area of the upscale Taipei Xinyi District was used to build residential housing and farmhouses.

This battle for land between rice and housing, at a time when food shortages are terrorizing the world, is a raging dark tide the government needs to confront.

"Using land zoned for farming to build housing instead of rice, what's that all about?" says Hsu Hua-sheng, who grew up farming the land in his native Meinong in Kaohsiung County and is now the president of the Laonong River Organic Produce Marketing Cooperative.

More than three years ago, Hsu retired from the Kaohsiung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station to return to Meinong. He found that the newly completed National Freeway No. 10, which connects the Zuoying District in northwest Kaohsiung City to Cishan, just outside of Meinong, had brought with it a number of investors from the city with no interest in farming who have blanketed the pristine Hakka village's landscape with upscale farmhouses.

"The environment to develop organic farming has been destroyed!" Hsu could not stop himself from lamenting.

The Agricultural 'Pimple' Effect

This agricultural "pimple" effect that is changing the face of Taiwan's countryside is also evident in the northeastern county of Yilan. Sam Tzou, the chief secretary of the Meihua Lake Agriculture Recreation Area, who has lived most of his life in Yilan's Dongshan Township, chronicled the changes that have overtaken the area.

Tzou still remembers as a child helping his father in the 0.3 hectare rice paddy next to the family home at the busiest times of the growing season. The Dongshan, Sansing and Yuanshan townships of 20 to 30 years ago, he says, would every July be picturesque scenes of golden blades of rice swaying with the wind.

Tzou, who now runs a photo studio in Dongshan, says that since the government announced 15 years ago that it was planning to build a highway between Taipei and Yilan, developers have been his biggest source of customers. In anticipation of shorter travel times between Taiwan's capital and this county on the northeast coast, developers searched for agricultural land suitable for high-end farmhouses in Dongshan, Sansing, and Yuanshan townships. When their projects were completed, they would take flattering pictures of the properties and bring the film to Tzou's shop to be developed.

"Well before delegations of wealthy Chinese developers came to Taiwan to speculate in local real estate, groups of wealthy investors from Taipei came to Yilan to look at farmhouses," Tzou recalls. The frequency of these visits surged just before the opening of the Syueshan Tunnel 'part of the new freeway that helped reduce travel times to Yilan from over two hours to 40 minutes. Developers would make an informal deal with landowners, where they would build a 100-square-meter "farmhouse" on a 1,000-square-meter piece of land in the landlord's name. Once a buyer was found, the developer would then transfer ownership of the house and land to the new owner.

It only cost developers NT$6-7 million to buy land zoned for farming and build an opulent "farmhouse" that could easily be resold to Taipei investors for more than NT$10 million. Both sides benefited. The developers cleared NT$4-5 million and Taipei City residents were able to realize their dream of having a home in the countryside, paying much less than they would have for the same house in the city.

The city slickers' dreams, however, have become nightmares for small-town farmers.

Yilan's Rural Scenery Disappearing

The villa adjacent to the cultivated land belonging to Tzou's family home often drains sewage containing detergents into irrigation ditches. Tzou's father, who irrigates his crops with that water, discovered that rice planted within 10 meters of the irrigation channel's spout grew poorly and couldn't be harvested.

"All we can do is look at these lost rice plants as filters to clean the water," Tzou says with a farmer's resignation, a bitter smile lining his face.

Chen Chin-chih, the head of The Society of Wilderness' Yilan branch, says that in Yilan's Sansing area, 60 to 70 new farmhouses are built annually, with the number constructed in 2007 soaring to 100. The tiny shrimp and clams once abundant in the area's irrigation ditches have disappeared, Chen laments, victims of the waste water produced by the new homes.

"The bucolic scenes that Yilan's people are so proud of are disappearing. It's as if Taipei had its Taipei 101 building knocked down," Chen says.

Not only has this building spree polluted Yilan's once pristine water and soil, it has also further fragmented the county's arable land, hindering farmers from growing crops on larger plots that would justify more efficient and less costly mechanized production.

