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Fri, Jun 09, 2000 - Page 2 News List

COA targets betel nut plantations

ENVIRONMENT The chairman of the council has said that something must be done to stop the soil erosion caused by betel nut trees, but many are skeptical of the council's resolve to tackle the lucrative industry

By Chiu Yu-Tzu  /  STAFF REPORT

The chairman of the Council of Agriculture, Chen Hsi-huang (陳希煌), yesterday announced a six-year plan to reduce the total number of betel nut trees on the island and put an end to the soil erosion caused by hillside planting.

"We have to do something because the planting of trees on mountain slopes is having a severely damaging effect on the environment. This was particularly evident after the 921 earthquake last year," Chen said during questioning at a Legislative Yuan Economic and Energy Committee meeting yesterday.

Betel nuts trees also consume large amounts of water. It is estimated that betel nut trees islandwide consume six billion tonnes of water each year.

Chen said the council's plan is to ban the planting of betel trees on mountainsides with a gradient of more than 30 degrees.

According to the council's latest survey, just over 19 percent of the 57,000 hectares of betel nut plantations are located on hillsides with slopes greater than 30 degrees, he said.

Chen said that they would help betel nut farmers switch to other occupations if the regulations forced them out of business.

As for farmers who plant betel nut trees in mountainous areas not covered by the new regulations, Chen said that officials would urge the farmers to plant some other kinds of trees.

Agricultural officials said that farmers who cooperated with the government's program would receive a subsidy for 20 years out of a pool of NT$530,000.

Legislators, however, said that this sum was only a drop in the ocean compared to the huge financial incentive behind the betel nut industry.

DPP legislator Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘), who was once a dentist, said that chewing betel nut causes mouth cancer and is one of the 10 leading causes of death among men in Taiwan.

"But this is not simply a health issue," Ker said. "We have to look at the issue from several angles. There are cultural, economic and agricultural aspects to the betel nut industry," he said, adding that two million consumers could not be ignored.

"How can you fight against a cash crop that generated an annual revenue of nearly NT$100 billion?" asked Ker.

He said that in all likelihood, the council's plan to crackdown on mountainside planting was an empty promise.

Chen admitted that the council faced a daunting task challenging betel nut growers -- considering that the seasonal price for a single betel nut can the same as the price of a dozen eggs.

Ironically, the high-profit industry is not limited to individual growers. The Taiwan Forestry Bureau (林務局) under the Council of Agriculture has designated more than 2,000 hectares of state-owned land to be used for growing betel nuts.

DPP legislator Lin Feng-hsi (林豐喜) said that although people had the right to use their land in whatever way they saw fit, "forestry policy regarding the management of state-owned land should be comprehensively reviewed."

Some legislators blamed the environmental problem on the council and its poor use of the funds it has available.

"Developing mountainous areas for tourism has done nothing to protect the environment," said KMT legislator Kao Yang-sheng (高揚昇).

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