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3 June 2009

The Statute of Rural Renewal puts Taiwan’s Farmers in red alert

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Activists against the Statute of Rural Renewal, Taiwan, are constantly on the alert to prevent the Kuomintang (KMT) from forcing through the statute in the Legislative Yuan.

The controversial Statute of Rural Renewal has aroused debates between governmental officials and groups of farmers, variously involved NGOs, writers, scholars, architects and concerned citizens. Pro-statute governmental officials claim that the statute is meant to help falling rural communities prosper. Nevertheless, statute’s opponents complain that the statute is not only an example of negative modern trends in rural development, but a catastrophe for the next generation.

The statute is the result of incumbent President Ma Ying-Jeou’s rural policies. Ma’s agricultural policy, Small Landlords Big Tenants, envisions that urban dwellers rent farms and operate large-scale agriculture through the application of farm machinery, modern agricultural technologies such as refrigeration, and innovative production and marketing. The statute will channel 200 billion NTD to 4,000 rural communities and is claimed to be a response to the need for agricultural reform. The money will mainly be used to revitalize rural communities, governmental officials claim.

Nevertheless, opponents are concerned that the passage of the statute will further endanger food security and sovereignty, yield limited farmland to construction, and exacerbate the loss of Taiwanese rural culture.

Taiwan has suffered a serious loss of food sovereignty. Currently, it retains a domestic 30.6% share of its food supply, a bleak consequence of fallow policies since the 1980s and the recent entry in the WTO in 2002. In 1980, Taiwan had approximately 640,000 hectares of farmland, which amounted to 18% of its entire area. In twenty-two years from 1980 to 2002, it had lost 170,000 hectares of farmland. Since the entry to WTO in 2002, it has lost another 240,000 hectares. Only 230,000 hectares of land on this island remains as farmland, out of the 3.6 million hectares of the entire area. In addition, rural communities also have suffered aging population, exodus of youth, poverty and insufficient medical and educational services.

Many articles in the Statute of Rural Renewal have aroused concerns, including one permitting the government to expropriate farmlands in the name of community development. Opponents consider this article a threat to Taiwan’s food security and sovereignty. Another article which has aroused similar concern allows a small farmer to convert half of his or her farmland for construction, given the farmer agrees to release the other half of the land for public services.

Analyzing present trends in oil prices, biofuel demands and the general state of the world economy, Dr. Peng Ming-Huei, National Tsinghua University, expresses his strong concern that the statute can only add to the misfortunes of the already unfortunate poor. "Legalizing the conversion of farmland to construction is an offensive breach of conduct of the Council of Agriculture," Peng said in a public hearing of the statute on March 26th 2009. He added, "The duty of the Council of Agriculture is to guarantee that all Taiwanese people have equal access to food. Soon in the future, world oil prices will peak at 65 USD per barrel, and at that time a great upsurge in biofuel production will come again and exacerbate a food crisis. Yet you who sit in the hearing will not become the sufferers of the statute’s evil deeds because you have high incomes. It will be the poor who will be victimized. By 2015, six years from now, you will see the pernicious consequences [of your actions]."

In the same hearing, Dr. Hsu Shi-Jong, National Chengchi University, lashed out at the Council of Agriculture in saying that the statute is a careless plan of corrupt administration. "Only one procedure is required, which is that the conversion rules are determined by the central authority of the government powers involved." Hsu noted that "[...]The Urban Planning Act has twenty five procedures. The Statute of Rural Renewal has only one. This shuffled-through statute adds nothing but insults to rural communities."

Activists against the statute are worried that the KMT will try and sneak the statute into the next stage. Roxana Chen, one opponent of the statute, revealed that the KMT had purposely not disclosed the time when the public hearing was to be held. She said, "Farmers were prohibited from entering the meeting room. Some campaigners’ posters were taken away by security guards when they attempted to enter. Some of them were held back when they tried to speak to President Ma Ying-Jeou."

Wu YinNing, a writer, and Tsai Pei-Hui, a doctoral candidate in Bio-industrial Communication and Development at National Taiwan University, and who also wrote Three Minutes to Understand the Statute of Rural Renewal, have indicated that the authorities and the mainstream media have banded together. "We could hardly find our voice on newsletters," Wu indicated.

However, the efforts of the campaign have yielded something. Although the government is still apparently determined to pass the statute, citizens’ phone calls and more than 10,000 petition signatures collected in two weeks have pressured the government to hold eleven more public hearings.

Taiwan: LiveCast and music for saving rural livelihood

Agricultural issues are getting more and more attention recently in Taiwan, sadly not because of the vibrant development of the agricultural sector, but quite the opposite.

In March, I reported about <> the debate on Statue of Rural Renewal that was about to be passed in Legislative Yuan. Given all the problems and controversies in the Statue, the <> Council of Agriculture had been pressured by a coalition of farmers, scholars, and social activists to organize more public hearings, in particular in rural areas for collecting more public opinions. However, these public hearings have been neglected by mainstream media, and the only way the public get to know the discussion and debate is via citizen journalists who have participated in the hearing and posted their reports at online platforms, such as <> (zh) :

Citizen reports on public hearings

On April 21st, Kaohsiung County, citizen journalist Relax <> reported:

Mr. Lin Ying-chin from Meinung town criticized that the government had not disclosed enough information in the public hearing. He downloaded the Statute from Internet, read it over and over and discovered many underlining problems. However, he was not able to fully deliver his views during the public hearing.

