Chinese authorities have intensified their efforts to protect the nation's dwindling reserves of farmland.
Last August, the Ministry of Land and Resources announced it would reserve no less than 106 million hectares of land for farming to ensure enough grain for China's growing population, which is forecast to peak at 1.6 billion people.
But as China's economy has grown, its total area of cultivated land has decreased, quickly approaching the ministry threshold.
Ministry statistics indicate the area of land under cultivation in China has decreased from 130.1 million hectares in 1996 to 126 million hectares in 2002. The number of people to farmland area was 1:1.46 last year.
Pan Mingcai, director of the ministry's department of cultivated land protection, said the figures were alarming.
He said China needs a minimum of 124.7 million hectares of cultivated land to meet both present and future demand for produce.
"The surplus in grain production over the past several years has led many people to overlook the importance of protecting cultivated land," Pan said.
"Some areas have been used for construction and other purposes after being reserved for farming use only," Pan added.
Every Chinese province has compiled a programme outlining not only what land will be used for - such as construction or cropping - but also how much cultivated land will be resumed for other purposes each year.
But the ministry admits the land use programmes have been ignored to varying degrees.
It therefore plans to do more to stop the loss of farmland, said Lu Xinshe, vice-minister of land and resources.
"Without major breakthroughs in agricultural technology, sufficient cultivated land of satisfactory quality is essential to guaranteeing the country's grain production capacity," he said.
In 1997, the ministry first demanded that local land authorities ensure they add at least as much cultivated land as they seized for other uses each year.
This campaign, together with revisions to the Land Management Law in 1999, pushed construction down the list of reasons for the resumption of farmland.
Ministry statistics indicate that from 1999 to 2002, China has lost 729,031 hectares of farmland to construction and 283,475 hectares to natural disasters.
A total of 3,175,587 hectares of farmland was converted back to forestry and plantations, a policy encouraged by the government for ecological benefits, and 545,606 hectares were turned over to other agricultural uses such as aquaculture.
But construction remains of most concern to the ministry, because it can mean the permanent loss of farmland, said Meng Xiangzhou, an expert with the Chinese Academy of Land and Resource Economics.
Meng applauded an ongoing campaign by the ministry and several other government departments to review land use by various development zones and industrial parks.
"The point is the government should actually implement its land use programmes," he said.
Fan Zhiquan, director of the ministry's department of land registration management, said local inspections as well as remote sensing technology would be used to ensure farmland was not seized for construction in- appropriately.
"Every change of land use should be authorized," he said.
If unauthorized changes of land use are detected, the ministry will co-operate with government departments to fine responsible organizations, while imposing administrative or even criminal penalties on those responsible depending on the severity of the case, Fan said.
<b>Land use reviews</b>
Fan said the ministry's latest investigation into national land reserves, which wrapped up last year, dismissed local governments' excuses that they were trapped by the twin imperatives of developing economically and protecting cultivated land.
"Plenty of land for construction will emerge once urban land use is reviewed," he said.
Fan indicated poor urban planning in many Chinese cities in the past means that some vacant land still exists and can be used more carefully in the future.
In Changchun, capital of Northeast China's Jilin Province, for example, 2,868 of its total 3,268 hectares of land used for urban construction between 1999 and 2002 came from idle industrial-use land and improved urban planning.
In the case of Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province, 44 percent of its construction land for 2002 came from unused urban land.
China expects to add 2.74 million hectares of farmland by 2010 at a cost of 333 billion yuan (US$40.2 billion) through land reviews and reclamation, instead of converting wilderness areas.
Most of China's remaining wilderness areas are in regions with harsh climatic conditions and rough terrain, while existing farmland tends to be used inefficiently.
"The country's farmland is in most cases scattered with too many ridges and too many redundant small pieces," said Hu Shanshun, a publicity official with the ministry.
Only through correcting these two problems can the country reclaim about 6 million more hectares of farmland - more than the 5.9 million hectares of potential cultivated land that can be obtained from wilderness areas, Hu said.
Moreover, there are still 4 million hectares of land abandoned by former mining and construction activities, 38 percent of which can be effectively transformed into arable land through reclamation.
(China Daily August 18, 2003)