Land delivers crop of future security

08:51, October 27, 2010      

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Fu Yongchang struggles to recall the last time he plowed his field or planted crops. All the ageing farmer remembers of those days is his old, rickety wooden house and the smell of the pigs, ducks and chickens he shared it with.

It has been more than two decades since the 65-year-old swapped tilling for teaching by taking a job at a school in his native Tengtou village, Zhejiang province.

Fu, who retired in 2006, is one of 830 people in this community who today can only loosely be described as farmers, China's officially recognized "socially vulnerable group" who live off the land, make minimum incomes and almost never stop working.

Residents here gave up their land to the village committee long ago in exchange for fixed monthly subsidies, the chance to retire when they want and inclusion into fully incorporated healthcare and education systems.

Few officials at the time would have guessed the move would indirectly help the village to become a major eco-tourism destination.

Tengtou, which was named in 1993 as one of the Global Ecological 500, an honor bestowed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) on areas that have made distinct contributions to environmental protection, is the only village to have a pavilion in the Urban Best Practices Area at the ongoing Expo 2010 Shanghai.

Shifting from its previous pillar industry of textiles, the village began promoting eco-tourism in earnest in 1999, with the opening of a special "ecology zone".

Although free to villagers, visitors have been charged to enter since 2002, with prices soaring from as little as 5 yuan ($0.75) to 80 yuan today. Tengtou pulled in 26.3 million yuan from ticket sales in 2009 and expects to make 30 million yuan this year, provided it receives the expected 375,000 visitors.

Ticket sales contribute significantly to the gross annual value of the village, which hit 4 billion yuan last year. But in essence, villagers say the economic success relies on preserving the environment.

Tengtou set up China's only village-level environmental protection committee in 1993 to monitor investments and watch out for polluting industries. Since then, more than 50 investment projects have been rejected due to environmental concerns, say members.

A strong collective will play a crucial role in development, so much so that Tongtou's seemingly natural beauty - its strategic advantage - is man-made to begin with, said Fu Deming, director of the committee. "The natural conditions here were very bad," he said. "The roads were uneven, the fields unfavorable. A day under the sun would dry the crops, while heavy rainfall would drown them."

Elders in Tengtou say farmland consolidation efforts in the 1960s, which at the time made the village a provincial model for rural development, laid the foundations for eco-tourism.

"(Eco-tourism) was built step-by-step - forced, really, so as to meet the demands of receiving many people," said 40-year-old Fu Deming. "People came in groups all the time throughout the year and we had to show them something aside from our farmland."

Bold attempts to transform the environment through planting trees, flowers and fruits, as well as building gardens, gave Tengtou's fame a further boost and in turn allowed its economy to snowball.

By the 1980s, the village had set up collectives for vegetables and fruits, gardening and fisheries.

Traditional agriculture died out the following decade, leaving only vineyards and nurseries behind. As a result, most residents began to work in the non-agricultural sectors, which by then not only involved gardening but also architecture and real estate.

Fu Deming was a director at an artificial diamond factory when he joined the environmental protection committee in 1998. Four years later, his factory closed down and was replaced by an eco-education base for high school students in the administering city of Ningbo.

Tengtou's village committee spent around 100 million yuan on environmental protection in 2009, including monitoring air, water and noise qualities, and has vowed to increase its annual investment by 20 percent year-on-year, said Fu Deming.

"We pour about 8 million yuan into welfare for residents every year," he said. "Our long-term plan is to spend 800 million yuan upgrading infrastructure between now and 2030."

In the environmental committee director's opinion, Tengtou's experience can be replicated as it "created an ecological advantage out of nothing, turned it into a political advantage and then later an economic one".

In 1991, Jiang Zemin, then Chinese leader, famously described Tengtou as "extraordinary" during a tour of the entire Fenghua county. Two years later, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, then-executive director of the UNEP, also visited and agreed.

Visits to the village by national, provincial and local political leaders increased exponentially in the years that followed and sparked the very idea of boosting environmental protection - and charging for it.

Today, students and families, mostly from within the province, make up the majority of the village's tourist population, according to tour guides who operate here.

No room to move

Tengtou's development is not without limits. As the number of local enterprises reaches 60, and with its eco-tourism industry expanding to include restaurants, motels and shops, the village economy in effect relies on more than 10,000 migrant workers who make on average 2,000 yuan a month and live in rental units costing up to 4,000 yuan a year.

"More than 90 percent of the laborforce here are (migrants)," said Lu Boqiang, deputy director of the village committee office, the de facto local government, who himself arrived from Fenghua, the county seat.

