Taiwan’s rural areas preserving biodiversity

Chang Jung-cheng (???), owner of a 2-hectare cabbage farm in eastern Taiwan's Hualien County, remembers when his village was like a battleground between humans and animals.

"We would chase after boars and goats, and use pesticides heavily to prevent any creature which tried to enter our paddies," Chang said.

"I sometimes felt lonely when I checked my farm at night - it was completely silent, not even sounds from insects or frogs could be heard," he told CNA.

But the situation changed in 2010 thanks to the help of the Forestry Bureau and a local NGO, which launched an initiative in 2009 to raise conservation awareness among Taiwan's farmers to prevent natural environments from being further damaged by human activity.

Together with five other farm operators in his village, Chang abandoned the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers after 14 years of using this harmful, but conventional, way of farming.

Instead of setting up traps for animals, villagers started installing cameras to capture animal movements, through the help of ecologist Lin Ching-feng (???), who is working with the NGO, Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation (TOAF), which kickstarted the project.

"After the villagers saw a mother goat walk with a baby goat in the footage, they decided together to stop killing," Lin told CNA. "Many of them had not seen a wild animal when it was still alive."

Next step: Setting up a national green network

The TOAF said the focus of the program is to preserve species and restore their natural habitats through technical and financial assistance to farmers who are transitioning from conventional to organic agriculture.

While the new farming method is not designed to have the crops pass organic farming tests, farmers like Chang will be given Green Conservation certificates by the bureau and TOAF as long as they follow specific requirements of the program, such as maintenance of natural habitats on the farmland and no use of pesticides, to prove that their farming is environmentally friendly.

"The spirit of the Green Conservation system is to examine organic agriculture from another perspective, which puts more emphasis on the process of farming than the results," said the TOAF's project manager Chen Rung-tsung (???).

The system has helped more than 200 farms across Taiwan transition from pesticide and fertilizer-dependent farming to environmentally friendly farming.

The Forestry Bureau said it hopes to go a step further this year to lead a national "Green Network" campaign through an expansion of the program, along with more diverse strategies and cooperation with different government agencies.

"We want to connect the rural areas to build up an ecological protection network that spreads from the Central Mountain Range so that high mountains won't be the only and isolated space for wildlife conservation," said bureau head Lin Hwa-ching (???).

Lowland wildlife needs to be preserved too

Mostly forested, the mountain ranges in the island's central region include more than 200 peaks rising higher than 3,000 meters above sea level, and was traditionally considered a major habitat for endangered species.

However, Lin pointed out that wildlife in that region only accounts for 35 percent of Taiwan's protected species, with the remaining scattered in environments people can easily access.

It is therefore important to put more focus on identifying where those creatures are and expanding the protection area from high mountains all the way into hills, rivers, plains and eventually the sea, he said.

This means that except for the highly-populated urban areas, which cover 13 percent of Taiwan's total land, other regions with less human settlement will have to play a more important role in the Green Network plan, Lin said.

Green network plan

He added that it will take NT$3 billion (US$102 million) through 2021 to carry out this program, which will involve developing basic guidelines and infrastructure.

These include building up ecological corridors with the transportation ministry, assuring farmers have a stable retail channel and negotiating good prices for them.

The program also sends experts like Lin to teach farmers how to protect wildlife without compromising their yields. For instance, one method is to reduce farming during the breeding season to avoid disturbing the animals, and make up the difference by farming more intensively afterwards.

The efforts are in line with global trends to farm in harmony with nature.

In Tainan city's Guantian District, a rural agricultural area well known for its Chinese water chestnuts, conventional farming had caused a dramatic loss of natural habitats for birds.

This was cited as a case study last year by the International Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative (IPSI), a global effort to protect the ecology of areas between mountains and arable land.

Before the Green Conservation system was introduced to the region in 2009, farmers grew massive amounts of the edible aquatic plants in fields which supported many resident and migratory birds, especially the rare pheasant-tailed jacana.

Thanks to the intervention from the local IPSI advocates, farmers have learned ways to adapt to their natural surroundings by carefully reforming farming practices, for instance, by installing protective buffer strips along water bodies to reduce water pollution from other farmlands that use chemical fertilizers and adjusting farming frequencies, according to breeding season of the birds.

The efforts have proven successful, as a study on the jacana bird population in Guantian found that it has increased from 275 in 2009 to 1,272 in 2016, according to the IPSI.

Challenges: maintaining steady crop yields

It was not easy to convince farmers to adopt the environmentally friendly farming method in the beginning especially because their production level usually drops by an average of 50 percent in the first few years, said Shia Jung-sheng (???), director the bureau's Conservation Department.

What the government does now is offer free consultation for farmers who wish to get the Green Conservation certificate, and assure them they will have a stable marketing channel and prices once they are certified so they would not need to worry about a bad harvest.

For eligible farmers, the government will also give a subsidy of NT$30,000 for each hectare of land set aside for environmentally friendly farming, she said.

Through introducing experts like Lin, farmers also learn to utilize the most advanced farming methods to cut down costs without compromising the environment.

Cross-department efforts

Besides ongoing projects at the community level, Lin said, the bureau has started to work with other government agencies, such as the Directorate General of Highways (DGH), to identify wildlife hot spots in rural areas and create "ecological corridors" to reduce human interference on native species.

The first such corridor, aimed at connecting fragmented habitats for animals due to human activities, is being constructed in Hualien County in eastern Taiwan.

Shen Ching-ruei (???), a station head of the DGH's Fourth Maintenance Office, who is in charge of the corridor plan, told CNA that a bridge on Provincial Highway No. 9 is being renovated to make space for native species.

The bridge that crosses Chianung Creek will be extended from 85 to 470 meters in length so that there will be an extra elevated part, which creates tunnel-like passages on each side of the river for animals such as goats to cross, Shen said.

"Animals that need to nest or migrate in the region will not be blocked by man-made construction and risk being roadkill," Shen explained, adding that a team will keep environment the way it was under the bridge.

Transition of mindset

For Chang the cabbage farmer, the transition to environmentally farming has not only inspired him to reconsider the relationship between humans and nature, but also made him a happier person.

Chang said although his crop yield has dropped after he adopted such farming, he is resigned to it, considering that he no longer has to expose himself to a toxic environment.

"I don't want to die at a young age, after seeing many of the farmers die of diseases caused by heavy use of pesticide," he said.

Chang said he also enjoys living in harmony with the creatures, which makes farming more interesting and more meaningful.

"Just listening to the clip clops of those goats in the dark made me feel so refreshed," he said. "Everyone that belongs here is back."

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel