As a result of the US-China trade dispute, the government is seeking land to build new industrial zones in response to the wave of Taiwanese businesses returning from China. Media reports said the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Industrial Development Bureau conducted an on-site inspection of land owned by Taiwan Sugar Corp (Taisugar).
Based on certain criteria, such as the land being between 150 to 200 hectares, an intact building site, accessible by transportation and with sufficient water and electricity supply, the bureau selected six parcels of Taisugar land totaling more than 1,000 hectares in Tainan and Kaohsiung, and Yunlin, Changhua and Chiayi counties.
Meanwhile, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co is planning to build the nation’s largest solar power plant in Pingtung County on a plot estimated to cover more than 1,000 hectares to ensure a stable supply of renewable energy.
Taisugar has proposed an agrivoltaic solar energy project — in which solar panels are installed on top of greenhouses as a combination of energy generation and agricultural production — to be constructed on its farms in the county, which would also cover more than 1,000 hectares.
These large parcels of agricultural land are probably on lease for use in farming and forestry. Building solar energy facilities on them and changing the land classification might have an effect on the landscape and affect the nation’s overall farmland protection.
Since the decline of the sugar industry, more than 50,000 hectares of land owned by Taisugar have become sought after by institutions and organizations in need of land. Hundreds or thousands of hectares of land belonging to the state-run company have been acquired by or leased to the central and local governments, science parks, industrial parks and private universities.
However, whether the release of land and the change of land classification has been beneficial to the sustainable development of the nation remains uncertain, as there has never been an overarching national land or industry plan to guide development.
In the past few years, Taisugar has insisted on leasing and not selling its land, and its former chairman Charles Huang (黃育徵) was pushing for the company’s transformation through circular economy.
It remains to be seen if company chairman Chen Chao-yih (陳昭義) will continue to lead Taisugar along the same path and make the company a catalyst for change in the agriculture and livestock sectors.
However, more public attention to this matter is needed, as a state-run company probably should not decide how to stop the cutthroat competition over land.
The government needs to formulate clear conditions and re-evaluate the repurposing of and industrial planning for this land.
First, it should ensure that the location is reasonable given the parameters of the national land plan, that good farmland — such as Taisugar’s Jioujiou Farm (九鬮農場) — cannot be repurposed, and that repurposing must not damage the original agricultural environment and the quality of life of local communities.
The government must also reject separate development of parts of whole units of land: For instance, Taisugar’s Sinyuan Farm (新園農場) in Kaohsiung was split into allotments smaller than 10 hectares when it was leased, thus allowing businesses to apply for smaller parcels that do not require an environmental impact assessment.
It should also select the companies allowed to develop the land and formulate regulations to direct development toward a circular economy with zero emissions, waste and industrial safety concerns to keep external costs at a minimum.
At the same time, institutions seeking land must have a clear industrial need and provide a comprehensive plan for the land rather than just proposing a random figure as if Taisugar was an automated teller machine where they can withdraw land for development at will.
Compared with changing the land classification to industrial use, using the land for agrivoltaic farming is not irreversible.
If the social and environmental assessment is good, the location right and the scope suitable, if there are good ecological planning and social feedback measures in place that can be truly integrated with the agricultural economy, and if everything can be returned to agricultural use if the need arises 20 years later, then there is no reason why Taisugar should not be allowed to make a temporary decision on the land’s use.
Apart from serving economic purposes, Taisugar’s land also fills a function as people adapt to climate change. Siaolin Village (小林村), which was wiped out by a landslide caused by Typhoon Morakot on Aug. 8, 2009, was relocated on Taisugar land, and no one can guarantee that Taiwan will not face a similar need for disaster relief.
Based on the national land plan, the Executive Yuan’s National Development Council should call on the ministries of economic affairs and the interior and the Council of Agriculture to devise a project to review, evaluate and make public the data concerning Taisugar’s past land usage.
They should also require that institutions seeking land from Taisugar and the political forces behind these demands be made public to invite public participation in and supervision of the land repurposing dialogue to give the repurposing of Taisugar’s land legitimacy, so it becomes beneficial to the public interest and environmentally sustainable.
Lee Ken-cheng is the chairman and chief executive of the Citizen of the Earth Foundation, Taiwan.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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