2000 / 1月
Chang Chin-ju /tr. by Christopher MacDonald
By the time it arrived for review in the legislature at the end of 1999, The Agricultural Development Act Amendment Bill-which provides for sustainable agricultural development and the ecological protection of agricultural land-had already sparked political conflict and street protests, and led to the resignation of Council of Agriculture chairman Peng Tso-kuei. The source of the controversy was Article 16 of the bill, which forbids the construction of housing on newly purchased farmland.
On November 30, in the evening, Council of Agriculture (COA) chairman Peng Tso-kuei suddenly tendered his resignation. Peng chose to resign because of controversy over a provision banning house-construction on newly purchased farmland, part of the Agricultural Development Act Amendment Bill, which was due for reading in the Legislative Yuan. The legislature's pro-farming faction remained staunchly opposed to the provision, and the KMT's policy committee had already drafted a "caucus version" of the amendment, allowing for houses to be built on newly acquired farmland. Faced with the frustration of his policy objectives and wishing to express his commitment to the principle of protecting agricultural land, Peng Tso-kuei resigned.
The opening up of the agricultural property market is understood to be inevitable, given the impact of Taiwan's eventual accession to the WTO, and it is generally felt that this is the only way to encourage large-scale mechanization of farm production and the introduction of new technology, so as to boost the competitiveness of the island's agricultural sector. In 1995 the Executive Yuan launched the Farmland Release Program, easing restrictions on the sale and purchase of farmland, but significant revisions to the program were then introduced under the Agricultural Development Act, which aimed to preserve farmland for agricultural use and deal with the related matters of rural development and farmers' welfare. It was felt that if farmers were able to build wherever they wanted on rural land-which was now easier to subdivide and sell-this would encourage harmful over-development. At the same time, the unregulated construction of houses among the fields could create environmental problems and put a needless burden on public funds for the installation of utility services and access roads. In the COA's revised version of the Agricultural Development Act, therefore, new houses can be built on land that farmers already own (which protects their interests), but not on newly acquired farmland, except under certain conditions allowing for the development of community-style settlements.
On December 7, the Taiwan Provincial Farmers' Association organized a rally at the CKS Memorial Hall in Taipei, attended by several thousand representatives of farmers' associations from throughout Taiwan. Their demand: "Save the Farmers, Allow Farmhouse Construction." Along with a couple of dozen colleagues, COA deputy chairman Lin Hsiang-neng mingled with the crowd, explaining that the amendment bill was the product of extensive discussions with experts and insisting that the COA would stick to its position. But Lin was later quoted as saying that the government's version of the bill was "not unrevisable." On December 8, Lin was officially promoted to the post vacated by Peng Tso-kuei, encouraging the perception that the Executive Yuan would now be more flexible on the issue.
Peng's stance has, however, drawn support from academics and environmental groups. Chen Chi-nan, dean of the school of humanities and social science at National Chiao Tung University, points out that it will become even harder to make a living from farming once Taiwan joins the WTO. As the intentions of some of those lobbying against the bill reveal, farmland is no longer being bought for the purpose of farming, but rather for development. In other words, farm workers themselves are not likely to be the beneficiaries of any new "farmhouses" built on agricultural land. Over 100 academics, headed by Academia Sinica president Lee Yuan-tseh, have now signed a joint letter calling for discussion of the offending provision in the bill to be deferred until after the presidential election.
The interesting thing is that even the construction industry is pessimistic about the benefits of freeing up agricultural land for new homes. It is said that those firms able to obtain farmland and have it re-zoned for housing, as a way of jacking up its value, have already done so. The further opening up of farmland for housing would therefore create an over-supply, and further undermine the already depressed property market. Opposition to the move has also been heard among segments of the farming community itself. The general secretaries of farmers' associations from Northern Taiwan held a joint press conference at which they noted that it is already difficult enough trying to crack down on pollution produced by factories built illegally on farmland, and this can only get harder once more land is freed up for development. In their opinion, the government shouldn't introduce policies harmful to agricultural development simply to help farmers' associations in the south and center of the island that are burdened by overdue loans.
A number of legislators opposed on environmental grounds to overdevelopment of the countryside, have said the KMT wants to scrap the provision so as to appease influential grassroots supporters, but with the election looming, none have taken any action.
The Agricultural Development Act Amendment Bill has eight chapters comprising over 100 provisions, and in addition to opening up the market for agricultural land it also includes a raft of measures designed for dealing with the increased liberalization of international trade. Unfortunately, public attention has been focused on the question of the development of newly purchased farmland, and the other issues have generated little interest among pundits and the media. The bill passed its first reading in the legislature, with only the house-construction provision being set aside for discussion at the time of the second reading.
Viewed in the longer perspective, different priorities have applied at different phases of Taiwan's agricultural development. At present, it's a question not just of the livelihood of farmers, but also of concerns like joining the WTO, national security and the definition of the nation. So how do farmers' interests weigh against the overall interests of the nation? It's a question that calls for calm discussion by all involved, and the government needs to set up a fair system for mediation among all concerned. But if national policy requires agriculture to be a means of livelihood, a way of protecting the environment, and a source of production, then it's a combined responsibility that shouldn't be left to farmers alone, and for which compensations need to apply. Unfortunately, the debate has turned into a tug-of-war among various interest groups, thereby diverting attention from the real thrust of the bill. This is a pity, not just for farmers but for Taiwan as a whole.
The proposed banning of house-construction on newly purchased farmland, triggered two farmers' demonstrations during December.