Banana diplomacy fails to mollify Taiwan's farmers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2006, 12:00am

Southern Taiwanese farmers have not dropped their traditional hostility towards the mainland authorities despite the purchase of hundreds of tonnes of Taiwanese bananas by Beijing.

In Kaohsiung's Chishan township, Taiwan's so-called 'banana kingdom' where the fruit has been grown for more than 200 years, farmers put their attitude down to the lack of a systematic mechanism for trading farm products across the Taiwan Strait.

'The [mainland] purchase is a perfunctory tactic to please us,' Tseng Chi-hsien, general secretary of the Chishan Farmers' Association said of the Taiwan Affairs Office's (TAO) purchase of 300 tonnes of Taiwanese bananas in October.

At the cross-strait agricultural co-operation forum in Hainan in October, TAO director Chen Yunlin promised Kuomintang honorary chairman Lien Chan the mainland would buy 2,000 tonnes of Taiwanese bananas. But no timetable was set and Taiwan's agriculture council says only 350 tonnes of bananas have been shipped to the mainland so far.

October's banana purchase was criticised by pro-independence Taiwanese as a political 'united front' tactic designed to win over Taiwanese farmers.

'If the mainland authorities really wanted to do business with us, they would introduce a permanent and systematic mechanism for cross-strait trade in farm products,' Mr Tseng said. 'Don't make the purchase as a grant to please us. We need a long-term, co-operative relationship to market our fruit.'

With the price of Taiwanese fruit at least four times that of mainland products, many Taiwanese investors have established plantations in Hainan and Guangdong to reduce labour costs. But this is viewed as economic treason by staunch supporters of the pro-independence green camp in southern Taiwan.

'We have worried that they could provide the chance for mainlanders to steal our advanced farm technologies,' said Huang Wu-hsiung, a 68-year-old guava and date farmer from Baoshe village in Kaohsiung county's Dashe township. 'Taiwan's farm industry will be destroyed very soon after the opening of cross-strait farm products trade.'

But Shih Kan-chang, a section chief at the Chishan Farmers' Association, says Taiwanese farmers also have natural advantages.

'Taiwanese fruits are so sweet and pretty just because of the good weather and fertile soil on the island,' he said. 'And our labour is one of the irreplaceable inputs. Mainland labour is cheap, but even 10 of them couldn't compete with one Taiwanese worker.'

Kuo Shin-tung, a farmers' representative in Chishan who has invested in Guangdong since the 1990s said the mainland's unstable land policies had become the main obstacle to Taiwanese investment.

'In Taiwan, land is private property, but it is owned by the state on the mainland. Local government officials have the right to change policies whenever they want to,' he said.

Hsu Ching-chuan, the head of Baoshe village in Kaohsiung's Dabao township, said unhappy investing experiences had contributed to the hostility of pan-green farmers towards the mainland authorities.

However, the mainland's huge market continues to attract more Taiwanese farmers seeking to make 'golden dreams' on the other side of the strait.

The TAO says more than 5,000 Taiwanese farm enterprises had invested more than US$2.3 billion on the mainland by October.