As a result, land has emerged as the top factor limiting Tengtou's development, a common problem for the 10,000 or so villages that have practiced collective economies and succeeded in making farmers self-sufficient through industrialization, elaborate accommodation and collective distribution of social welfare.

Tengtou is set to expand from its current 2 square kilometers to 11 sq km in the next two decades, but as China edges dangerously close to its "red line" of 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) of arable land - the least amount necessary to feed its 1.3 billion population - ever-stricter policies mean smaller, fixed land quotas for each layer of government.

This situation has made large-scale land acquisition, particularly by legally autonomous village committees at the most grassroots level, highly unlikely.

And even if proposals were approved, Fu Deming believes it would be "very improbable" for Tengtou to merge with other villages for political reasons.

"As far as (rural) elections go, people would have serious trust issues with candidates from other villages. It'd be completely chaotic," he said.

The state of Huaxi, China's richest and most well-known village, and one of the very few to have successfully lobbied for more land, offers a glimpse into some of Fu's worries in real life.

The village in Jiangsu province stood on just 0.96 sq km of land and was home to 1,520 people in 2001. Since then, it has been merged with 16 nearby villages, forming a de facto township of 30 sq km and home to 35,000 people.

Residents of the original Huaxi, each of whom were given villas and cars by the village collective for free, all hold sizable shares in the Shenzhen-listed Huaxi Group, so much so that 200 of the 380 families - 52.6 percent of the "base population" - have each invested 10 million yuan into completing their future homes in the world's 15th tallest building, a 74-story skyscraper that will be put to use next year.

Most of the 35,000 people in the greater Huaxi area are much less fortunate. Deprived of their farmland as a result of the merger, new Huaxi residents find themselves competing with migrant workers for jobs in nearby factories.

Meanwhile, residents who are too old for such jobs have no option but to stay home and wait for the pension and welfare they expected when they became "Huaxi folk".

For the time being, monthly packs of rice and flour are the only welfare residents of the greater Huaxi area receive.

"It's only been a couple of years," said Zhao Zhirong, Huaxi's deputy Party chief, stressing that the principle of fairness must be upheld. "People in the central village worked for decades to get to where they are now. These things take time."

Model workers

Back in Tengtou, Fu Deming agrees that the core interests of his primary electorates must be safeguarded and that expanding welfare without "cautious deliberation" could lead to "extremely detrimental consequences".

"It's impossible for us to ease current restrictions and give hukou (permanent residency) to migrant workers," he said. "Nobody (in the home village) would allow it."

Rural modernization has taken dramatically different forms across the country, although Huzhou, an ancient city in northern Zhejiang, is an odd exception. In 2006, it declared ambitious plans to become a model zone for rural development.

Today, 40 percent of its 1 million farmers already live in concentrated rows of townhouses, freeing up arable land for more organized, large-scale farming activities. The average Huzhou farmer's net income was 11,745 yuan last year, nearly double the national figure.

Less than a third of farmers in Huzhou are involved in agricultural work, with about 88 percent of the villagers' revenue coming from non-agricultural sectors. The city is still planning to push forward its initiative and merge nearly 6,000 villages to form 281 central rural communities, according to a statement provided by its information office.

"The government has pledged up to 3 billion yuan a year on rural development and relevant annual investment from other sectors total 8 billion yuan," said Liu Guoqiang, deputy director of Huzhou's agricultural and rural affairs office.

"We're doing this because we are capable of developing a rural model zone citywide," he explained. "Other regions suffer from important imbalances either from within their territory or among different sectors."

The rich, fertile nature of the land and waters in Huzhou was captured by a popular proverb dating back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279): "When the harvest of Suzhou (a city in Jiangsu) and Huzhou is ripe, the whole realm has enough."

While the income gap between urban and rural residents continues to widen nationwide, an opposite trend has taken shape in Huzhou.

The average income for urbanites was a record 3.33 times greater than the average for farmers last year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. That ratio stood at 1.98 to 1 in Huzhou. However, regional advantages loom large for Huzhou and many booming villages. Huzhou, Tengtou and Huaxi are all situated in the much-affluent Yangtze River Delta region and each is within a four-hour drive from Shanghai.

"For places inland, it's a completely different story," said Song Zhenqiang, director of the information office for Huzhou's Wuxing district.

Despite poverty alleviation efforts, 35.9 million people in rural China, most of them inland, were still living on annual incomes of less than $175 last year, according to figures released by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.

By Hu Yinan, China Daily

(Editor:梁军)

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