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New Thinking of Rural Ecological Conservation in Taiwan
Under the activation of rural regeneration policy, rural community in Taiwan has gradually separated itself from the stereotype of poverty, ruin and dispirited. Many of them have undergone successful transformation and become popular spots of ecotourism. Enjoy the rural lifestyle by listening to the whispering breeze, feeling the air dancing in the chest, tasting fresh local agricultural products and learning profound cultural heritage. The comprehensive rural experience economy is taking root on this small island little by little.
As more and more young farmers ignite more sparks in rural communities, a new generation of ideas have begun to sprout. The rural villages not just aim towards the improvement of living conditions and the activation of industry, but also extend the vision to ecological conservation of the surroundings. They are aware of the fact that a good life cycle depends on warm soil, tender breeze, moving water and all the individuals that share this particular time and space. No man is an island! How to strike a balance between rural development and natural conservation would be the next important task for rural regeneration.
II. Replace agricultural subsidies with investment in rural communities
For a long time, agricultural policies in Taiwan have always centered on subsidies. Whether it was the fertilizer subsidy or the guaranteed-price rice purchasing, the original intention of these policies were to help the farmers which are considered a weaker social group. Nevertheless, after decades of subsidies, farmers’ lives still have not improved substantially. Even though subsidies enabled farmers to gain direct benefits in a short time, but in the long run rural construction was crowded out by subsidy policies, causing the lack of infrastructure, insufficient industrial capacity, and low salary, which in turn lead to social problems such as population emigration and aging. Therefore, the government needed to put in more manpower and fund to maintain the basic existential requirement of rural communities.
New values originate from touching stories. The Puli Township is located in the center of Taiwan, and is also known as the center of water bamboo. In the past, chemical fertilizers and pesticides were over used for the purpose of maximizing crop yield, which left nothing standing in the field except apple snails. However, after the widely believed to be extinct species pararasbora moltrechti, also known as the Taiwan white minnow was found in Yixin Village, everything started to change. Under the support of Soil and Water Conservation Bureau (SWCB), Professor Peng Kuo-dong and young farmer Lin You-cen transformed part of the water bamboo field into a pool shelter for Taiwan white minnow, making it a resting space for the fish. This little project would have a positive effect later in the field. Owing to this environmental friendly cultivation, the demand for this safe and healthy water bamboo is always high. Besides, water bamboo used to have centralized production seasons, and the price usually dropped drastically during peak production periods, but after using the LED illumination system invested by the government, the production seasons can be adjusted and the price stabilized.
Farmers are encouraged to reduce the usage of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in fields surrounding white minnow pools so as to allow neighboring brooks or ditches in becoming vehicles that carry diverse biological organisms. In the future, the price subsidy for fertilizer would be replaced by the environmentally friendly green payment system as a kind of effective investment of the funds, so everyone can benefit continuously from it. This is the goal that we all strive to reach. (picture 1 and 2)
Picture 1: Professor Peng Kuo-dong (right) discusses with Lin You-cen about the successive conservation project of Taiwan white minnow.
Picture 2: Nontoxic water bamboo field requires manual labor to remove the apple snails and their eggs.
III. Saving the lost horizon, carbon “locking” in rural communities
In the beginning of 2016, temperature dropped to century record low, and many low altitude regions were covered in white snow. On the news, excited tourists were all enjoying the beautiful snow, but people hardly noticed the serious losses suffered by agriculture. Wax apple, jujube, grapes, top-grafted pear, citrus, and strawberry, are among the crops that suffered heavy losses. Besides, this year has the most high-temperature days in recent years. Global warming and extreme weather are affecting our everyday life. Taiwan is an island country, and greenhouse effect has already caused many fertile farmlands along the coast to be flooded by rising sea level, or affected by salinization which renders them uncultivable. Greenhouse gases are the main cause of such serious consequences, and since the industrial revolution, gases such as carbon dioxide and methane have been increasing steadily year by year. Therefore, many international agreements have been signed to cool down our planet, including the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and the Paris Agreement in 2015.
Rural communities have become the center of attention in the fight to reduce the carbon dioxide concentration in the air. The human existence relies on large amount of cultivated crops, which transform carbon dioxide into carbohydrate and starch. In Taiwan, many agricultural wastes such as rice husk, peanut shell, and corn stalk are generated every year. In the past, these wastes were disposed by stacking, burying, or burning, which were not only expensive but also created environmental burden. Fortunately, biochar may be a solution to the problem. It is created by directly charring crop residues in high temperature and low oxygen environments. Even though some greenhouse gases might be released in the process, most of the solid substance would be transformed into carbon and retain carbon dioxide. The biochar was then applied to farmland. This approach not only reduces carbon emission effectively but also facilitates the growth of crops due to carbon’s large specific surface area. Generally speaking, each gram of carbon can cover a specific surface area of approximately half tennis court, which could shelter and facilitate the reproduction of microorganisms in the soil. Therefore, crops can absorb more nutrients from the soil and grow stronger, thus reducing the use of pesticides.
