A lesson in preventing farmland diversion and unlocking potential for Taiwan’s agriculture
By insisting on the principle of using agricultural land solely for agriculture, Taiwan could crack down on the rampant diversion of farmland for other purposes and prevent the potential destruction of our environment.
One spring three years ago, young farmer Lai Yung-hua leased a 7,500 square-meter piece of farmland in Nanzhuang Dananpu in Miaoli County to plant organic rice.
Lai recalls that one ping (about 3.3 square meters) of farmland cost around NT$6,000 back then. Within just three years, that price has risen to NT$8,000. “If you want to buy farmland with access to electricity and water and near a highway ramp, one jia (almost one hectare) will cost at least NT$30 million,” Lai says.
In the past, somewhat cheaper farmland in more remote, hilly terrain was turned into terraced fields for tea plantations or fruit orchards. Many of these plots have meanwhile been sold to city people who “plant” themselves in vacation “farm cottages” there.
In the area behind Wenwu Temple, where Lai lives, lies Mt. Dapeng, which features an old hiking trail. “There are more than 200 farmhouses up on the hill and a large number of European-style cottages,” says Lai.
“Retired urbanites harbor this image about farming villages — they are isolated from society, dreamy retreats that are better the farther away they are from the crowds.”
Most of these weekend farmers do not farm for a livelihood but as a leisure pastime, and if they do not depend on farming for their living, they could end up undermining the villages’ role as centers of agricultural production and farming life as well as guardians of rural ecosystems.
Germany once faced a similar situation, but the aspiring hobby farmers quickly hit a wall with their project.
Wu Ching- yi, a post- doc at Hualien’s National Dong Hwa University, notes that in the 1960s, a group of German doctors, lawyers, professors and other middle class professionals were planning to buy more than 20 hectares of farmland in southern Germany to build a retirement community. However, the local government rejected their plan. The two sides met in court, and the case went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that “Given that land is not an ordinary good, land transactions must be in the public interest.” As a result, the local government’s refusal to sell the land to non-farmers was validated by the court.
Although Germany is an industrialized nation, in Bavaria, Germany’s southernmost and largest federal state, farmland has always remained at around 50 percent of the state’s total area. The average area that each farm household cultivates has grown from nine hectares in the 1960s to 59 hectares today. In contrast, the size of Taiwanese farms dropped 20 percent from 0.91 hectares to 0.73 hectares during the same period.
Wu acknowledges that with increasing industrialization, the farming population is bound to decline. “The key point is whether this farmland continues to remain in the hands of farming people,” says Wu. Because once farmland has been diverted for other nonagricultural uses, “it won’t come back.”
Wu, who has also studied in Munich, notes that Germany passed clear regulations after the First World War on the transfer of farmland out of concern for national food safety. Since then, every single transaction of farmland has to be reviewed by the respective local government. In Taiwan, however, the revision of the Agricultural Development Act 15 years ago lifted the farmlandfor-farmers-only restriction so that non-farm households could also buy farmland.
In Germany, a person who wants to buy agricultural land must have a registered farm or provide records for an agricultural enterprise. Furthermore, the sale can only go ahead if an agricultural management plan has been submitted to authorities. If these conditions are not met, the government has the right to notify the local chamber of agriculture (similar to Taiwan’s farm associations) to evaluate and possibly block the transaction. If a prospective buyer is not a farmer, the farmland in question must be first offered to interested farmers for purchase. In order to qualify as a farmer, the farm or agricultural enterprise must be productive enough to be economically viable, which often effectively excludes hobby farmers.
Germany tightly controls the farmland- for- farmers- only principle and also strictly prohibits the expansion of existing rural residences. Only when the offspring of a farmer also makes a living from farming and the existing farmhouse is deemed too small for the extended family can an additional 100 square meters of living space be built. However, in Taiwan, where hardly any young people take over the family farm, threestory townhouses can be erected on farmland.
Japan also insists on the farm- land-for-farmers-only principle.
Lin Wan-ken, honorary chairman of the Association of Real Estate Attorneys, Taiwan R.O.C., notes that Japan’s Agricultural Land Act of 1952 stipulates that private farmland transactions must be reviewed by the local government’s Agricultural Committee. Furthermore, the buyer must provide a business plan for an agricultural enterprise.
Should the buyer divert farmland for other purposes such as industrial use, turn it into building land or build a house for himself on the land so that its agricultural use cannot be maintained, the local government can declare the sales contract null-and-void. The buyer can be sentenced to a prison term of up to three years and be slapped with a fine of up to 3 million yen.
Lin points out that Japan has lost one fourth of its farmland acreage over the past two decades. Since the government was worried that the country’s food self-sufficiency rate would slip, a series of reform measures was introduced in 2009 to activate fallow farmland. Tokyo encouraged the establishment of land trusts that lease farmland to incorporated agricultural producers at a low price. As a result, the price for farmland is not decided by the market alone.
Moreover, in a bid to revitalize deserted rural villages, the Japanese government is encouraging city dwellers to buy a second home in the countryside or to resettle there to run a farm. However, Japan strictly restricts people to buying existing vacant houses as their second home or rural refuge. While new homes have mushroomed in Taiwan’s countryside, Japan does not allow the construction of new farmhouses by city dwellers.
“In Taiwan, those who really want to live as farmers find that farmland is becoming increasingly scarce, and that even if they want to buy farmland, they can’t afford it,” says Lin.
Taiwan should learn from Germany and Japan, and control who qualifies for the purchase of farmland as well as how the land is used, to ensure that farmland is used solely for agricultural purposes. Otherwise, weekend farmers and hillside vacation resorts will be the only defining features of Taiwan’s rural villages in the future. Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz Additional reading selections can be found at http://english.cw.com.tw
(Left) The aerial view taken on May 8 shows a rapeseed field standing in full bloom near Ebenhausen, Germany. Right) A seasonal worker holds freshly cropped asparagus on a field near Schoenach, Germany, on April 20.