As if he had not heard of all the criticisms and questions, the director of Sub-bureau, Mr.Li, concluded the Kaohsiung public hearing with the statement: "Today, all people support the Statute of Rural Renewal..", but interrupted by people’s yelling: "Nonsense!"

The next day, in Hualien County, peggy <> reported:

The floor was open, however, most of the old people could not understand nor write in Mandarin. There was no way for them to submit the question request in written form. I was worried if they would be given the right to speak.

As expected, only legislators, councilors, chief managers of community development associations, and village heads got on the stage to speak.

There was neither explanation of the clauses in the Statute of Rural Renewal nor dialogue between the government and the public. I brought back with me a free lunch box when I left, like all the old grandpas and grandmas.

The bureaucratic and formalistic public hearings were under serious criticism online and finally President Ma Ying-jeou <> agreed to meet the anti-Statute activists in the Presidential Palace(zh) on April 29th. During the meeting, Ma required Chen Wu-siung (í¬ïêóY) the Chief Councilor of the Council of Agriculture to review the whole Statute and post the revised Statute online "if necessary". However, nothing had really changed after the meeting and the majority of Legislative Yuan are determined to pass the Statute before May 20th, a day marked the inauguration anniversary of Ma’s presidency. Activists then initiated a "citizen public hearing" via webcast. They call this activity "<> 3 small media Webcasting":

We wish to show the debate of the Taipei public hearing to other rural villages and communities. Apart from LiveCast, you can also help by covering local voices or submitting your view on the statue to other civil media. The discussion should not come to an end in those official public hearings. We expect the LiveCast to encourage local communities to be more active in demanding the government for local public hearings, and the LiveCast would allow people from across the country to discuss public policy together. We need to realize the genuine "bottom-up" discussion process rather than letting the government turning the "bottom-up" consultation into mere slogan and political performance.

Farmers-activists also use <> twitter , <> stickeraction, <>, and other social media to spread the above message.

However, recently president Ma faced a new wave of political crisis after <> the mass rally and over night sit-in protest against his China policies on 17th of May. Public attention might be directed to more dramatic political controversy rather than "regular law enactment", like the Statute of Rural Renewal.

Songs and musics

Meanwhile an indie band, Hao-Ke took another approach to raise public awareness of Taiwan’s rural crisis. Members of the band are all farmers and they have recently entered the entrant list of the <> 20th Golden Melody Award on Best Bands. Indeed, the cultural approach is very effective.

<> Ecogoodies recommended Hao-Ke’s album "Love to Eat Rice":

"Love to Eat rice" is one of my favorite album. In 2006, Chen Guan-yu, the vocal of Hao-Ke left the hurly-burly city and stepped into an organic rice farmland in Chishang in Taitung county to start his farming planŠ.

Like many others, I left my hometown a long time ago and settled in the urban city, while the memory of hometown is getting further and further behind. Each time, when I feel hurt or disappointed, I recall the smell of air and soil in my hometown, which makes me want to return to where I began and I can find the strength to restart again.

Hao-Ke described <> their feeling after they were nominated in the Award on their official blog.

Now I spend even more time in the farmland. I thinks of the plants more. The Award thus becomes a burden. I don’t play and compose music for the Award; but its power is so strong that I cannot put it off my heart, and my emotion beats along with it.

They started the experimental project of "rice coop" about 3 years ago. Ke Zhi-hao, the guitar player of Hao-Ke explained their idea and daily routine <> of the "rice cooperatives" on <>

We perform our music in the field, transplant rice seedlings and pull out the weeds. We make documentary films, write articles, take pictures, make songs, and produce music albums for our rice. We even share our organic rice meal with the audience who come to see our performance in Witch House in Taipei

We believe that a healthy market should provide more choices, which will in turn add strength and flexibility to the market. Farmers are no longer dependent on middlemen for marketing, they can choose to sell half of their products via the middlemen and sell another half directly to consumers.

The band uses wikimapia to <> show the location of their farmland, and encourage audiences and fans to join the cooperation.

Apart from Hao-Ke, bands like <> Country Boys (zh) and <> Sheng Xiang also convey their love, sorrow, and anger for the disappearing Taiwanese agriculture through their music. These bands and musicians also actively participate in street gatherings or protests against destructive agricultural policies and globalization.

Artists and activists in Taiwan are cooperating more and more frequently on various social issues though their influence is still weak when compared with the government and big corporates. But joint handedly, they make the civil society more vibrant .

Last but not the least, please listen to "I Don’t Want to Be a Farmer Anymore", a song full of anger depicting the erosion of Taiwanese agriculture and rural life, performed by Country Boys when they attended "Free Burma, Free Aung San Suu Kyi" concert last year.


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