China's big step in rural reform; mapping tiny plots of farm land
Those who rent large tracts of land are more likely to invest for the long-term if the transfer is documented and legal, a World Bank study found last year.
Farming families who feel secure in their land rights send more members out to find paid work, the study found. Monthly incomes for migrant laborers in cities exceed the amount earned in a year from a 1-mu plot.
More precise title "makes people feel more secure," said Jian Zongzhu, a stooped 72-year old in Yangwang with bleary eyes and thick laborer's hands.
"Everyone's gone out to work but with a certificate you know the land is yours, no one can take it away and you can claim it back if you want. That's important to common people because our life comes from the land."
Assigning title is painstaking work that involves correlating satellite pictures with villagers' records, issuing certificates and creating databases to register and search land transfers.
A flat field in the North China Plain may be sub-divided many times. Hilly south China terrain increases the satellites' error margin. Trees hide field boundaries.
International Land Systems, a company acquired by Thomson Reuters in July 2011, was involved in the initial pilot project in Yangwang, which sought to find the most cost-efficient mapping method.
China's top rural policymaker Chen Xiwen estimates costs could be kept to 8-10 yuan per mu, or about 18 billion yuan nationwide. Other officials told Reuters costs could reach 100 billion yuan while respected financial magazine Caixin said it would cost 150 billion yuan.
Even the minimum would be too much for budget-strapped rural governments. A pilot in Anhui's Matou Township, where flat wheat fields are cheap to measure, would have equalled one-sixth of its annual budget.
"Land certification needs to be shouldered by the nation, there is no way local governments could pay for it," Matou Township vice chief Wang Hong told Reuters.
The project carries a hidden price tag for Beijing, which subsidizes grains production, fertilizer use and irrigation at an average rate of 150 yuan per mu. The subsidies are based on acreage estimates that date from when farmers regularly under-reported to avoid grains taxes.
Precise mapping could force China to reassess estimates it has 1.8 billion mu of farmland -- or roughly the amount that Chinese experts believe is necessary for food security.
Matou Township alone gained 45 percent more registered acreage with the more accurate mapping, to the delight of township officials and residents hopeful that greater subsidies will follow.
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