It’s Not Just About Agriculture

By Lai Weijie, Chairman, Green Citizens' Action Alliance

Nothing in the extensive reading I’ve done on Taiwan’s agricultural situation compares with the shock I received on a recent visit to a friend’s home in the country. It took place several years ago when, on a business trip to the south, we took the opportunity to visit his home in Changhwa County’s Jhu Tang Township. The younger members of my friend’s family had all left, leaving no one to plant the fields. Left behind were his sickly, bed-ridden grandmother, and their one source of income, an uncle who worked as a truck driver for an illegal gravel-mining business operating in the beds of the Jhuo Shuei River. Another older uncle who worked in Taipei had returned home to recuperate after an injury, which added another mouth to feed, but at least solved the problem of manpower in providing care to their grandmother. This chance arrangement of an injured worker and an illegal gravel miner allowed the family to remain stable by “putting everyone to good use.” I can’t shake these tragic images of hopelessness in real rural Taiwan and am constantly thinking about where this might be leading and whether change can be brought about.

At the time, deliberation of the Agricultural Development Act was underway in the legislature, though the issues attracting the most attention were rural housing development and liberalized restrictions on land sales. We had a host of questions: “What would be the basis of the three-tiered zoning system, and where would it apply?” “How much rural land should be reserved for the production of staple foods?” “To what extent is farmland responsible for preserving water resource ecology?” “What kinds of drastic change will occur in the natural and man-made vistas that are part of the rural farming ecology?” “How should we define the scope of conservation land, and how much conservation land is necessary to give “conservation” real meaning?” “If farmers are to be burdened with full responsibility for environmental preservation in important agricultural and conservation areas, does the government have a fair and equitable system for providing subsidies and compensation funds through an “ecological bank?”

The Council of Agriculture explains its position this way: “As it faces the prospect of WTO accession, Taiwanese agriculture must use the knowledge and technical means at its disposal to accelerate the shift from a quantitative economy to a knowledge-based economy. Technological and cultural knowledge can be added to agricultural products, which can in turn be commoditized and marketed, to raise agriculture’s added value and enhance its competitiveness.” These fine-sounding words, however, went hand-in-hand with the policy-making body’s later retreat to a policy of “agricultural land for agricultural use” ideally tailored for the needs of agribusiness. But in this wave of free competition, the small- and medium-size farmers that are the backbone of Taiwan’s agriculture would ultimately be eliminated as the strong get stronger and the weak weaker, while less easily quantifiable factors, such as the social functions served by rural networks of mutual assistance, would be the first elements to disintegrate as “competitiveness” becomes the sole new criterion.

Taiwan’s environmental problems result precisely from a series of quantifications of this kind in its farming and fishing industries and land utilization. When farming and fishing are measured only in “output,” there is little pressure to please the voting constituencies of remote, thinly populated farming areas with their “low productivity”: “as long as compensation funds are higher than their original output, they’ll be satisfied!” Thus farmland and coastlines often suffer the ravages of facilities that are either unnecessary or located there because of the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome; meanwhile capital market tools and mindsets come into play, resulting in land securitizations or farmland left idle as water-intensive high-tech industry siphons off irrigation resources.

The economic collapse of the farming and fishing industries in fact often grows out of misguided environmental or natural resource policies. When we start from the idea that money can solve any problem, then the belief in money as the measure of all things, even when backed by all the good will in the world, will still result in nothing more than the accelerated decline of the farming and fishing industries, their networks of interdependency, and their unique culture.

In their daily routines, as they make the rounds of their fields and maintain free-flowing sources of irrigation water, farmers often serve as the best stewards of the environment. But large tracts of farmland are expropriated for construction of public facilities under official “farmland release policies,” and an insidious distortion of rural community values takes place as inappropriate policies for non-agricultural use result in random dumping of toxic wastes, industrial water pollution, and construction of incinerators and dumps, while compensation payments, rather than free sales of farmland, become the new route to “cash conversion” in rural communities. After disposal of their land assets, farm families investing in unsound financial schemes often find they have lost not only their property but also the money realized from its sale. This is but one face of Taiwan’s current agricultural problems. Until we have active engagement with and serious dialogue in rural communities, agricultural problems and their solutions will continue to be simplified into the “annuities, liberalized land sales, and subsidies” proposed by the old agricultural block of lawmakers.

