China's big step in rural reform; mapping tiny plots of farm land
The bare lightbulbs, unheated rooms and elderly residents of the whitewashed village of Yangwang in eastern China make it seem an unlikely place for an experiment in cutting-edge satellite technology.
This tiny village in Anhui province was home to a pilot project that for the first time mapped farmers' land holdings, putting it on the front line of China's efforts to build a modern agricultural sector that can underpin the country's food security -- a policy priority for the Communist Party.
The mapping is a tedious but crucial task to make farmers feel more secure about their rights so that they become more willing to merge fields into larger scale farms. It could also help protect them from land grabs by local officials, a leading cause of rural unrest.
"If we don't do this now, and the older generation passes away, the next generation won't know which plot is whose," said Pan Shengyu, who oversaw one of Anhui's land titling pilots.
"Soon no-one will be able to figure it out."
China's annual rural policy document released last week calls for title to farmland to be defined nationwide over the next five years. It is a technical challenge that could cost $16 billion.
Reforms in the 1980s assigned farmland to households but reserved formal ownership to the village collective. But land certificates are imprecise at best and over half of rural households lack some documentation -- leaving possession dependent upon villagers' knowledge and officialdom's whims.
Lessons learned using satellite positioning to map tiny plots of land in Yangwang have been scaled up in other pilot projects in Anhui and elsewhere, with an eye to rolling out the program nationwide.
Most Chinese farmers till about 8 mu (15 mu = 1 hectare) per household, an area roughly the size of an American football field. Each household's land tends to be sub-divided into five or more separate plots.
Anhui Province alone has 100 million plots of less than 1 mu each. Nationwide, well over 1 billion plots have never been mapped properly.
The mapping will replace current deeds that often rely on descriptions like "Yang's field borders Wang's to the east" -- an imprecise formulation that makes villagers reluctant to remove the dirt berms that separate each plot for fear they will no longer be able to identify what is theirs.
The information will go to searchable centralized registries, allowing farmers to confirm what they own and giving officials better land-use information.
Although China legalized transfers in 2008 to formally allow villagers to aggregate land, most Chinese agriculture is still too small-scale to permit investment to boost productivity enough to feed a growing urban population.