Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Developing Story

Last week a friend flipped me a story about what seemed like a harrowing, poignant tale of small farmers fighting big developers to save their land. It sounded interesting, so I hopped on the scooter to go check it out.

I met my informant, Mr. Wang*, not far from my house in the small town of Bellyup, and was taken to a set of rice and vegetable fields pitched between apartment houses on three sides and factories on the fourth.

It seems that, a couple of years ago, a development company named Eternal Ogre had gotten together the idea that it could build a whole new community on this 72 jia of land just north of Taiwan Central City. Eternal Ogre's plan had the enthusiastic backing of the local Central City Council Critter, and even the Mayor of Central City. It was part of the city's development plan, after all. The community, FutureSuperWorld, boasted the usual collection of cookie cutter houses and apartments, a school, and a park.

To bargain with Eternal Ogre, as was proper under the law, a Landowner's Association was formed. The law carefully delineated its functions and rights, but as so often is the case in Taiwan, was a bit vague on defining just who counted as a landowner. Hence, Eternal Ogre sent its people out to buy dozens of tiny plots in the development, meaning that they were now proud owners of land in the area, and were qualified to sit on the Landowner's Association and bargain with their paymasters. The result was that the association was an obvious front for the company. Government officials knew this but treated the association as if it were actually independent and represented the landowners.

The original development plan was quite simple. Eternal Ogre would buy the land from the farmers for $50,000 a ping. The farmers would then receive a smaller property in the development, but at a much higher value. A farmer who talked to me own 2000 ping of land and after selling it, would receive the rights to about 900 ping inside FutureSuperWorld -- but the new development would sell at $200-300,000 a ping, according to the rosy predictions of Eternal Ogre. Not a bad deal, getting paid millions twice for the same piece of land.

At first the farmers were psyched, but then roughly half of them became hesitant to sign the deal as originally agreed. What if the deal was never completed? Anyone could drive through central Taiwan and see an area littered with never completed development projects. What if Eternal Ogre didn't get financing for the project and couldn't finish it? The financing, after all, came from private banks which might fail at any moment. A large group of farmers balked and asked for a new deal. It was just too risky. They demanded that the financing for the project be sourced from government banks, and the whole deal redone.

Now, according to Taiwan's developer-friendly legal system, if half the landowners have signed onto a project, it can legally be started. Sure enough, according to the count in the Landowner's Association, half of the landowners had signed. The project commenced.

In Taiwan there is only one real sin: to stand between the developer and his profits. All else may be forgiven but that, never. At the same time, local development firms follow Aleister Crowley's famous admonition: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." Those recalcitrant farmers, who wanted the project backed by a government bank so that it was less risky, suddenly posed a threat to the whole project. And were dealt with, according to the precepts enumerated at the beginning of this paragraph.

Anyone familiar with struggles over land knows what came next: Shane, but with power shovels and minus guns. The developers dumped truckloads of rocks into the fields of farmers who had not sold. Several times. Several trucks at a time. When confronted by the police (who sided with the law, not the developer), the company said Oops! that it had all been an accident. I saw where they had gone into fields and tearing up the concrete walls that lined the irrigation ditches, tossed great chunks of concrete randomly over the naked dirt. They drove their machines over planted fields, flattening every plant, and dumped soil and rock into rice paddies. Even without these affronts, they made the area miserable to live in.

One night they sent a man with a power shovel to tear up the water main to Mr. Wang's home, according to Mr. Wang. When the police arrived he ignored them, until at last the officers were forced to pull their guns and threaten to fire. At that point, telling me the story, Mr. Wang interjected: "If only this were America?" "What do you mean?" I asked, expecting a lecture on rule of law. But instead he said: "The farmers would all have guns and these men would all be shot."

Not everyone unwilling to sell was treated the same way. Nearby was a kindergarten owned by a foreign church and frequented by foreigners; it was left alone, since it had an organization behind it. Another plot of land owned by a large organization was similarly left untouched. Anyone with an organization behind them, Mr. Wang said, was handled with kid gloves.

In addition to the stick, carrots were also offered. To get around the solidarity of the farmers, Eternal Ogre began approaching them individually, at night. Some were offered better plots in FutureSuperWorld, right next to the school. Others were given financial inducements, or their relatives were. Threats were also made; out of fright several farmers refused to talk to me. Out of fright, I too have concealed all the identifying details in this story.

