Chinese farmers are losing their land

Posted: 16 January 2008

Author: Valerie Sartor and He Shan

China, a country that first domesticated rice in the Yangtze Valley 10,000 years ago, now faces a farming crisis as mass migration from the countryside into the factories and industrial zones of mushrooming cities eats up fertile land, while patterns of food consumption and land rights change. Valerie Sartor and He Shan sent this exclusive report from Inner Mongolia on the urgent challenge facing Chinese agriculture and the rural environment - one that is already impacting the rest of the world.

Girl with melons
Girl with melons
Girl with melons in China's most populous province, Sichuan. Credit: FAO/Peyton Johnson
Historically the Chinese have spent most of their income on food but to produce grains, vegetables and meat the country must retain enough arable cropland. Until recently this has not been a real issue. Prosperous but static, rural people lived trapped by cultural lineages that denoted power, on small farms, and on thin margins. Autocratic leaders did not promote change, and farming was not a revered profession.

Yet the country remained productive for centuries. From the Ming Dynasty onwards farmers were able to feed a growing, increasingly urbanised population. During the Qing Dynasty an effective famine relief system was put into effect and it was lauded as the best in the world during the 17th and 18th centuries. Although historically China experienced horrific famines so did Europe throughout the same centuries. Population growth was not an issue until the 19th and 20th centuries, although it did start taking a toll on the environment, just as it has globally as populations increase in other regions around the world. Today China is importing more and more food and resources. The extremely successful, sustainable, intensive nature of Chinese agriculture, which fed hundreds of millions of people over the millennia has been altered in favour of Western chemical methods that provide quick, short term bumper crops but harm or destroy the existing ecosystems. Old ideas and traditions have been ignored in favour of quick profits. In the past the Chinese took enormous care of their farms and forests. Their ancient love for the environment is reflected in wondrous gardens, poetry, nature writings and painting. Now China's ability to feed its own people and the rampant environmental destruction provokes serious concern. The very prosperity that has caused China and other world economies to soar together via the path of China's blistering economic growth is now predicted to cause global inflation.

Meat consumption In the late 90's the economist Lester Brown's article "Who will feed China?" pointed out that the country's population is expected to be 1.6 billion people by 2030 despite universal family planning services and that already China does not have enough internal resources to feed itself. Chinese demographers now expect the population to level out nearer to 1.5 billion, but the Brown's argument was sound. He predicted that soaring grain imports would upset global markets, and they have - for many reasons.

Chinese eating patterns have altered and increased, especially regarding meat consumption. Chinese experts asserted that if prices continued to go up the Chinese, being frugal, would simply cut back on meat and other imported items. But Brown noted that water, more than grain or meat, might well be the crucial issue at stake from a global perspective. He stated that, "Even as water becomes scarce in a land where 80 per cent of the grain crop is irrigated, as per-acre yield gains are erased by the loss of cropland to industrialization, and as food production stagnates, China still increases its population by the equivalent of a new Beijing each year." Brown also suggested that densely populated countries undergoing fast industrialization quickly become grain and food importers as the population base shifts from rural to urban workers.

The entire world is now experiencing rising food prices. The Chinese government is struggling to contain increasing inflation and maintain basic foods at costs affordable to poorer members of the migrant population by mandating price freezes and subsiding various manufacturing and food industries.

Dust storm in China
Dust storm in China
Dust storm in China. Photo © CCICCD
Water, clean or otherwise, is an even more serious issue. Water scarcity in China will impact the entire world; the country is experiencing not only scarcity in water but also a lack of potable water due to the massive environmental damage resulting from rapid industrialization without any powerful regulatory agencies to protect the ecology.

