Chi Po-lin’s (齊柏林) documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (看見台灣) and Lin Hwai-min’s (林懷民) latest work for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集), Rice (稻禾), which both focus on environmental preservation and the loss of Taiwan’s villages, have given rise to widespread debate and reflection.
Chi’s camera lays bare the past degradation of the nation before the eyes of its people. The level of waste has resulted in an aversion toward mountain products and services: vegetables, tea and bed-and-breakfast establishments. The Cabinet has set up a task force dedicated to preventing further loss of usable farmland in an attempt to rectify the damage.
Regrettably, the Lanyang Plain (蘭陽平原) and the coastal areas of Taoyuan County, which Chi’s film portrays, are home to a lot of good farmers who are being put out of business by luxury villas and small corrugated steel shacks — “dog cages” set up on agricultural land to facilitate the construction of residential houses — without the government or the public showing any concern.
Lin’s Rice gives a detailed description of the decline and struggles of villages. He calls for visionary plans for land use to deal with the disappearance of rural Taiwan lest the beautiful East Rift Valley, which is where the premiere of the Cloud Gate performance took place, becomes a blemish on the landscape, with every stretch of what was previously farmland covered in luxury villas.
Upon leaving the movie theaters, people should think about how to protect farmland from being lost to such development.
There is probably not more than 500,000 hectares of unaffected farmland left, and the nation can only supply about 33 percent of its own grain.
Over the past 13 years, 270,000 hectares of farmland has been converted. This includes land — still registered as farmland — approximately 15 times the size of Xinyi District (信義) in Taipei, but on which luxury villas called “agricultural dwellings” have been built. An even larger area has been used for the illegal construction of factories, night markets and other non-agricultural uses.
According to last year’s agricultural report issued by the Council of Labor Affairs, 810,000 hectares of land is registered as farmland, but the agricultural census data for last year show that after deducting the 270,000 hectares used — be it legally or illegally — for non-agricultural purposes, the land area available for farmers is only 540,000 hectares, including 210,000 hectares of fallow land.
The amendment to the Agricultural Development Act (農業發展條例) in 2000 relaxed restrictions on land division and the construction of farmhouses. This was when the loss of farmland began. Today only 330,000 of 810,000 hectares of farmland is being used to grow crops. The rate of change has not slowed and now only a little more than 500,000 hectares of usable farmland remains. In another 13 years, it will probably all be gone.
Following the amendment of the agriculture act, people who were not farmers bought land in suburban areas and registered themselves as farmers. They then built huge farmhouses, either to live in themselves or to sell for a profit. About 63 percent of the council’s budget was used to subsidize insurance for these bogus farmers: the Old-Age Farmers’ Welfare Allowance Program and other programs. In addition to being unjust and unfair, this has had a big impact on the flow of funds for policy implementation.
The best way to protect farmland is to amend the act; stipulating that newly purchased farmland must be used for farming, not residences. However, amending the law is a time consuming process, instead the government could take immediate action by abolishing the Regulations Governing Agricultural Dwelling Houses (農業用地興建農舍辦法), which is managed by the Ministry of the Interior’s Construction and Planning Agency, and by not allowing the construction of farmhouses on newly purchased farmland for a period of three to five years to help preserve what little farmland remains.
If this does not happen, it will be too late for future generations to try to rescue farmland by setting up a task force after watching the sequel to Beyond Beauty.
Peng Tso-kwei is a chair professor at Asia University and chairman of the Taiwan Society of Rural Planning.