Following forced land expropriations in Dapu Township (大埔), Miaoli County, earlier this year, farmers took to the streets and called on the government to amend the Land Expropriation Act (土地徵收條例). The issue became controversial and a few days ago the government finally made an official response. For one, it promised compensation at market prices, subject to twice-yearly reviews.
However, is this going to solve the problem? Is this what the farmers were thinking about when they asked for changes? I fear the government has come up with a seriously flawed solution for the simple reason that it has failed to understand the nature of the problem.
First, forced land expropriation involves human rights and is not a simple matter of how much compensation is offered. Forced expropriations are uncommon in constitutional democracies — unlike in Taiwan. This is because these nations view the issue as one involving human rights and one that needs to be strictly observed.
The 1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen that emerged from the French Revolution specified that property “is an inviolable and sacred right.” This became one of the most important propositions of the time and was later adopted by constitutional democracies. The second chapter of the Republic of China Constitution — the Rights and Duties of the People — was also influenced by this idea and has similar stipulations.
What is so important about property rights? Aside from involving the balance of wealth, they are also intimately related, and inseparable from, the right to life and liberty. In other words, there is an absolute relationship between individuals’ right to life and liberty and their right to own property and to use it, or dispose of it, as they see fit.
It follows, then, that in violating people’s property rights, those responsible for forcibly stripping them of their land are also denying them their rights to life and liberty. This concept has been repeatedly emphasized in the Council of Grand Justices’ constitutional interpretations on the matter — Interpretations 400 and 596 being cases in point.
The issue of how much compensation is to be paid is, of course, important, but whether these forced expropriations violate human rights guarantees are even more so.
Second, land expropriation is a structural issue and not merely a matter of technical evaluation. Because land expropriation robs people of the constitutionally guaranteed rights mentioned above, expropriation must meet very strict conditions — it must serve the community, be necessarily proportional, a last resort and fully compensated. Not one of these conditions should be ignored.
The latest draft amendment has a special clause which states that when someone applies to have land expropriated, the service to the community and the necessity of the purpose for their application must be evaluated based on social, economic, cultural, ecological, sustainability and other aspects specific to the expropriation plan. How are services to the community and necessity to be determined, and by whom?
This involves the imbalance of power between the party applying to use the land and the landowner and cannot be solved merely by technical evaluations. The amendment proposes giving this right to the party applying to use the land, which is precisely what current public hearings have done.
Article 10, Section Two of the Land Expropriation Act states that a public hearing should be held in which the opinions of landowners and stakeholders are obtained before those applying to use the land have their plans and applications approved by the authorities. Since the interests of those applying to use the land are in direct conflict with the interests of landowners and stakeholders, allowing the party applying to use the land to hold public hearings is tantamount to letting them be both player and referee, making the hearings a mere formality lacking any real significance.
The draft amendment will bring the same result, since it hands the right to interpret service to the community and necessity to those applying to use the land.
The version of the amendment proposed by the Taiwan Rural Front emphasizes that after a land expropriation plan has been proposed, strict public hearing procedures should be followed, placing those applying to use the land, the landowners and the stakeholders on a level standing and providing sufficient information to allow landowners and stakeholders to freely express their opinions. After questioning, discussing and debating the issue, an objective and neutral third party should judge whether the decision made serves the community, is necessary and has not been monopolized by the party applying to use the land.
James Scott, a sociologist whose research focuses on farmers’ movements, has formulated a concept he calls the “subsistence ethic.” He believes that in the capitalist era, the subsistence ethic of farmers is often ignored. This makes farmers incapable of providing for themselves and is the main reason why farmers rebel.
Taiwanese farmers’ protests caused by excessive land expropriation can also be viewed in this light. It is really a pity that the amendments proposed by the government have not been aimed at solving the real problem. This means that the subsistence ethic of farmers will continue to be exploited and that farmers will have to keep on fighting for their rights.
Hsu Shih-jung is chairman of National Chengchi University’s Department of Land Economics.
Translated by Paul Cooper and Drew Cameron