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Land Safety Gets Unprecedented Attention

Seven farmers from northeast China's Liaoning Province have recently brought the Ministry of Land and Resources to court, asking for deserved compensation for their farmland requisitioned for a construction project approved by the ministry.

Although the farmers lost the case in the first trial, this unprecedented lawsuit bears broad significance to the issue of land safety in China.

Full compensation for land used for construction purposes has been one of the recent policies promulgated by the central government to control the flow away of farmland, which gave the farmers the courage to claim their rights.

Rising food prices since the spring of this year have caused alarm over shrinking farmland. In the third quarter of this year, grain prices were 35.1 percent higher than the same period last year.

According to experts' analysis, a major reason for food price hikes is the decreasing output of domestic agriculture. For fours years in a row, China's grain production has been lower than total consumption.

Over the past seven years, China's cultivated land has shrunk from 130 million hectares to 123 million hectares, of which the total grain planting area has fallen to the lowest level since 1978. At the same time, China's population has been growing at 10 million annually on average.

The latest figures from the Ministry of Land and Resources indicate that China's cultivated land in 2003 decreased 2.01 percent from the previous year, with the average per capita cultivated land falling from 0.098 hectares to 0.095 hectares.

Most of the missing farmland has been used for industrial construction and housing purposes which, with the fast development of the national economy and the improvement of living level, have expanded at a surprising rate.

Pan Mingcai, director of the farmland protection department of the Ministry of Land and Resources, said the use of land for non-agricultural purposes is obviously ahead of schedule.

"Our national plan in 1996 was to use no more than 1.97 million hectares of farmland for non-agricultural purposes by 2010. However, by 2003 a large part of this quota had been used, and some coastal provinces had even used up the quota," he said.

The serious land situation forced the Chinese government to be tough with land policies. In April this year, the State Council halted the ratification of farmland for other uses for six months and started to rectify the national land market. Special teams organized by seven departments under the State Council were sent to various localities earlier this month to investigate results of the rectification. Any practices of land abuse will face severe punishment, the government said.

Development zones of various kinds have played important roles in China's economic development. At the same time, they are big land users, usually circling large areas of farmland for industrial, technological, tourism or trade development. In July 2003, the central government suspended the opening of new development zones and demanded the closure of inefficient zones. So far some two thirds of all the zones have been closed, reducing the total area occupied by more than 24,000 square kilometers.

In Beijing alone, the number of development zones have been sharply cut from 470 to 28, a decrease of 94 percent.

Sources from the Ministry of Land and Resources said that the ministry is examining the remaining zones. Those that fall short of the required standards will be forced to close.

Another big problem China has set to ravel out is law-breaking practices by real estate developers, who for many years have been buying farmland at very low prices by signing contracts with local governments. Many developers made a fortune simply by storing land and selling at a huge profit.

Since 1999, the Ministry of Land and Resources has been promoting a public bidding system for land use, with the auctioned prices usually much higher than negotiated prices. In the first half of this year, a total of 19,400 hectares of land were sold via public bidding, with a revenue of 125.94 billion yuan (about 15.32 billion US dollars). The auctioned area accounted for 28.78 percent of the total sold area during the period while the revenue made up 61.6 percent of the total.

The measures taken so far have been quite effective in protecting farmland, but China still has a fairly long way to go to ensure it can keep enough land to produce sufficient food for its people.

(Xinhua News Agency December 11, 2004)

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