From Farmland to Golf Course

Epidemic of Land Seizures Threatens Food Security

August 17, 2004

XIANGQIAO, China -- One day, Zhu Meixia was planting rice, tea and vegetables on the plot of land that has fed her family for decades. The next day, government officials barred her from stepping foot on it. They had leased the land to developers who wanted to build a golf course.

Four years later, from the dirt road by her house she can see automatic sprinklers spraying a fine mist on the nearly finished 18-hole course. A few workers in conical peasant hats are putting the finishing touches on the sand traps, but none of them are from the village or even the county. The hundred or so golf course jobs went to migrant workers brought in from another province.

Zhu and her family have been given a tiny amount of compensation, but they have no land.

"We have three nothings" -- no land, no work, no social security -- said Zhu, watching an old black-and-w hite TV in her bedroom. "I really liked working the land. Now I'm quite bored. A lot of villagers have started playing mah-jongg."

The number of Chinese peasants who can claim "the three nothings" is growing, reaching as high as 40 million, says scholar Dang Guoying.

Throughout China, precious farmland is being swallowed up by villas, shopping malls, investment zones, software parks, roads and other signs of a rapidly industrializing economy.

Such schemes have plunged farmers into poverty, created tense social conflicts and raised anxieties over China's food security.

"The long-term effects are tremendous," said Li Ping, a Beijing-based attorney for the Rural Development Institute, a Seattle organization working on land issues in China. "The very rapid loss of farmland creates a very tremendous problem for China to feed itself in the future."

Partly as a result of the decline in arable land, grain production in China has fallen for the past four years. Per-capita grain reserves are at their lowest level since 1982, according to the official China Daily newspaper.

Furthermore, many cases of land seizure are illegal. All land in China is owned by the state, but farmers have long-term leases with "owner-like rights," said Li. Often, local officials have violated those leases, not given legally required compensation, failed to obtain proper approvals for the project or received a kickback from the investor, according to experts and official media.

More than 42,000 cases of illegal land use were reported in the first half of this year. While China has about 200 golf courses and another 100 under construction, no more than a dozen of them were built legally, according to official media.

In April, the central government cracked down, calling for a halt to most construction projects involving farmland. Beijing alone suspended or canceled construction of seven golf courses in June.

However, previous administrative orders have proven to be largely ineffective, and Li believes the current one could even worsen the problem once it expires in October.

"After the moratorium, there may be an even greater or more rapid loss of farmland because the demand is somewhat artificially stopped, but it doesn't mean the demand is no longer there," he said. "The momentum is just accumulating."

Wang Hongguang, director of the new China Food Security Research Center, said food security should be the government's top priority, according to China Daily. He said crop yields need to rise by 50 to 60 percent in the next 20 years so that China can feed itself.

Yet China -- which feeds 22 percent of the world's population on just 7 percent of the world's farmland -- lost 16.7 million acres of arable land, 5 percent of its total, to industrial development in the past seven years. Of that, about 2.3 million acres was used for construction projects.

Another problem, Li noted, is that fear of land grabs give farmers little sense of security. Thus they have little incentive to make any long-term investment in the soil quality, further lowering crop yields in the long term. And if they are able to increase crop yields, it would extract an extremely high toll on the environment, with intensive use of water and fertilizer.

Zhu doesn't think much about the nation's grain security, but she does know that while she used to eat rice she planted herself, now she has to buy it.

"It's not nearly as sweet as our own rice was," she said.

Xiangqiao is less than an hour's drive from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province and a city of more than 6 million, but the villagers here lead meager lives. Few have phones and almost none have refrigerators, washing machines or other modern appliances.

When the township government officials seized the land in 1999, they put a fence around it and posted security guards around the clock without even allowing farmers to finish harvesting, villagers said. They were told the government was building a retirement home for postal workers, but in fact, Hunan Telecom had invested in the Longhu International Golf Course.

Farmers were given compensation equivalent to one-fourth of what they would've earned from the land. Zhu doubts she will be able to afford to put her 14-year-old son in high school, which costs more than $1,210 a year.

When a group of villagers tried to block the start of construction, one was jailed for nearly three months. When one villager who had a small shop protested that the developers weren't even buying his vegetables to feed their workers, he was thrown in jail for a couple of weeks.

In February, officials posted a notice warning villagers not to engage in criminal behavior and said the golf course would be "greatly beneficial in promoting the economic development of this county and the prosperity of peasants and in upgrading the status of this county."

Land issues have become the top complaint by farmers and contribute to rising tensions between villagers and officials, said Dang, a professor at the Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Forty million farmers have become landless in the last seven years. The legally stipulated level of compensation, though very low, is often not paid out. In total, local governments owe at least $1.2 billion in compensation and relocation fees to farmers for taking their land, according to official figures.

Experts fear the worst as the grievances in the countryside accumulate and fester. Already, peasants have blocked railways, committed suicide, killed officials and staged rebellions involving tens of thousands of people. Just last month, hundreds of police raided a village in Henan province where peasants had been protesting a land deal and shot rubber bullets at them, injuring dozens.

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