On the third Sunday of every month, dozens of farmers from around the country cart their goods to Treasure Hill (寶藏巖), set up tents and transform the hilly artist village in Gongguan (公館) into a bustling market. Featuring produce grown and harvested using sustainable farming methods, it resembles a growing number of impromptu markets established over the past several years.
But Bow to Land Farmers’ Market (彎腰農夫市集), as it has been dubbed, is more than just buying and selling natural produce. Growers from farming communities facing forced land expropriation trek to the capital to communicate with consumers about their campaigns against “land grabbing.” Meanwhile, university-aged volunteers helm the market’s communal kitchen, assist farmers and help to set up forums where participants discuss a wide range of issues ranging from food safety and agricultural development to Tibetans’ right to legally reside in Taiwan and the ongoing controversy surrounding the Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium (樂生療養院).
The monthly event is co-organized by the Hao Ran Foundation (浩然基金會), Taiwan Rural Front (TRF, 台灣農村陣線), a social organization that promotes land justice and ecological sustainability, and the Guyu Society (穀雨社), an agriculture club composed mainly of students from universities in Taipei including National Chengchi University, Shih Hsin University and NTU.
“Since the public rarely has a chance to know what is happening in rural areas, we want the market to not only be a site of trade, but also a venue that serves as a public forum through which issues are discussed, shared and spread,” said Hsu Chao-wei (徐肇尉), a doctoral student at National Taiwan University (NTU).
The alliance between students and farmers’ rights advocates, which gives the market its unequivocally social and political character, is no coincidence. In 2008, the passing of the first reading of the Rural Revitalization Act (農村再生條例), which was ratified in 2010, drew heavy criticism from farmers, activists, academics and other concerned citizens who found the law ill-conceived because it failed to address the overarching challenges facing Taiwan’s agricultural sector such as global trade liberalization, the lack of access to markets and the loss of a rural labor force.
TRF was founded in the same year.
“As an important agricultural policy pursued by Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration, the Rural Revitalization Act deals with only a tiny part of the problem by focusing on the improvement of rural facilities. It also leaves room for forced land expropriation,” said TRF researcher Lin Le-xin (林樂昕).
Back to the land
That sentiment is shared by activists who want to understand farming by experiencing it first-hand, rather than reading about it in books.
“There was a lot of debate and discussion going on, and we felt that the government didn’t know what was needed in rural communities. But when we tried to understand what was really happening in those communities, we realized we didn’t know about them either,” said Hsu, an active member of the student club since its inception in 2009.
To rectify the gap caused by years of neglecting the country’s agricultural policies and farming villages, TRF started to organize summer camps in 2009, sending young activists and university students to live and work with local residents in dozens of rural villages and conduct interviews and surveys.