CHINA> National
Arable land fears halt reforestation drive
Updated: 2009-06-23 19:46

BEIJING: China has halted a programme of letting marginal farmland return to woodland, because of fears the country's arable land area could fall below a "red line" needed to feed its people, a vice minister said on Tuesday.

Lu Xinshe, deputy head of the Ministry of Land and Resources, said China was losing too many fields to industrialisation to allow any more land to be returned to its natural state.

Related readings:
Arable land fears halt reforestation drive Ministry vows strict arable land protection
Arable land fears halt reforestation drive Arable land 'must not be misused'
Arable land fears halt reforestation drive Agriculture: 120m ha arable land guaranteed on grain security concern
Arable land fears halt reforestation drive Policy thrust on saving arable land

Arable land fears halt reforestation drive Arable land reserves continue to decline

"To protect our "red line" of 1.8 billion mu of arable land ... we will not plan any new large scale projects to return farmland to its natural state, beyond those that have already been planned," he told a news conference in the country's capital.

Self-sufficiency in grains has been a China priority for decades, and sometimes led to farming on marginal land that might be better suited for grazing livestock or growing crops other than grains.

The policy was revised as in some areas it contributed to rising environmental problems like sandstorms and drought.

But the impact of industrialisation on a country with already low farmland per capita means the government will not be backing further away from intrusive farming practises.

China is already edging dangerously close to its "red line" of 1.8 billion mu of arable land, with just 1.826 billion mu (121.7 million hectares) available the end of last year, Liu told a news conference.

"If we just look at the overall data, it is unimaginable that China could hold the 1.8 billion mu 'red line', as China is still in the period of fast industrialisation and urbanisation, and taking over some arable land is inevitable," Lu said.

Every plot of arable land taken up for housing or industrial projects is supposed to be replaced by an equivalent parcel of land freed up by consolidation of smaller plots or takeover of former industrial housing.

"Every year around 4 million mu of land is added," Lu said.

But as legal compensation for expropriated cropland is much lower than the price the land fetches for industrial or residential development, there are many incentives for local officials to rezone or simply seize land. Land sales are also a major source of revenue for local governments.

Trying to prevent arable land from disappearing could help stave off anger from dispossessed farmers. Land disputes are one of the major sources of unrest in this populous developing country.

Lu said senior officials would be punished when illegal occupation of arable land accounted for over 15 percent of total land seizures in an area.