The agricultural landscape of the nation’s western plain is all but gone and many fields are now used for construction. Even on the east coast, agricultural land is in danger of disappearing as numerous luxurious residences and bed and breakfast hostels in Yilan, Hualien and Taitung counties are built. The farmhouse problem is a growing one and if nothing is done, agriculture is likely to disappear.
The Council of Agriculture understands the seriousness of the issue and has proposed a legal amendment to the Regulations Governing Agricultural Dwelling Houses (農業用地興建農舍辦法) to impose tighter controls. However, the proposal is encountering opposition in the legislature, both from the ruling and the opposition parties, as the issue has become bargaining chip in next year’s presidential election, just as it influenced government policy 15 years ago.
As the prospects for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) ticket looked dim during the 2000 presidential campaign, a group of legislators framing themselves as fighting for farmers’ rights demanded a legal amendment to relax regulations on selling agricultural land, using votes as a way to threaten the party. Then-council chairman Peng Tso-kuei (彭作奎), understood that such a change would have severe consequences and refused to agree. Saying that the KMT ticket would not receive votes in central and southern Taiwan, the legislators put pressure on then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who relented and Peng stepped down, leaving the door open to using agricultural land for other purposes.
Today, farmland and farmhouse speculation has reached the level of a national security threat. Once agricultural land is used for other purposes, it cannot be returned to agricultural use, because the price of the land for other uses is far higher than the price for farming.
However, agriculture is the foundation of food production, and while insufficient production and inferior quality might be replaced by imported goods, if imports ever become problematic, the nation is likely to face a major food crisis.
The vast majority of farmers make a meager living. They are affected by natural disasters, pests and market fluctuations, but they will not abandon their ancestral land. It is the foundation of their lives and it offers a chance for their children to return to their roots. Building homes on agricultural land brings no benefits for farmers; it is mainly politicians and their accomplices who stand to profit from the practice.
Yilan County Commissioner Lin Tsung-hsien (林聰賢) of the Democratic Progressive Party made the first move toward blocking the construction of residential farmhouses on agricultural land and council Minister Chen Bao-ji (陳保基) wants to amend the law. The attempt cuts across party lines and aims to protect the sustainability of Taiwanese agriculture and block vested interests. If legislators block the amendment, the agricultural industry faces a dark future.
Farmers and their supporters should organize to demand that agricultural land be used solely for agricultural purposes and ensure the government and the legislature listen to them. They should also urge whistle-blowers to come forward and expose the truth of the collusion between legislators, officials and business interests. Fifteen years ago, legislators used presidential election votes to force a policy change, and it can only be hoped that public opinion now will put government policy back on track, or Taiwanese agriculture is likely to be at risk.
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