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State Tightens Farmland Protection

Spring is here and, as farmers gear up for their most important planting season, the central government is stepping up efforts to ensure enough grain is planted to feed the country’s 1.3 billion people.


The State Council issued an emergency circular on Saturday, forbidding further seizure of basic cultivated land for reforestation and for any activities other than grain planting, like livestock farming.


After a three-year investigation, in 2001 the Ministry of Land and Resources designated 108.9 million hectares out of the country’s 127 million hectares of arable land as basic cultivated land.


Identified as the most productive fields, basic cultivated land is not to be transferred to uses other than grain planting without special approval from the ministry, says the country’s Regulation on the Protection of Basic Cultivated Land.


China needs at least 106.7 million hectares of cultivated land to feed its future theoretical peak population of 1.6 billion, said Pan Mingcai, director of the ministry’s Department of Cultivated Land Protection.


The state has implemented two major policies on agriculture development in the past few years.


One is to stop farmland cultivation on hill slopes, which is suitable for reforestation, and use the area to plant trees. The other is to upgrade the agricultural product mix by growing more cash crops.


These policies have sometimes been over-implemented by officials who used them to seize huge chunks of basic farmland.


Pan Mingcai applauded the new move by the State Council, saying that it is the mishandling of these two policies, not construction, that has caused the greatest loss of cultivated farmland.


By the end of 2002, China’s cultivated land had fallen to 123.5 million hectares from 127 million hectares in 2001.


Of the lost arable land last year, 229,248 hectares went to construction projects, while 2.6 million hectares went to reforestation, livestock and cash crops.


Large tracts of cultivated farmland have been improperly used as a result of the mishandling of the state’s policies.


While these policies are necessary to improve the environment or boost agriculture, efforts sometimes go too far and cause unnecessary losses of cultivated land, even basic cultivated land in many cases, he said.


The new policy calls on various local governments to confine their efforts to non-basic cultivated land and wild ground, while recovering basic cultivated land lost to other purposes.


The ministry will stop endorsing new land use applications from any local government that defies the rule, says the circular.


In rapidly growing Chinese cities, stopping the supply of construction land is like taking the firewood from under the cauldron, some say.


Also over the weekend, the State Forestry Administration said no trees should be planted on basic cultivated land. Any illegally planted trees will not be issued the necessary certificates for commercial disposal.


Related laws require that all trees to be put to commercial uses win a green light from the forestry authority first, just as the land authority’s approval is a prerequisite to the transfer of arable land for construction.


The Ministry of Agriculture reports that China harvested 450 billion kilograms of crops last year, substantially below the past decade’s average of 500 billion kilograms annually.


Accordingly, the country is under-supplied 40 billion to 50 billion kilograms of grain, and prices of some staple grains have increased.


Last week, the State Council vowed at a national work conference to manage a yearly crop output of 455 billion kilograms this year, a remarkable jump.


Of course, the goal assumes there is sufficient arable land, said Wang Linghai, a researcher with the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Land and Resources Economics.


Wang also drew attention to the number of programs the Ministry of Land and Resources has launched this month to strengthen land management, such as a joint national probe with the Ministry of Agriculture into the uses of basic cultivated land, and the continuation of last year’s national campaign against the “enclosure movement” by hundreds of industrial parks and development zones.


Also earlier this month, Minister of Land and Resources Sun Wensheng said the ministry will only endorse 120,000 hectares of cultivated land to be transferred for construction uses this year, 23.4 percent less than last year.


Wang is optimistic about the central government’s stepped-up campaign against abuses of cultivated land.


He said the Ministry of Land and Resources has stood by earlier warnings to punish land abuses severely.


Local governments committed over 80 percent of last year’s land abuse cases.


This month alone has seen six major local officials handed criminal or administrative punishments.


Moreover, 26 cities that failed to submit last year’s land use reports as requested have had their new land-use applications shelved by the ministry, the first move of its kind in the country.


Observers believe the Saturday circular of the State Council is another reaffirmation of the central government’s resolution to safeguard the country’s food supply.


(Xinhua News Agency March 22, 2004)


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