Flawed Policies Fragment Taiwan's Farmland

According to Council of Agriculture figures, the number of households with cultivated land grew by 70,000 between 2000 and 2005, while the total cultivated land area fell by nearly 18,000 hectares (Table 3). That left nearly 80 percent of farming households working less than 1 hectare of land (Table 4), and resulted in a decline of 6.3 percent in the council's general index of agricultural production over the 2000-2005 period, from 101.24 to 94.91.

With the fragmentation of Taiwan's farmland, farming households grow crops at scales of production that are seemingly too small to lower production costs or earn enough income to sustain a family. Over time, the trend has discouraged the youth in rural communities from getting involved in farming, accelerating the aging of Taiwan's rural population. "Ultimately, no one will be left farming in Taiwan. This is the vicious cycle of Taiwan's agricultural development," says National Taiwan University agricultural economics professor Lin Kuo-Ching.

The increasing fragmentation of Taiwan's land began with the introduction of a flawed policy in 2000 that was one of a number of amendments to the Agricultural Development Act.

The faulty land policy essentially lifted the restriction limiting agricultural land ownership to farmers, allowing land zoned for farming to be freely transacted and sold to those who would not cultivate the land themselves, as had been previously required. Also, where previously a family's plot of land could not be sub-divided into plots smaller than 5 hectares, the new amendment permitted divisions of land into plots as small as 0.25 hectares on which developers could build farm cottages. 

The bill originally proposed to the Legislature did not allow the building of individual homes on newly sold farmland. In late 1999, when lawmakers insisted that the clause be changed, then Council of Agriculture chief Peng Tso-kuei resigned.

Opening a Pandora's Box

"Deregulating the sale of agricultural land and the building of farmhouses was like opening Pandora's Box. Every evil has been let out," Peng, who is now the president of Chung Chou Institute of Technology, asserts. Over the past eight years, farmland has been recklessly used for illegal factories, residences or other non-agricultural purposes.

"Once the retired civil servants or wealthy individuals living in these opulent farmhouses obtained the status of 'farmers,' they not only didn't farm the land but benefited from the cheaper farmers' insurance program, and some even received subsidies for not cultivating their land. Also, because they own farmland, they don't have to pay land value taxes. Is there any fairness or justice in this?" Peng asks angrily.

Everybody Left a Loser

The policy reflected in the 2000 amendment to the Agricultural Development Act left everybody in the country a loser.

The first to be victimized by the policy's impact were the farmers themselves. The Society of Wilderness' Chen says the decision to allow agricultural land to be freely transacted smashed the dreams of many farmers.

Many older farmers sold their land and bought apartments in the city, leaving behind the links they and their children had to the land, nature, and their native home. If the old farmers want to buy back the land, they will have to pay many times the amount they sold it for, but most of them will never be able to buy back.

The second group of victims was the white collar workers from the city who bought the land and rural farmhouses. Their idyllic view of the countryside was quickly met with a healthy dose of reality. After buying the land and moving into their dream homes, the new landowners soon discovered they were surrounded by many dilapidated houses and worried that they had gone overboard, wondering if their lavishness might cause envy and spark a backlash. They also had to put up with small insect bites and the unappealing smell of the pesticides being sprayed on neighboring farms. With these discomforts and a rural lifestyle that wasn't nearly as convenient as that in the city, many of these new rural landowners ended up thoroughly disappointed and sold their houses. As a result, although the prices of rural land continue to be bid higher, much of it will never be cultivated again.

The third group of victims is Taiwan's people.

"Why should we be concerned about agriculture, farming land, and the overbuilding of rural residences? Because destroying the environment is a shared karma. People shouldn't just think that keeping their own houses clean is enough. Why is food so expensive? It's because farm land is disappearing," Chen says.

When agricultural land is fragmented and polluted, the crops grown are not safe. Without a safe food supply, the ultimate victims are consumers living in cities.

Is the world famine something for which we all share guilt? Or is it a turning point? The answer depends on whether people will find in their souls a sense of eternal belonging on the land.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Chinese Version: 破碎的農地 消失的糧食