Preservation of farmland put on back burner

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 December, 2008, 12:00am

Economic boosters get priority

Beijing's 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.5 trillion) economic stimulus package would erode efforts over the next decade to preserve enough farmland to meet the country's food needs, a senior central government official said yesterday.

But a short-term economic boost was a government priority and no construction projects, once approved, would be delayed or dropped because of land issues, said Ministry of Land and Resources Deputy Minister Lu Xinshe .

'We have such a small amount of time, a huge amount of investment, and many projects that have to get off the ground,' Mr Lu said in Beijing.

'These factors will definitely put some enormous pressure on farmland preservation, threatening our bottom line of [120 million hectares]. Our overall policy is ... that if conflicts of interest emerge over the taking of a large piece of land ... it will be taken if necessary. But we will protect the farmers' interests.'

It was the first time a senior official had publicly, albeit indirectly, admitted that growth in gross domestic product was more important than farmers' land interests.

Some dramatic changes of policy have quietly been put into place. In a notice to subordinates on Sunday, the ministry said it would allow ground to be broken on projects before an official land-use certificate had been obtained.

Even though a continuous stream of projects could consume more land, city governments had more power to redistribute land resources. When 'unavoidable', even protected farmland could be taken over.

'The approval must be quick, supply must be sufficient, and urgent needs must be satisfied first,' the notice said.

The approach is a sharp contrast to the stringent land-management policy in place since 2006. Farmers have so far managed to feed more than 1.3 billion people with only 7 per cent of the world's farmland.

But as the country has become the world's factory and rapid urbanisation and transport networks such as airports and express highways have sprung up, farmers have lost their land at an unprecedented speed.

The mainland has lost 8 million hectares of arable land since 1995, an area about the size of Austria.

Landless farmers have gradually become one of the most disadvantaged and unstable social groups. Land disputes, often involving hundreds of protesters, have erupted in almost every province, with some turning into deadly riots.

Meanwhile, food imports have surged, prompting overseas concerns that the mainland's growing demand was one of the driving factors in the global food crisis.

In 2006, Beijing announced a plan to maintain at least 120 million hectares of farmland until 2020, meaning there would be less than 2 million hectares of farmland to develop for other uses in the next decade.

Mr Lu said the target could still be reached because the government was just bringing forward future land-use allocations.

But Land and Resources Minister Xu Shaoshi said on Tuesday that despite the economic downturn, 17 cities had breached regulations requiring them to turn farmland over to commercial and industrial use this year.

Most of the cities were in the western regions, Mr Xu said.