Tue, Mar 16, 2004 - Page 4 News List

Servicemen gain foreign experience

AGRI-DIPLOMACY At a reception to mark the end of their diplomatic service, 15 young men told of the contributions they made to countries far, far away

By Melody Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Chen Po-yu (陳勃聿) spent his four years in university studying horticulture, but he never knew what a 300-hectare farm looked like until two years ago when the government's diplomatic service program sent him to work on a farm in Nicaragua.

"You will never find a farm of that size in Taiwan. I literally spent more than a week exploring the farm," the 26-year-old serviceman said at a reception for 15 men who participated in the program.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Eugene Chien (簡又新) met the young men who have either completed their term in the program, which is an alternative to the compulsory military service, or who will finish in the next few weeks.

Most of the Nicaraguan farm Chen was dispatched to consisted of rice paddies. Chen, a graduate from National Chung Hsing University's Department of Horticulture, said working in the paddies was a challenge.

"I rolled up my sleeves, wore a pair of black rain boots and held a hoe that was as tall as me to work on the farm every day. The job was very demanding. In harvest seasons, we had to queue for harvesting machines," Chen recalled.

The program, launched in 2001, has so far deployed 112 servicemen to Taiwan's allies in Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region.

"The program has become very popular among servicemen with higher education. It is the only alternative to the compulsory military service that routinely has to turn down applicants," Chien said.

Although many male university graduates are enthusiastic to sign up for the program, their parents are not necessarily happy with their decisions, mainly because the countries involved in the project are often remote, little-known or undeveloped.

Chang Tseng-hua (章增華), the father of serviceman Diego Chang (章文駿), said: "My son decided to join the diplomatic service program when he was in graduate school, but most of our friends and relatives opposed his decision.

"As his parents, my wife and I were very worried about his decision. I believe most parents of the program's servicemen shared our concerns. Nonetheless, we had to respect his decision anyway," Chang Tseng-hua said.

Now, after two years, Chang Tseng-hua's worries have become appreciation. In a speech at the reception, he thanked the government for giving the young men opportunities to grow up in remote countries through the program.

Diego Chang was sent to serve in the largest hospital in Sao Tome and Principe, a tiny island nation off Western Africa.

Some places in Africa were very poor, but the people were kind, Diego Chang said.

"Take Sao Tome and Principe, for example, the country's social order is good. People there ate bananas and breadfruit," he said.

Serviceman Lee Shr-jie (黎世傑), who was sent to the Marshall Islands, shared his joy in teaching and helping local people how to grow vegetables.

Lee had to frequently remind local farmers to water their vegetables.

"They often forgot to water their vegetables, particularly after the rainy season," he said.

But Lee said it was rewarding to see farmers able to refurbish their houses and give their children a better living because of the earnings they made.

"I have received more than what I have given," Lee said.

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