Stealing the dirt beneath farmers' feet

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2007, 12:00am

Villagers fight corrupt officials who have been bullying them off their land

Soaring property prices are usually good news for landowners. But for the farmers of Gurao township, in Shantou, Guangdong province, a 200-fold increase in rural land values has brought only violent conflict with the authorities.

The row started out as a peaceful rights protection movement early this year but swiftly developed into a series of riots when the farmers felt local authorities failed to acknowledge their concerns about questionable land deals.

The riots are just the latest violent protests over land disputes in Guangdong in the past few years, including a 2005 standoff in Shanwei between villagers and police that saw at least three people killed.

Over the past two weeks, villagers in 13 Gurao communities have ransacked the homes and offices of village leaders in response to the news that almost all of their land had been sold to people with close connections to the officials.

The villagers say 'not one fen' of the money from the sales has reached their pockets.

In Toupu village, residents said they first found out in October that all farmland had been sold by village party secretary Chen Jinhu and his deputy, Huang Chuyuan .

'We only realised this when local authorities rejected all land allocation applications submitted by 31 township enterprises in our village,' a 56-year-old woman said. 'We also found out that [Chen and Huang] had also embezzled more than 2 million yuan of our public funds.'

She said officials told township enterprises they could only buy land on a black market dominated by land dealers, most of whom were the relatives and friends of the village leaders.

'The land dealers offered us blocks at more than 2 million yuan per mu,' the woman said. 'But land prices were just 200,000 yuan per mu last year.'

One mu is a 1/15 of a hectare.

She said land prices had risen so much that farmers could not afford to buy land in Toupu to set up new homes for their adult sons or establish small businesses.

'My 12-member family had to buy land in a neighbouring village to build a bigger home that could accommodate our small home-based underwear factory,' she said.

Another villager said local officials had requisitioned all farmland in 2003 and put it under the management of a village committee in the name of 'nationalisation of all farmland'.

'They [village officials] even dug deep holes everywhere on our land to force us to abandon it,' the villager said. 'Officials also sold the excavated soil to a brick factory.'

Residents said three children aged between seven and 11 had drowned in the holes which had become filled with rainwater. But officials refused to fill in the holes because the land had been sold.

'Officials said we could only do that if we bought the land back,' one of the villagers said.

'We are very angry because they don't care about our life at all ... They are not qualified to be the so called 'parent officials' any more.'

The dispossession experienced by the Toupu farmers has been felt elsewhere in the township, so much so that residents in 13 villages, including Toupu and eight communities in neighbouring Shangbao, began forming their own investigation squads in January to look into the matter.

One of the founders of the movement said they uncovered more corruption after they raided village offices and audited community books. The raids occurred when appeals to higher authorities about their concerns fell on deaf ears.

The PLA veteran said official contracts signed with land dealers last year revealed the property had been sold off for 12,000 yuan per mu, but the dealers were reselling the land for 3 million yuan per mu.

'We collected all the evidence about the corruption in our village and gave it to higher-level authorities,' he said. 'But we were very disappointed with the feedback.'

The farmers even tried to protest outside the Shantou municipal government office building on April 26, the day of the city's annual trade fair, but the 1,000 or so villagers riding motorcycles and carrying 'seek justice' banners failed to win an audience with the municipal officials.

The 13 teams then ransacked village officials' homes and offices, forcing many village heads to flee or tighten home security.

The villagers even targeted tenants renting the disputed land and some businesses owned by outsiders were being dismantled last week.

Unlike the land disputes in Shanwei, where police shot dead at least three villagers on December 6, 2005, police in Shantou have been reluctant to intervene and nobody has been detained over the riots in the past two weeks.

'I must confess that protests in some specific villages are out of control as some lawless villagers have vented their anger by ransacking officials' homes,' one of the investigation team members said. 'But I can say for sure that no one was injured.'

Another protester from Huaguang village said: 'What we have done is for future generations. We can't live without land because we are farmers.'

He said that in the past a rural family in Gurao could earn 30,000 to 40,000 yuan each year from growing vegetables or fruit. 'But the current monthly salary in a factory is only 1,000 yuan,' he said. 'We only know farm work. We can't compete with workers from outside.'

Gurao is a key production base for undergarments on the mainland, with 400 manufacturing enterprises and 1,000 small workshops occupying large tracts of farmland.

Many workshop owners have admitted that as land became scarcer they tried to bribe village heads for deals on cheap blocks.

The riots had alarmed the provincial discipline inspection commission, a villagers' representative and an entrepreneur said, and a special work team had been sent to the township to investigate.

'It's our preliminary victory,' the representative said.