Two years ago, 100,000 members of the farming and fishing industries demonstrated on the streets of Taipei; some were concerned with the survival of farmers and fishers associations; some, the impact of accession to the WTO; others were perhaps venting long-held grievances over the sacrifice of the agricultural service sector. Whatever their concerns, as the rough, sun-darkened faces of these simple and honest folk appeared among the traffic streams in this glittering cosmopolitan setting, the people of Taipei woke up, ashen-faced, to their own humanity, being reminded of their own simple sense of bashfulness and gratitude, lost long ago, and recalling poignant images of sweat, soil, and struggles with the sea. Political figures vied with each other to express their solidarity with the demonstrators, while the public opinion media bemoaned the general state of affairs.

But two years have passed, and while the scenes of mass demonstration and the feelings aroused have helped establish a protective shield for the credit departments of the farmers’ and fishermen’s associations, the overall problems of agriculture have not been solved. This is not the first time; similar demonstrations in the past have also been ignored, ridiculed, or smeared in the same way.

The Tao people of Orchid Island are fishermen; the people of the Jinshan, Wanli, and Gongliao Townships are fishermen; the people of Linnei in Yunlin are farmers, as are those in Sinjhu’s Jhubei; Linkou Township is home to both farmers and fishermen; Tainnan’s Dongshan Township is a farming community, as is Shihmen Township; the people of Bali and Tanshuei’s Tanhai are fishermen; and the people of Yilan’s Jianlanduan are farmers. After the government and corporate groups have made their policies, backed up by error-filled environmental impact reports from the biggest experts, these are the people who have to watch, under the restraint of riot police, as their homes, fields, orange groves, and fishing grounds are turned into nuclear waste dumps, nuclear power plants, incinerators, incinerator waste dumping grounds, golf courses, water treatment plants, and marine disposal grounds. The people of Jianlanduan see their fertile rice fields being turned into landfills. How many in government or society can really understand how these farmers and fishermen feel as they are uprooted?

Yang Rumen’s appearance was no coincidence.

The setting of “rice bombs” by Yang Rumen and his later apprehension once again brought agricultural problems to the forefront of attention. Social organizations lent active support to his cause, discussed the problems of agriculture, and worked side-by-side with those from rural communities. But is it possible to get past our temporary sympathy and humanitarianism, and move away from the “annuities, liberalized land sales, and subsidies” that are the mainstream of thinking on agricultural problems, and in a more progressive direction, one worthy of the long-term support of concerned environmentalists in Taiwan?

Whether or not everyone was able to support Yang Rumen, the “rice bomber” affair brought out a unified chorus of voices saying, “We too think something should be done about the farmers’ plight.” This should not be seen as just a cheap, easy slogan to mouth. As another phrase, about the “three essentials of a happy life,” “production, living, ecology,” each of which includes the character for “life” echoes throughout our society, another essential remains to be reckoned with—survival. Survival is the concern not just of individual farmers or of agriculture as a whole; it means the survival of entire rural communities torn apart by invasive, wrongheaded policies. Thus, the various organizations espousing social causes will be tested: not merely as to whether or not they support Yang Rumen, but as to whether their long-term concern for social issues has become too one-sided. Are the positions they advocate capable of bridging the gap between the city and the countryside, and will the long-term problems of farming and fishing communities require social welfare measures more specifically tailored to those localities? Perhaps without knowing it, Yang Rumen has given those self-proclaimed progressive groups both some homework to do and an opportunity: now they must together face the difficulties that will grow out of the transformation of the agricultural sector, or the danger of its collapse.

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