In the last few months, however, the 400 or so families of Wanbao have felt that their land and way of life are no longer secure, as they were surprised to learn that their farmlands have been included in a development plan aimed to boost local employment.
The farmers learnt of the plan in November 2008, when the Miaoli County Government notified them in the form of registered letters. The letters requested that Wanbao residents provide an appraisal on the value of their land. The villagers were mystified. Why should their land be appraised, when the owners had no intention of selling it?
The residents slowly realized that, without their knowledge or consent, the Miaoli County Government had drafted a plan to make their land part of a major science park development project.
This was a shock because over the last few years, the government has poured funding into improving the irrigation systems in certain agricultural areas, providing financial and administrative support for community and agricultural activities. And only last year, Wanbao was chosen by the Council of Agriculture as a model village for a government-supported rural area revitalization plan.
“Local residents still appreciate the government’s efforts in improving land quality and farming conditions in the past decades,” said Wanbao neighborhood chief Hsieh Hsiu-yi. “But it is incomprehensible that they want to abandon the fruits overnight.”
Shocked and angry, the residents banded together to express their objections. They have made appeals to the Executive Yuan, which has the final say in rezoning laws, and to the watchdog Control Yuan, asking it to look into the actions of the local government. Most recently, the villagers travelled to Taipei May 14 to protest the development plan.
“We want our land, not the money,” said Hung Hsiang, a farmer who is also secretary-general of the Wanbao Community Development Association, established in 2006. “We want to preserve this land for the next generation.”
Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung said the economic value of the farmland is miniscule compared to the estimated benefits that the science park will generate—NT$30 billion (US$991 million) per year, not to mention 30,000 jobs.
The WCDA, however, argued that the park would not bring economic benefits on that scale. “The science park is not high-tech at all. It would be a waste of government resources to develop a park in Wanbao,” said a statement from the association.
The land in question measures 3.5 hectares, while the proposed science park measures 362 hectares, according to Liao Pen-chuan, an associate professor of urban planning at National Taipei University.
“A total of 1,550 hectares of land currently lies empty in Miaoli County, and there is plenty more throughout Taiwan. Why on earth would anyone want to build a science park on such valuable farmland?”
Some residents and experts called in to help suspect that a third party might be involved—the gravel industry. Some members of the industry, critics charge, are trying to make a huge profit at the expense of the residents of Wanbao.
“Beneath the surface soil, there is a layer of sand about 100 meters deep. It is the best piece of land you could ever hope to find if you were in the gravel business,” said Simon Ou, a Wanbao resident.
After the gravel has been dug out, the land could be sold again as a waste dump site, Ou noted. “The profit made through this two-fold exploitation is far more than could be made by selling organic vegetables.”
Despite these doubts, it is still unknown whether the gravel industry’s role in formulating development plans for Wanbao has any basis in fact.
“It is not that we are opposed to economic development. It’s just that the kind of development officials want would be meaningless here,” Ou said.
Unlike other villages, where young people have moved out to seek employment in the cities, Wanbao still retains a strong sense of community. Families living in urban areas bring their children home on weekends, and during planting season the young and old are often seen working together.
According to Chang Ya-yuan, a spokesperson for the Homemakers Union Consumers’ Cooperative—a local co-op set up 18 years ago by a group of environmentalists supporting healthy food and community agriculture—the Wanbao community is at a critical juncture.
“Once development starts, the situation will be completely irreversible,” she said. “Wanbao members are not only fighting for their own interests. They are fighting for a sustainable lifestyle which our age desperately needs.”
Write to June Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org
Original link: http://www.taiwantoday.tw/ct.asp?xItem=104985&ctNode=427