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State tightens farmland protection
By Tang Min (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-03-22 08:00

Spring is here and, as farmers gear up for their most important crop planting of the year, 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, the Ministry of Land and Resources designated 108.9 million hectares, out of the country's 127 million hectares of arable land in 2001, as basic cultivated land.

Boasting "the best productivity," the basic cultivated land is not supposed to be transferred for 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 policies on agriculture development in the past few years.

One is to stop farming on farmland cultivated on hillslopes, which is suitable for reforestation, and plant trees. The other is to upgrade the agricultural product mix by growing more cash crops.

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

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

By the end of 2002, China's cultivated land decreased 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 retrieving basic cultivated land having lost to the two.

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 away the firewood away from under the cauldron, some say.

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

Related Chinese laws demand all trees be put to commercial uses to win a necessary green light from the forestry authority first, just as land authority's approval presupposes arable land's transfer for construction.

Statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture show China harvested 450 billion kilograms of crops last year, less than the average 500 billion kilograms output in the past decade.

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

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

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

Wang also drew attention to the number of programmes the Ministry of Land and Resources has launched this month to strengthen land management, such as a joint national probe into the uses of basic cultivated land with the Ministry of Agriculture, and the continuation of last year's national campaign against "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 per cent less than last year.

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

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

Over 80 per cent of last year's land abuse cases were committed by local governments.

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

Moreover, 26 cities that failed to submit last year's land use reports on request have had their new land use applications shelved by the ministry, a move that is the first of its kind in the country.

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

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