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FORESTS IN PERIL: Ginger greed behind vanishing Taitung forests

2015/05/28 09:16:36

By Tyson Lu and Christie Chen, CNA staff reporters

No more than a year ago, the forests in Yanping Township in rural Taitung County were green and tranquil. Then suddenly, backhoes and bulldozers began marching up the sides of pristine hills and mountains in rapid succession, knocking down trees to clear land for ginger farming.

An employee at the Yanping Township Office, who can see one of the mountain tops from his office, told CNA that he sees the machines digging away every day, turning bamboo forests into land distinguished by its yellow soil.

"The plot of yellow soil land was originally one acre large, but now it's over two acres," he said.

A retired government worker, surnamed Huang, purchased a plot of land in the mountainous part of Yanping a few years ago. He installed an old shipping container there and lived a quiet life with his wife, doing his best not to damage the environment, he said.

Their only neighbors were birds, insects, muntjacs and wild rabbits until "the roaring backhoes came in" and destroyed the forests, Huang said.

Trees and animals gave way to fertilizer, pesticides and ginger farms, a wanton destruction of forests that is taking place not only in Yanping, but across Taitung County, southeastern Taiwan.

And not surprisingly, it is being driven by short-sighted greed.

For farmers to harvest old ginger root on a 1 jia (2.3-acre) plot in the mountains, they only have to spend around NT$1.2 million (US$39,328) to prepare the soil and grow and harvest the crop, but can earn NT$6 million in return, said Hu Wu-jen (胡武仁), secretary of the Yanping Township Office.

"The risks are low and the profits are good. Of course ginger farmers are running up the mountains," said Hu, who used to be a ginger farmer himself.

[Before (top / from Google Street View) & After (bottom / CNA photo)]

He said most farmers planting ginger in the mountains rent the land for a year from indigenous people, who may not have the NT$300,000 needed to prepare a 2.3-acre plot.

So the indigenous people rent their land to ginger farmers and when they get their land back after a year, it has already been prepared for cultivation and use, said Hu, calling it a "win-win" situation for the indigenous people and ginger farmers.

The ginger farmers look for new pastures after a year because the old ginger root they grow "is picky when it comes to the soil" and needs virgin soil for the best results, said a farmer surnamed Chang.

But while the farmers and indigenous "custodians" of the land benefit, the mountains and forests are damaged beyond repair.

A surge in price for old ginger root is the financial incentive driving the farmers to the mountains.

A local vegetable vendor, surnamed Chen, said the price of old ginger root, which is harvested later than fresh ginger, had skyrocketed to NT$200 per kilogram by the end of 2014 from no more than NT$30 per kilogram and was likely to remain high this year.

Chang said mountainous areas are ideal for growing old ginger root because they have not been cultivated before, and the natural slopes are ideal for draining away water.

He said many farmers have cooperated with indigenous people, who apply to the government to develop or rent land reserved for indigenous people, and then rent it to the farmers.

Close to 100 such applications were filed in Yanping Township alone recently.

The standard procedure involves indigenous people applying to township offices to cultivate a plot of land, and a reserved land rights review committee at the office then examines the application and reports its decision to higher authorities for approval.

Under existing regulations, indigenous people can apply to cultivate a plot of land if the land has been allocated by the government to indigenous people as farmland, pastures or land for breeding purposes.

Indigenous people may not, however, transfer or rent the land to others, unless the recipients are their families, relatives or inheritors.

If they violate the law, the township office has the right to withdraw their lands and terminate the contract.

In addition, tree-cutting plans have to be approved by forestry authorities and the trees must be sold through public tenders, according to regulations, which in Yanping are obviously not being followed.

When confronted with the issue, Hsu Chien-te (許建德), a section chief at the Taitung County Agriculture Department, said his government does not tolerate estrepement -- the destructive waste of land -- and that it conducts strict inspections of the land reserved for indigenous people.

If land owners are not using their land as they said they would, the county government will demand that they improve within a certain amount of time or they will be fined between NT$60,000 and NT$300,000, Hsu said.

The county government has already issued 50 such fines, he said, but the light penalties are clearly not achieving their purpose, as backhoes and bulldozers continue to dig away in Taiwan's precious mountains.

Since a series of Chinese-language reports on the issue were published by CNA in mid-May, the Taitung District Prosecutors' Office and Taitung police have stepped up their investigation of the issue.

The police said they launched an investigation early this year and had finished inspecting seven plots of land in Yanping Township. They said they will soon turn the cases over to prosecutors.

The police said they are also investigating over 40 other allegedly illegal development cases in the mountains.

The prosecutors said they will also hold a meeting with the police and relevant agencies to speed up police investigations and set up a standard operating procedure for investigating such cases in the future.


FORESTS IN PERIL: Taitung farmers of preserved forest land in limbo