SPECIAL: China Asked to Address Needs of Smallholders and Nomads'

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By Hiroshi Nagai and Taro Ichikawa in Tokyo

A new report has urged the Chinese authorities to pay heed to the needs of smallholders, who are crucial to food security, and devote attention to herding communities that put a halt to the degradation of pasture lands and preserve biodiversity.

More than 56 percent of the people of China, the world's second largest economy, live in rural areas and depend to a large extent on farm land for their livelihood. This huge population of smallholders has helped the country achieve food security.

They should, therefore, be provided adequate security of land tenure. Equally vital are land-related investments, says UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, in a six-page report concluding his first official mission to China from December 15 to December 23, 2010.

The report notes that the current land tenure regime seeks to achieve a delicate balance between guaranteeing security of tenure to the individual household, whose use rights have been strengthened over the years, while at the same time allowing for the development of a market for land rental rights and ensuring that ownership remains in the hands of the collective.

This creates two difficulties, says De Schutter. "First, despite the almost complete prohibition of 'readjustments' in the 2002 Rural Land Contracting Law (confirmed in the 2007 Property [Real Rights] Law), which only allows readjustments in exceptional cases and under strict procedural conditions, this possibility appears routinely abused in practice.

"Second, farmers face an increase in the number of land takings, facilitated by the absence of a strict legal definition of the ‘public interest’ that the authorities may invoke in order to justify evictions, and in a number of regions, cultivated land has been ceded to developers in violation of existing legal procedures."

The UN Special Rapporteur warns that the two difficulties threaten the ability of the country to maintain current levels of agricultural production and thus the desired level of food self-sufficiency. These also threaten the rights of land users, when they are obliged to cede their use rights under pressure from the local authorities, who in some cases transfer these rights to developers in exchange for bribes.

Although the number of violations is declining (from 48.5 per cent of new developments in 2006 to 11.7 per cent of new developments in 2009), it remains significant, states De Schutter.

"Even when the procedural requirement have been respected, local cadres routinely capture a large portion of the compensation paid to the collective, despite the requirement in the 2007 Property Law that the compensation be returned in full to the individual farmer losing his/her land.

"Ensuring the issuance of land certificates and improving the quality of the information available to land users about their rights as well as their access to legal aid would already go a long way towards improving their protection against such practices," says the report.

While pleading for strengthening of the rights of land users, the report stresses the need for changes in the existing legal framework:
- Contracted land use rights could be automatically extended beyond the current 30-year term, unless no member of the household to whom the land has been contracted still lives on the land.
- The possibility for the collective of imposing readjustments, as well as the possibility for the State to evict land users in the public interest, could be better circumscribed, in order to allow courts to exercise a much stricter scrutiny on the authorities’ reliance on these exceptions to the security of tenure of the land user.
- Since surveys show that the vast majority of land certificates do not refer to the name of the woman and are instead in the name of the husband (or in the name of her father or father-in-law), it could be provided that, as additional land certificates are issued, the name of both the husband and the wife are recorded systematically.

De Schutter says: Improved security of tenure and the resulting development of a market for land rental rights should be seen not as ends in themselves, but as part of a broader programme of rural development. They should be combined with support to small-scale farming, in order to ensure that farmers do not cede their use rights over land in conditions that amount to distress sales.

The backdrop to this advise is that for the large number of small-scale farmers in the Chinese countryside, access to land still represents a basic social safety net. "Unless their levels of education improve and they are given real employment opportunities in the urban areas in decent conditions, an acceleration of land concentration through market mechanisms could result in more food insecurity, because of the increased poverty that would follow.

"Finally, because the amount of land attributed to each household is very small (generally less than 0.5 hectares), contract farming is rapidly expanding in certain provinces in rural China. Contract farming can help raise smallfarm income, and it may be particularly well suited to the characteristics of the Chinese organisation of smallscale farmers into collectives, since this communal mode of organisation may strengthen their bargaining position vis-à-vis the buyer," argues the report.

During his mission, the Special Rapporteur -- who serves as an independent expert -- found that threats to nomadic herders in Western Provinces and Autonomous Regions, especially in the Tibet (Xizang) and Inner Mongolian Autonomous Regions, make them a vulnerable group.

The Grassland Law adopted in 1985 both in order to protect grassland and to modernize the animal husbandry industry towards commodification has now been complemented by a range of policies and programmes, including tuimu huancao ("removing animals to grow grass") and tuigeng huanlin ("Returning Farmland to Forest"), says the report.

These programmes, part of the 1999 Western Development Strategy (xibu da kaifa), seek to address the degradation of pasture lands and control disasters in the low lands of China.

They include measures such as grazing bans, grazing land non-use periods, rotational grazing and accommodation of carrying capacity, limitations on pastures distribution, compulsory fencing, slaughter of animal livestock, and the planting of eucalyptus trees on marginal farmland to reduce the threat of soil erosion.

While the UN Special Rapporteur notes that there is little doubt about the extent of the land degradation problem, he advises that herders should not, as a result of the measures adopted under the tuimu huancao policy, be put in a situation where they have no other options than to sell their herd and resettle.´

De Schutter points out that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights prohibits depriving any people from its means of subsistence, and the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity acknowledges the importance of indigenous communities as guarantors and protectors of biodiversity (Art. 8 j). China has ratified both of these instruments.

The Special Rapporteur, therefore, "encourages" the Chinese authorities to engage in meaningful consultations with herding communities, including in order to assess the results of past and current policies, and examine all available options, including recent strategies of sustainable management of marginal pastures such as the New Rangeland Management (NRM) in order to combine the knowledge of the nomadic herders of their territories with the information that can be drawn from modern science.

He also "encourages" the Chinese authorities to invest in rehabilitating pasture, and to support remaining nomads with rural extension. The potential of livestock insurance programmes should also be explored, as tested successfully in Mongolia, he state, adding:
"Such programs, which pay nomads to restock and recover after a major disaster, encourage nomads to keep herds at much smaller scale as they would not fear losing their herding activity after such disasters if covered by such insurances." (IDN-InDepthNews)

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