Mr. Wang wanted me to give the tale, with true details, publicity on my blog. He was thinking that with sufficient publicity, there might be changes in the System. I laughed when he told me that. He had lived with story night and day, studied the law -- "When I start talking about the law, everyone goes to sleep. But it's the most important thing!" He mentioned that before, when he had heard about such tales happening to others, he didn't care. It was none of his business. But now that it had happened to his family, he had been radicalized. But he was the only one. He wouldn't even let me use his real name.

The moral of the story? The farmers aren't fighting for any great principle, merely a lower level of risk and the chance to redo a deal most of them had freely agreed to before the thugs and bribes were showered on them. The development company has a right to feel cheated, and no right to abuse the farmers. Too, I only heard one side of the story.

You'll just have to find your own moral here.

*All details such as prices, names of locations, individuals and companies have been changed.
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Anonymous said...

You deserve a medal and full honors.
Well done!

Ben Goren said...

Thank you for covering this sad and predictable tale ...

Άλισον said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max said...

Michael, you must be the guarding angel. -): It's sad that in Taiwan you don't have the rights to defend yourself but rely on the corrupted government to protect your interest. I was puzzled at Houston airport before 911 to see a sign said "no firearm allowed!" Then in the past few years, I understood why no democratic government can ban the people to defend themselves at all possible means....because if you can't defend yourself, no on will......

Ben Findlay said...

Very well written and analysed.

Posts like these are the reason I still come back here 2 years after leaving Taiwan.

All the best to you.

Anonymous said...

"The development company has a right to feel cheated"

Wha...??? I thought you said they bought up small plots of land so that they would be the majority in the landownder's association. If the vote was legit, then why should they have a right to feel cheated?

Anonymous said...

"t's sad that in Taiwan you don't have the rights to defend yourself but rely on the corrupted government to protect your interest. "

But can you imagine the tragedies that might occur over a loss of face at the scene of a fender bender?

Michael Turton said...

Wha...??? I thought you said they bought up small plots of land so that they would be the majority in the landownder's association. If the vote was legit, then why should they have a right to feel cheated?

Because even though the vote was not legit (I assume you mean that :)), from what I understood, many of the now balking farmers had originally approved the deal. What they want is to do the deal over again, after having given assent to the first offer.


Unknown said...

"But can you imagine the tragedies that might occur over a loss of face at the scene of a fender bender?"

LOL! Sad, but true. A couple of times, when I have been furious with car-drivers when I was on my scooter, and I beeped my horn and gave them the finger (I don't do this routinely, just in exception instances) at them for cutting off traffic and making it dangerous, the said cars followed me erratically and only drove off when I stopped in front a a well-lit store, or some such... They had their hands out of their windows, glared at me, and well...seemed awfully gangsterish.

This is the thing with some of the north and some of central Taiwan (some of the South, too, I suppose, otherwise we wouldn't get movies like Goodbye, South, Goodbye, but the M.O.'s are likely very, very different. Such "land-deals" as Michael Turton is describing here are likely the machinations of gangster-businessmen, who, unfortunately, have a lot of sway in places like Taichung County, Miaoli County, and I suspect, in Taoyuan County.

A certain amount of speculation on my part, of course, but it is speculation based on experience and a certain amount of background information. There is an awful lot of seedy menace in these places (I don't hate these places, either - Miaoli and Taichung have many, many good people, although traveling through Taoyuan can seem a pretty bizarre experience).

Unknown said...

Argh! Sorry for the typos in that last comment!

Craig Ferguson (@cfimages) said...

@Max - Please tell me that you were joking in your comment. Most people (other than Americans maybe) are perfectly happy and capable of living without guns. We look at the example of America with its high murder rates, drive-by-shootings, school massacres and the like and scratch our heads wondering when you'll all wake up and ban the things. The rest of the developed world manages to function just fine without firearms.

Max said...

Craig, I don't write/check comments often, but I just feel an urge to respond.....I don't own firearm nor am I a member of NRA; nevertheless, I agree that people kill/hurt people and not blame the sins on other means. Having said that, I guess I am politically incorrect in terms of the civilization you would like. My point here, obviously not successfully said, is that people have the rights to stand up to defend themselves and not rely on the corrupted government to protect their interests.

Craig Ferguson (@cfimages) said...

@Max - I may have misunderstood you, apologies for that.

Max said...

Thank you Craig, no apology needed at all. It's quite normal that different people have different thoughts....