In China, disappearing farmland sparks concerns

URBAN SPRAWL: The photograph shows apartment blocks rising above farmland and old homes atZhouzhuang village, Shandong province, as part of a massive countryside redevelopment programme. Photo : Ananth Krishnan   | Photo Credit: ANANTH KRISHNAN

Surrounded by grey, stone courtyard houses and fields of corn, the towering construction cranes stand out.

Farmers, most in their 50s and 60s, watch the cranes slowly creak to work above their farmland, as they patiently wait for the bulldozers to reach their doorsteps.

Zheng Feng Lan (55) looks out from her front porch, staring across the newly-laid highway into a vision of her future — a block of apartments that incongruously rises above green fields.

Across China's villages, tens of thousands of farmers are currently being moved out of their farms into apartments, part of a massive redevelopment programme unveiled by President Hu Jintao to build a “New Socialist Countryside.”

The idea behind the plan is to free up farmland and consolidate smaller holdings to boost productivity. Officials say this will lay the foundation for more mechanised farming, and phase out the subsistence agriculture still practiced across much of China.

But here in the villages of Shandong in northeast China, villagers say a plan designed to boost agriculture is having the opposite effect — denying farmers their livelihood and diverting farmland to real estate developments that bring local governments easy profits.

“We are not happy to move,” says Ms. Zheng, a corn farmer. “The farms are all being torn down, and we have been given apartment blocks and 600 yuan (around Rs. 4,200). But what good is an apartment to me? I can't grow corn, or find any work, as factories only hire younger people.”

The past decade has been good for China's farmers. Following the abolition of the agricultural tax and increasing government support for crop prices, incomes have been rising, Ms. Zheng says.

Shandong, a largely agricultural province that lies 400 km south of Beijing along China's eastern coast, has been one of the most aggressive in pushing forward the redevelopment. Within a decade, officials say, almost every village in Shandong will house its farmers in apartments.

For the government, the plan is a crucial component in its larger development model, which envisages rapidly moving out rural populations into expanding townships and cities and reducing subsistence agriculture.

By 2025, China is forecast to add 400 million to its cities, accounting for 64 per cent of its total population, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. In this time, India is estimated to add 215 million to cities.

For the current generation of China's farmers, this rapid transition brings anxieties. In four villages The Hindu visited, the most common problem was inadequate compensation for land. “Families were promised 500 jin (250 kg) of wheat every year, but none have been given their quota,” says one farmer.

Another, who gives her surname as Zhang, says she was given a 30 year-lease for land-use rights — land is owned by the government — in 2007, but lost her land for no compensation. “I petitioned the local government, but they warned me that I would go to prison if I continued,” she said.

The larger concern for Beijing is the loss of farmland and the long-term impact on China's food security. The plan was intended as an attempt to boost arable land, by allowing local governments to sell land for developments only if they freed up a commensurate amount of farmland.

According to the Ministry of Land Resources, 24 provinces, including Shandong, were allowed to develop 13,333 hectares of land if they freed up farmland. But for local governments, real estate developments are an easy way of boosting revenues, by acquiring land from farmers at a bargain and reselling it at huge profits. Beijing has little means of regulating local-level transactions, and ensuring that its mandated “red lines” of minimum arable land are not crossed.

In Zhouzhuang, for instance, farmland ostensibly acquired for agriculture remained idle even a year after it was bought, and eventually sold to a real estate company.

In nearby Hebei province too, similar cases of acquired farmland being diverted to more profitable developments were reported by the South China Morning Post this week. There, 1,000 villages are being redeveloped to free up 30,000 hectares by 2012.

Xie Yang, an official at the State Council, or Cabinet, Development Research Centre told the newspaper: “Local governments love the policy because it brings huge revenue by selling land. And, in fact, farmers lose the land and don't get what they deserve.”But other officials say the plan is a necessary step in China's march towards urbanisation, even if today's farmers have to bear the cost.

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 3:53:36 AM |

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