Taiwan’s economy has sunk into recession and unemployment continues to rise. People’s lives are getting harder, and polls show that fewer people than ever are satisfied with the government’s performance.
Faced with such a high level of popular resentment, government officials have failed to thoroughly reflect on their own ability to decide and implement policies, and sometimes even go so far as to shift the blame onto others.
They accuse environmental groups and residents of areas where there are land disputes of protesting irrationally and obstructing construction projects such as the fourth-phase expansion of the Central Taiwan Science Park and Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co’s proposed refinery and petrochemical complex.
One official from the Cabinet-level National Science Council arrogantly remarked that if judges are so clever, then in future the choice of location for science parks and industrial zones may as well be submitted directly to the court for approval.
When drawing up construction projects such as these, bureaucrats would do better to ask themselves whether the government has communicated sufficiently with local residents, and whether it has given due respect and consideration to their right to work and support their families. They will surely find the answer to be in the negative.
Over the years, the government has made repeated unilateral decisions to incorporate large tracts of farmland into planned industrial and commercial zones, science parks and other development projects. They always claim that this will promote local economic prosperity by providing more job opportunities and other benefits.
When farmland is going to be used for other purposes, it has to be legally changed from one land-use category to another. When the authorities have done this, their next step is to expropriate the land, forcing farmers to sell it at a low price.
When the Taipei High Administrative Court revoked the permit for the Central Taiwan Science Park’s fourth-phase development project in Changhua County’s Erlin Township (二林), it reasoned that the existing science park still had plenty of land lying vacant. In view of this, the court found the science park’s plan to borrow NT$52 billion (US$1.8 billion) to purchase arable land and expand the park a serious waste of the nation’s land.
Such practices have eaten away big areas of fertile farmland. It is no wonder that farmers get so upset when agricultural officials tell them that they might as well hand over their land now that they are getting old.
As the government pursues a policy of developing tourism, many beautiful forests, beaches and seaside areas that were originally public assets have been privatized and turned into hotels, inns and holiday villages built by well-connected corporations. The ongoing case of the beachfront Miramar Resort Village (美麗灣渡假村) in Taitung County is a well-known example.
When people are maliciously deprived of their means of survival and environmental rights in this way, government departments rarely step in to uphold justice. On the contrary, they often intervene on behalf of developers. Consequently, popular resentment is seething and protests continue.
Another thing about the government that makes people angry is that various departments each go about their own business, and there is little coordination and integration between them. This leads to poor policy implementation and often leaves the public with nowhere to go for help.
Ligang Township (里港) in Pingtung County used to be the nation’s main breeding ground for giant freshwater prawns, but many prawn producers could not get prawn-breeding licenses for ponds located near rivers and streams.
Fisheries departments included these prawn breeders in their production and marketing guidance programs, but did not actively guide or assist them to obtain licenses or help them move somewhere else to breed prawns. Consequently, when the area was hit by natural disasters, these prawn producers could not get help because their status as legal breeders was in dispute.
The water resources departments responsible for managing rivers did not intervene promptly to stop prawn breeding in these areas, letting it go on unchecked for many years so that the problem got progressively worse and more difficult to resolve.
When typhoon rains brought serious flooding to the area, threatening the homes and lives of people living there, these government departments came in for harsh criticism. Police responsible for enforcing water-resource regulations responded to the criticism by moving in to investigate the apparent revived use of illegal prawn ponds. They did this to ensure safety in the riverside area, but failed to take any complementary measures. This led to serious clashes between police and local people.
Similar problems have arisen in an area known for producing young, tender soybeans, which are known as edamame in Japanese and maodou (毛豆) in Chinese. Taiwanese edamame have been called “green gold” and “the pride of Taiwan.”
They are very popular on the Japanese market, and Taiwan earns NT$2 billion a year from exporting them. The government is keen to publicize this achievement as a model of the success of its agricultural policies.
Recently, however, the Water Resources Agency has made public its plans to create big man-made lakes in Greater Kaohsiung and Pingtung County, and the state-run Taiwan Sugar Corp, commonly known as Taisugar, intends to take back control of farmland within the boundaries of this project.
This has provoked a strong backlash from farmers who leased farmland from Taisugar to grow edamame soybeans. While doubting the practical value of the man-made lake project for water conservation, the farmers are even more indignant about the government’s lack of concern for the livelihoods of people living and working in the edamame production area, and their resentment is growing.
A similar situation exists in Nantou County, where the county government plans to recategorize some tracts of land originally dedicated to farming for use by business corporations. Here again, the plan has been met with protests from farmers who work the land.
These examples of conflict reveal a blind spot that afflicts the government when it is planning and promoting local construction projects. If only government officials could set aside their narrow departmental interests and be willing to engage with opponents through rational and sincere communication and coordination, they could dispel the prejudices of each side and work together to find win-win solutions. Although this would take a certain amount of time and effort, it would definitely help the government to get things done.
Government departments in Taiwan would do well to refer to the way in which South Korean President Lee Myung-bak handled a major renovation project in Seoul — the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon creek — by winning over those who were initially opposed to the project and forming a consensus in favor of it among the residents of Seoul.
For the sake of the nation’s long-term development, security and social harmony, government officials should stop being so arrogant. They need to learn the art of communicating with the public, and when people complain, they should not take their protests lightly.
Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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