Failings in the agricultural sector

By Du Yu 杜宇  / 

Mon, Jan 07, 2013 - Page 8

Taiwan’s agricultural sector faces continuous challenges from within and out. Problems include a lack of agricultural information, monopolization of distribution channels, exploitation by middlemen, permanent imbalances between production and sales and the importation of cheaper priced agricultural products which have overtaken the domestic market. Other more serious problems such as smuggling and transshipment have impacted upon Taiwan’s agricultural production and the livelihoods of farmers.

Despite these problems, Taiwan’s farmers have gritted their teeth and continued with their work which has helped ensure the nation’s food safety.

The series of “agricultural reform” policies President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration recently proposed may seem to make sense on the surface, but deep down they lack forward thinking and complementary measures.

The government has not done enough to explain these policies to the public.

With the combination of these factors, the government is essentially engaged in a top-down, arbitrary style of governance resulting in a backlash from administrative bodies such as local governments, farmers’ associations and farmers themselves.

I recently visited farming villages in central and southern Taiwan and found that farmers there were anxious, and this anxiety is spreading.

Tensions between different social classes already exist due to inequality in the pension system. If farmers start to protest, this would be a sign of change.

Using afforestation and reforestation policies as an example. In the past, excessive development and felling caused much damage to forests. They lost their ability to conserve soil and water and as soon as heavy rain hit, landslides occurred all over the country, destroying roads, trapping people and causing loss of property and life.

Typhoon Morakot, which ravaged Taiwan in 2009, is an example of the trouble such disasters can bring. Experts feel that forests need time to recover, and that hillside reforestation and environmental restoration work is necessary.

The government has actively promoted lowland afforestation for two decades and has spent NT$2.4 million (US$87,800) in subsidies per hectare for afforested lowland over a 20-year period; much higher than the subsidies offered for hillside reforestation, which has received NT$600,000 per hectare over the same period. This has affected the willingness of farmers to take part in hillside reforestation projects.

The Council of Agriculture announced that starting on the first day of this month, it would stop accepting applications for lowland afforestation and instead would promote a six-year short term afforestation project for economic purposes.

The announcement left local governments and forest farmers, who had planned to take part in lowland afforestation projects, dumbfounded.

It is true that lowland afforestation has had its fair share of problems, such as difficulties in reusing the land for agricultural purposes after 20 years of afforestation and complaints from farmers in surrounding areas because of the negative impact of a lack of management.

Lowland afforestation has also suffered from a lack of planning, often leading to mixed planting, making integration difficult. Despite this, lowland afforestation has many benefits: It brings economic benefits, reduces carbon emissions, helps to educate people about environmental protection, benefits tourism, aids windbreak and sand stabilization, protects land resources and increases biodiversity.

Therefore, it is not a good idea to discontinue the lowland afforestation program.

The same thing has happened with adjustments in policies for revitalizing fallow farmland.

Although the revitalization of fallow farmland has been proposed by experts, the new system put in place by agricultural authorities this month — that cuts incentives for keeping land fallow by half — ignores the possible impact this could have on farming villages.

Because the productivity of farmland that has been left fallow for a long time diminishes, and because agricultural water channels have been left unattended for years, water supply problems have emerged. As a result, farmers may have to go back to extracting groundwater, which does the government more harm than good.

The government’s new policy of decreasing subsidies for fallow farmland to one season per year will not only solve problems such as people not farming, overbuilding on farmland, the phenomenon of “fake farmers” — people abusing the system by buying a small plot of land, registering as farmers and receiving farmers’ insurance without actually engaging in farming — and low income for farmers. It could also bring about more imbalance between agricultural production and sale and create even more public discontent.

Du Yu is a member of the Chen-Li task force for Agricultural Reform.

Translated by Drew Cameron