Shaanxi: arable land conversion efforts ordered to stop

Central government inspectors have admonished Yulin, a part of Shaanxi province bordering the Maowusu Desert, for trying to turn arid land into agriculture fields, destroying local vegetation and overdrawing groundwater in the process.

The western Chinese city has struggled to balance provincial developmental needs with central government demands to maintain total farmed area, a report by Caixin on Wednesday 23 March shows. 

Since 2018, Yulin has converted 133,000 mu (8,778 hectares) of vegetated land into fields for agriculture, according to inspectors, who said the conversion has “exacerbated forest degradation and increased desertification risks.”

According to Caixin, Yulin’s conversion efforts were mainly driven by Shaanxi’s lack of land-use quotas for economic development. China has had a system in place since 1999 to preserve arable land for food security. In 2006, the central government set up a minimum level of 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) for the country to feed its people, hitherto known as the “1.8 billion mu red line.” Under the system, when a piece of farmland is converted for non-agricultural use, the authorities must make new fields available elsewhere to mitigate the loss. 

Many provincial and local governments have since reclaimed arable land from nature in order to free up precious land-use quotas. Like Yulin, many such conversion projects are in environmentally fragile areas unsuitable for agriculture. Caixin reported that Yulin had a serious groundwater deficiency problem. Inspectors were alarmed at the speed its water table has been dropping.

After the inspection result was made public, Yulin officials told Caixin that they plan to re-vegetate the converted land and put in place water conservation measures. But some of them also complained about being caught between a rock and a hard place: “The province still badly needs land quotas for development. Convert or not, we will face pressure either way.”