Even more frightening is the fact that agricultural experts worry that China, with 20 per cent of the world's population and only 7 per cent of the world's arable land, is fast losing even more arable land due to industrialization. Former cropland is becoming transformed into airports, houses, factories and roads at lightning speed. In efforts to check this

Lost land

Beijing authorities have mandated that arable land in total cannot fall below a threshold of 120 million hectares (298 million acres), yet an estimated 2.1 million hectares of new construction land were taken from farmland over the past five years. The Beijing News revealed in November 2007 that China's Ministry of Land and Resources noted that the country has lost 8 million hectares, or 6.6 percent, of its arable land in the past decade.

Corruption also contributes to arable land loss. The Chitian Metropolis News reported on November 8, 2007 that more than 20 trucks had roared into rural Wengjianao Village in central China's Hubei Province every day since November 2, dumping garbage round the clock. Over 10,000 tons of rubbish has turned the small farming village into a stinking dumpsite. Wengjianao villagers denied they had agreed to this dumping; an official surnamed Yang revealed that the leader of village, surnamed Weng, had agreed the dumping after taking illegal funds.

Moreover, no legislation exists to protect farmers against crooked officials. According to the December 26 issue of China News Weekly over recent years, local governments around China have become the epicentre of corrupt land deals. From October of 2006 to the early 2007, about 1,500 officials were punished for illegal conduct concerning land, including some senior officials. They illegally expropriated collective farmland and then redistributed it at a profit for non-agricultural purposes. Officials obsessed with the provincial pursuit of GDP growth and fiscal revenue still collude, making shady deals, undermining the interests of both farmers and urbanites. They hold out parcels of land as carrots to siphon off investment and then set off a real estate boom in their areas.

In December 2007 Zhang Hongshang, a Beiguli villager from Shandong told the China Youth Daily that he wants explanations for his lost land. In February 2003 the Shandong Shenghua Glass Joint Stock Co. Ltd. grabbed about 5 hectares of farmland from Beiguli village's 188 families. This company never signed any legal documents whatsoever with the local villagers. They reported the illegal land acquisition to the Xintai Bureau of State Land and Resources (XBSLR) who ordered the enterprise to cease construction. Oddly enough, the police came out in force to protect this company from being disturbed. Construction is still ongoing.

Rising prices

Unfortunately, Chinese farmers still fall under a village collective system that forbids them to own, buy or sell the land they till - and that often leaves them powerless to keep it. Farmers have been excluded, unable to sell their own land, even though urban expansion has made the outlying farmlands an inviting target, paying farmers a tiny compensation and depriving them of future substnance.

Trading industrialisation for agriculture has fuelled China's rapid growth and the explosion in world commodity prices. Competition for oil and iron ore and steel and shipping and other raw materials has risen dramatically in the last decade; the impact of greater Chinese food demands (beef and pork and milk) has already affected global markets. Food price inflation is in the news and it is a serious worry for China's leaders. According to China's National Bureau of Statistics, the cost of eggs has risen over 27 per cent since last summer, and the price of beef and chicken increased by over 20 per cent. Grain prices have climbed by 6.4 per cent and pork has jumped a phenomenal 60 per cent. According to Martin Walker, editor emeritus for UPI, things are only going to get worse. In 2007 drought affected over 10 per cent of China's arable land, pushing up food prices. "But the longer-term outlook is grim, because much of the land being lost to construction in eastern China has been higher-quality agricultural land. This has degraded the overall quality of the country's remaining arable land; only 28 per cent is now categorized as high-yielding farmland, while 32 per cent is low yielding.

Industrialisation has also had another toll; official figures suggest that 15 per cent of China's total arable lands are polluted by heavy metals, and more than 40 per cent have suffered from soil erosion and desertification."

Arable land in China continues to decline. Farmers are suffering. Traditional love and respect for the land must somehow be restored, and farmers must be provided with a decent life. It is also imperative that checks and balances are put in place to protect the environment against ruthless land grabs and ways found to strengthen environmental planning as China's industrial juggernaut powers on. Without effective measures to solve this looming crisis everyone, not just the Chinese, is going to suffer.

Valerie Sartor is an editor and writer working in Beijing. He Shan is a professional translator.