Under the guidance of rural regeneration, Dayou Village in Changhua County’s Puyan Township had constructed biochar kilns to produce more biochar for use on organic rice paddies. Director general Wu Su-qiu stated that after applying biochar, the rice stalk grows stronger and becomes more resistant to rice blast. The rice produced in the community thus won the name of Golden Carbon Rice in the market, whose popularity even enabled the village to create bigger revenue by developing eco-cultural tourism based on the rice such as farming experience and local delicacy meals. All the profits are then given back to community residents in the form of free lunch meals to the community’s senior citizens from Monday to Friday, while providing a location for them to socialize and care for each other. Biochar is not just reducing the emission of greenhouse gases or improving the crop cultivation environment in Tayu Village, but also serving as an important foundation to community activation and human nature reconstruction.
In addition to being a source of quality fertilizer while reducing carbon emission, biochar production can also create a new cooperative model for rural communities and business enterprises. The rural communities sell vegetables and fruits cultivated with biochar to intensive energy-consuming industries. When these businesses purchase biochar agricultural products, they would be in fact buying emission allowance from rural communities at the same time. On one hand it helps to sell agricultural products, and on the other hand improves the social images of high energy-consuming industries which is undoubtedly a win-win situation under the green payment scheme. (picture 3, 4 and 5)
Picture 3: The third generation of biochar kiln in Dayou Village relies on hardwood as fuel to produce biochar.
Picture 4: Free-range duck is friendly to the farm environment.
Picture 5: Circular concept for biochar and organic substance’s sustainable use.
IV. Food safety - environmental friendly agricultural production
Food safety has become a serious daily issue in Taiwan, which could be divided into illegal food additives and chemical abuse during food production. The former is often originated from greed, but the latter is sometimes due to limited choice. After decades of conventional farming, the cultivation environment has lost its balance and the population of beneficial microorganisms dwindled. The absence of such caused significant decrease in the number of small insects and earthworms in the soil. Thus, the soil loses its ability to retain moisture and fertility, and heavy rains often washed away the nutrients. Therefore, farmers needed to purchase large amount of fertilizers to maintain crop yield, and expensive pesticides to get rid of the abundant pests caused by imbalanced in the food chain. The vicious circle of excessive pesticide and fertilizer would be accumulated in food and passed down to human beings, causing great physical and mental harm.
Due to increasing food safety problems, social groups and farmers started to invest in environmental friendly production methods, such as the green conservation farmland system that co-exists with wild animals, which advocates the reduction of pesticide and fertilizer use for the protection of specific species. Under that protective umbrella, all other creatures on the farmland are also protected. Another example is the natural farming method from Korea, which utilizes microorganisms to raise the soil’s ability to retain fertility, and thus strengthen the crops’ ability to absorb nutrients. Agricultural wastes can be used as livestock feed, and manures can be utilized to continuously keep the soil fertile. This circular agricultural system can replace conventional agriculture which solely retrieves resource from farmland. All these methods are based on similar conviction: Every single creature on Earth has the right to live. Only by respecting natural ecology could the environment achieve sustainable development and produce quality food filled with love.
A friendly agricultural recovery was taking place in Songshan Community in New Taipei City’s Shimen District. The Director General of the community cleaned up the rice terraces that have been abandoned for decades and called in old farmers to form the “Millenium Rice Club”. This group adopts environmental friendly cultivation, uses little fertilizer, and gets rid of pests manually instead of using pesticides. Even though the work is physically demanding, it made people think about how hard it was for everything to come by in the past when materials and goods were scarce. We should value and cherish what we possess nowadays. The Songshan Community also invited students to participate in rice planting and harvest activities, which not only passed down farming skills to the next generation but also planted a valuable seeds about food cherishing in the heart ofstudents through hands-on experience. Another example is the green-conservation carrots from Chenghai Community in Yunlin County. Many people are afraid to eat carrots because of its unpleasant earthy taste. Nevertheless, visitors would only feel the fragrance of the soil from the carrots produced in the pesticide-free farmlands of Chenghai Community. You could even hear the singing of toads and be amazed by the surprise visit from snakes. Chenghai’s carrots are free from that unpleasant taste and can even be juiced directly. The secret to healthy and delicious carrots lies not only in a good carrot variety but also farmers' meticulous care with love. (picture 6,7 and 8)
Environmental friendly cultivation requires many times the efforts for conventional farming. Moreover, the initial crop yield and appearance cannot be compared with those of conventional farming, and the pricing is even less competitive. In fact, many small-scaled organic farmers are selling their produce by reputation. To let everyone gain access to safe and tasty agricultural products with reasonable price requires joint efforts from citizens, enterprises and government. Individual farmers have limited resources whose farming machinery, classification, packaging, processing and marketing capabilities are far from those of the enterprises. Therefore, it is necessary to integrate the farmers to take advantage of a shared agricultural back-end processing center invested by the government and social resources. In addition to hardware facilities, services such as collaborative management can be achieved by recruiting professionals in agriculture, distribution, and rural affairs, thus reducing small-scale farmers’ burden in production cost, and in turn increasing product competitiveness in the market. This is the only way that all people can enjoy safe and genuine food with reasonable price.
Replace agricultural subsidies with investments to rural communities so that government and social resources may be turned into the source of green economy for the sustainable development of rural communities; therefore, realize friendly cultivation in Taiwan and revive the sustainable rural lifestyle based on ecological recovery and industrial development.
Picture 6: Rice terraces wait to be planted in early spring.
Picture 7: Beautiful green-conservation carrots.
Picture 8: Hands-on farming experience – feel the genuine beauty of food.