Street demonstrations are part and parcel of life in a free, democratic country. Even farmers, generally quite unassuming folk, have in the short space of a year staged numerous protests in Taipei, expressing their dissatisfaction with the government. Something is clearly amiss with the communication between the government and the public, and this cannot be taken lightly because of the potential political and economic repercussions.
Economic growth and rising incomes in the country have tended to bypass farmers, many of whom are still essentially living a hand-to-mouth existence.
Statistics shows that the average annual income for farming households in 2009 was only NT$873,000 (US$30,000), far below the national average of NT$1,128,000. Moreover, since the annual income from farming itself rarely breaks the NT$200,000 mark, many farmers are finding it hard to make ends meet, especially with inflation making it harder for them to afford essentials such as fertilizers, agricultural chemicals, fuel and workers’ wages.
To complicate matters further there are the perennial problems of sudden market price slumps, natural disasters and exploitation by the middle man — all of which conspire to make it difficult for farmers to eke out a decent living. Despite all this, most farmers are still willing to get on with their job and keep the general populace fed.
The government, on the other hand, with its sights set firmly on vast economic rewards, has been expropriating huge swathes of land — especially farmland — ostensibly to cater to the needs of industry and commerce, to help local economies prosper and to create new jobs.
The measures it has been employing are crude, excessive and flawed, pushing many farmers to give up the very land they rely on to survive. Desperate, farmers converged in Taipei on July 17 last year to protest on Ketagalan Boulevard, bringing their plight to national attention. Senior government officials promised an end to land expropriation, giving assurances that the Land Expropriation Act (土地徵收條例) would be amended.
A year has passed, but the controversy continues, with expropriations taking place in Dapu (大埔) in Miaoli County’s Jhunan Township (竹南), Siang-sihliao (相思寮) in Changhua County, and Erchongpu (二重埔) in Hsinchu County’s Jhudong Township (竹東).
People want to see amendments to the law to put an end to all this pernicious land grabbing. Civic groups have long presented a draft amendment to the act, but the Ministry of the Interior did not pass its own version until June 16 — one that is considerably different from the groups’ suggested amendments.
People are thus beginning to entertain serious doubts about the government’s political will in protecting farmland. Farmers and farming activists decided to return to Ketagalan Boulevard last night to call on the government to stop the enclosures and expropriations, to make good on its promise to amend the law immediately and to open the issue to public debate.
To be fair, the government has not been entirely unsympathetic to the demands of the farmers, it’s just that it has been dragging its feet in dealing with the problem.
The lack of a comprehensive plan means that the results have fallen short of the public’s expectations. If the government wants to calm public anger, it needs to take substantive action. Of course, the rezoning of prime farmland cannot be rushed, as it requires a comprehensive plan on land utilization and will have implications on the future development of agriculture in this country. However, the government should at least come up with a timetable so that the public can keep an eye on what it is doing about the problem.
As there are currently no imminent cases of land expropriation, there is no need to rush the drawing up of such a plan. During the intervening period, individual cases can be dealt with, as they are in Japan, by special review bodies set up for this purpose and composed of elected local farmers’ representatives, representatives nominated by government agencies and local councils and joined by academic experts recommended by public interest groups.
Restrictions should be put in place prohibiting the rezoning of farmland in areas that have been set aside for purely agricultural use.
Furthermore, based on the principles of fairness and justice, the government should do everything within its power to improve conditions on these farmlands, to increase their efficiency and to help boost farmers’ incomes above the national average. Then farmers would at least have an incentive to continue to work the land.
As far as the amendments to the Land Expropriation Act are concerned, the public should be more involved, without any interference from interest groups such as big business, organized crime or local factions.
The civil servants drawing up the draft amendments should listen to public opinion and assimilate ideas aimed at protecting the public interest and strengthening the principle of proportionality, provide full compensation, designate land exclusively for agricultural use which cannot be expropriated and strengthen the expropriation plan.
Exactly what constitutes public interest and what land expropriation covers should be clearly defined to stop local governments from interfering in areas where they have no business doing so. Only then will the public be content with what the government is doing.
Given that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) enjoys an absolute majority in the legislature, it should not be too difficult for the government to prioritize the passage of these amendments in the next legislative session. The only thing that will hold them back is a lack of resolve and courage.
Lee Wu-chung is a professor of agricultural economics.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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