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

2015/05/28 09:16:36

By Tyson Lu and Jeffrey Wu, CNA staff reporters

Hsieh Hung-jin (謝鴻瑾) is a 28-year-old farmer who returned to the Dingyanwan community in Beinan Township to farm and won a silver medal at this year's sugar apple fruit competition in Taitung County.

But he cannot be sure how long he will have access to the land.

"I'd like to stay and keep farming, but I'm worried about when this field will be recalled again," Hsieh laments.

The community has more than 77 hectares of fields and over 70 households, who planted citronella, peanuts, corn and sweet potatoes when Taiwan was a colony of Japan between 1895 and 1945.

Dingyanwan's fields were later declared by officials as protected forests in 1961 to rehabilitate Taiwan's badly degraded forests and prevent landslides, and were only allowed to be rented for farming purposes.

The Cabinet-level Forestry Bureau removed citronella from the fields in 1963 as part of the initiative to strengthen afforestation, causing a conflict with local farmers.

A total of 13 farmers in Dingyanwan were sent to prison for 13 days for obstructing the execution of public duties before being released after paying fines, but the conflict between the farmers and the government has continued to simmer for 50 years.

In 1976, local farmers filed a petition to maintain their farming operations on the land, but a joint investigation concluded that the fields should still be used for afforestation, and farmers were asked by the Forestry Bureau to remove their crops.

The farmers stalled and ignored the request, and in 2001, the Forestry Bureau turned tough and accused over 70 farmers in Dingyanwan of occupying state-owned lands. Prosecutors decided, however, not to prosecute the case.

The bureau then filed civil actions against the farmers to recall the land on the charge of estrepement -- referring to destructive waste of the land committed by a tenant.

When the farmers found that they had no access to proof favorable to their claims, they lost their cases and were ordered to return the lands they worked within a designated period of time.

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

The ruling disappointed Dingyanwan's farmers, including Liu Yan-ru (劉晏如), the champion of this year's sugar apple competition in Taitung.

"There was a time when I felt damned if I do and damned if I don't. When I went to work in the fields, all I could do was cry. I was on tenterhooks every day, wondering when the land would be taken back," Liu says.

Dingyanwan's farmers found help in 2012 when Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Liu Chao-hao (劉櫂豪) negotiated with the Forestry Bureau and the Council of Agriculture to set up a district for specialty fruits in the area.

In the deal that resulted, the government agreed to suspend its court action to take back the land and to plan the specialty fruit district.

It also allowed farmers to continue to rent the land and plant fruit there until they had the chance to apply to change the land's status as a protected forest area.

The problem was that the deal left out a major stakeholder in the area, indigenous Puyumas who consider the land to be their jurisdiction and see the farmers as nothing more than illegal squatters.

According to the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, the government should consult indigenous people and obtain their consent or participation and share with them the benefits generated from land development and resource utilization in indigenous peoples' regions.

Puyuma representatives said in a meeting with the local government on Oct. 28, 2014 that if Dingyanwan's status as a protected forest area is removed, the land should be returned to the Puyuma people because they have been living and hunting there, according to a document from the Taiwan Provincial Consultative Council.

The tribe's representatives asked the local government to handle the issue cautiously by holding more negotiations with them and taking into account both economic development and the Puyumas historical connection with the land.

All of which has left the farmers in an uneasy limbo.

"I hope our next generation will be able to work contentedly," said 80-year-old Huang Tsai-wang (黃財旺), who was sent to prison in the 1963 conflict with the Forestry Bureau and has been fighting for his land for 40 years.

Another elderly farmer, Tseng Neng-li (曾能立), says that all he wants is "a firm sense of security" as well as expectations that real justice on the land will arrive one day.


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