Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when Taiwan needed support in the international community to hold onto its seat in the United Nations, one of its most effective means of winning friends abroad was through agriculture. Numerous teams of agricultural technicians were dispatched to developing countries, especially in Africa, to teach farmers techniques for increasing yields of rice and other crops.
In much the same spirit, the New Southbound Policy has adopted the sharing of advanced agricultural technology as one of its flagship programs. Taiwan regards itself as uniquely qualified to play this role. Given the island’s tropical/subtropical location, its farmers are accustomed to the hot and humid conditions found in most of the target countries. It is also easy for Taiwan’s agricultural experts to relate to the needs of their regional counterparts. It is not so long ago that farming in Taiwan was transformed into a modern business, assisted by computerization, biotechnology, and advanced growing, storage, transportation, and marketing techniques.
“Over the past 50 or 60 years we have gained a lot of experience that the government would like to use to help our Southeast Asian neighbors just as we help our farmers in Taiwan,” says Hung chung-hsiu, Director General of the Department of International Affairs at the Council of Agriculture. He says that many Taiwanese remember with gratitude the economic aid that the United States provided to Taiwan after the Second World War. “Now we have a good livelihood and can share out experience to help other countries – to ‘pay forward’ the assistance we received.”
The first stage of the project has involved establishing a Modern Agriculture Demonstration Farm on about 400 hectares of land in Karawang Regency in the West Java province of Indonesia. The program, which is being undertaken in cooperation with the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture and the local Karawang government, focuses on five areas: irrigation, rice cultivation, horticulture, duck farming, and the organization of farmers’ associations.
To get the project started, 30 Indonesian farmers and agricultural extension workers were brought to Taiwan last fall for 15 days of intensive training. They have now returned to Karawang, accompanied by Taiwanese specialists, to train others in the use of improved farming techniques. The Demo Farm will be expanded to 2,000 hectares in the second stage and eventually to 10,000 hectares. In addition, planning has begun for similar demo farms in Vietnam and the Philippines.
“Normally rice production in Indonesia yields about 3,000 to 4,000 kilograms per hectare, but using our techniques the amount could be raised to 7,000 to 8,000,” says Director General Hung. “That will make a very practical contribution to people’s lives.”
Taiwan’s relative diplomatic isolation has not proven to be a severe obstacle in carrying out the agricultural projects under the New Southbound Policy, says Hung. “The Taiwan sovereignty issue often prevents us from joining world organizations, so we need some channels of cooperation as a bridge,” he notes. An example is the Asia Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI) based in Bangkok. Since membership is open to both government and non-government organizations, the Council of Agriculture has been able to join – and through its membership gain communication links to national and international agricultural research institutes throughout the region, including the International Rice Institute located in the Philippines and even indirectly to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
Besides burnishing friendly relations with other countries in the region, another aim of the New Southbound Policy is to open new business opportunities for Taiwanese enterprises. According to the government, the program has helped the Taiwan Fertilizer Co. to start exports to Malaysia and Cambodia, while Taiwan Fertilizer, Taiwan Sugar, and the Taiwan International Agricultural Development Co. have made investments in Southeast Asian markets.
A further objective is to provide Taiwanese consumers with a greater variety of produce through increased imports of tropical fruits and vegetables from Southeast Asia. India is also a potential source of supply. “It’s such a big country it includes temperate, subtropical, and tropical areas,” says the Council of Agriculture’s Hung. “They would like to export more to Taiwan, especially organic products, and we hope to complete the certification process in the near future.”