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The "Farmland to Forest" Policy and the Changing Village Economy 2005 update

The farmland to forest policy, introduced in Xiakou in 1999, has brought radical changes to the village's economy. During our initial fieldwork (1992-93) soil erosion was a fact of everyday life in the mountainous region of western Sichuan . Farmers were dramatically affected by continual landslides and deteriorating water quality and older farmers could articulate clearly the historical processes that had led to these problems. An initial period of dramatic deforestation accompanied the central government's disastrous de-concentrated industrialization policies of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960). Then, when land was given over to individual households in the reforms of 1982, another period of dramatic forest-cutting ensued, brought on by worries that the new land contracts might be short-lived. Farmers rushed to cut the trees on their own lands and sell them in the emerging markets fueled by the new flush of wealth and enabled by extended transportation networks developed in the collective period.

In the early 1990s, we frequently heard farmers complain that new programs were needed to help forestry become re-established in the region. They specifically complained that forestry needed a cooperative effort to tackle the endemic problem of tree theft, and the prohibitive costs of transitioning land from annual cropping to slower rates of return possible from agroforestry. It was not something a farmer could do alone, and they lamented that the process of decollectivization had gone too far, leaving people too isolated and spread out ( fen san ) to enact the kind of cooperative plan that was clearly needed. 1 

1998 delivered a wake-up call to the central government. Tragic floods along the Yangtze River killed more than 2000 people and threatened the dikes protecting Wuhan (a city of 7 million) and other densely populated cities along the river's lower reaches. These floods were widely known to be the result of increasing erosion and siltation in the river's upper reaches, in particular the runoff resulting from deforestation and the cultivation of steeply sloped land. It became clear that a socialist approach to management of the commons was necessary, a point of view now shared by planners and villagers alike. 2  The government responded with a strict moratorium on further logging activities and in 1999 the farmland to forest policy was initiated.

The new farmland to forest policy acknowledged the connections between poverty and erosion and dedicated an impressive budget (the equivalent to 40 billion dollars) to address the problem (Xu et al. 2004: 317). The poorest farmers had been cultivating the steep deforested lands to grow grain in the post-reform economy. Under the program, these farmers have been given seedlings, cash and grain payments in exchange for converting these lands to agroforestry. In the first four years of the program 15 million farmers have been given payments in exchange for the conversion of 17.2 million hectares in 25 provinces and municipalities in China (Xu et al 2004: 317). After several years of payments, the farmers, it is hoped, will have transitioned away from subsistence farming to more sustainable livelihoods based on forestry, livestock breeding and off-farm work, and payments will be discontinued. Thus the project aims explicitly at restructuring the rural economy as well as the ecology (Xu et al. 2004: 318).

The village where we work was one of the initial sites selected to test the program in Sichuan . The payments, theoretically the equivalent of what the land would produce in grain, run for eight years and villagers have been provided with bamboo and other seedlings with the aim of creating a supply of pulp (at fixed price) for the state-run paper mill. The subsidized planned economy here works with the state-run sector as a strategy for achieving both the broader environmental engineering goal and the economic goal of "opening" ( kaifang ) and transitioning away from the backward economy of subsistence agriculture.

The farmers have a different calculus for assessing the project. Their view is very much hinged to the central role grain plays in the household economy. While urban planners tend to see subsistence farming as an icon of crude poverty out of place in a modern developed economy, farmers see subsistence farming as an important fallback, their fundamental guarantee of security from hunger in an uncertain world. For the state, the project aims at transitioning the local economy to a more market-oriented modernized structure. For farmers, the project offers a reasonable substitution of state grain for local grain aimed at achieving an improved ecology that will benefit all of China . For them, the grain payments represent the minimal obligation of the state to ensure the well being of its citizens. They like the program because it provides a collective effort to improve the local ecology while providing them with basic needs and leaving them with the rights to the land as a fall back should the new economics not work out.

In many ways this new project echoed previous policies of the socialist period and built on latent appreciation for the best of what socialism had given these people in earlier times. One young man told us how much fun it had been when the first big distribution of seedlings came for not since collective times had the fields been so filled with all the people of the village working together in a common task. In the village we study, poor quality land meant that land holdings were quite extensive. The local township had insufficient funds to implement program payments on the standardized per mu basis but struck a compromise with villagers to pay them on a per capita basis. This was seen as reasonable by villagers since land initially had been distributed on the same basis. Because the per capita plan was able to guarantee enough grain for each family, it did for them what the individuated land holdings had done, and (in theory) membership in the collective before that. The land reform of the 1950s, the collectives of the 1960s and 1970s, and the decollectivization of land in 1982 can each be seen as policies that maintained the fundamental contract between the people and the socialist state-the state would guarantee each person fair access to the means to produce a minimal food ration. Furthermore, historical experience of "work teams" in Land Reform and decollectivization, and upright local officials in the collective period demonstrated that the socialist state could do a fair job at fulfilling its part of the contract through in-depth knowledge of the demographics of each village, leaving a legacy of citizens who appreciate an administration that knows the local people and can devise methods to cope with the complexities of local difference. The recalculation of payments based on actual household sizes followed in this tradition.

If the collective period offered positive images of the role of the state, it also provided cautionary tales. Certainly the most traumatic experience in local historical memory is the Great Leap Forward and devastating famine of the early 1960s, when central government policies were implemented by middle level cadres loyal to the state rather than local communities. During the Great Leap Forward all land and production was fully collectivized. Labor was diverted from agriculture to commune-level industrialization projects, leaving grain to rot in the fields. The bulk of what meager harvests were realized was taken away from hungry villagers and transferred to the massive labor projects. The resulting famine was particularly severe in Sichuan, and death from starvation approached 50% of the population in some of the worst-affected areas within Ya'an. This experience, transmitted across generations, has left a residue of fear associated with the government taking land out of cultivation, and made local farmers want to hold their titles to farmland as a safety net. Farmers in the area where we lived were mostly eager to participate in the farmland to forest project, but in places such as Yunjing County , which suffered the most during the famine, many local people were very reluctant to take land out of cultivation. Still, despite or perhaps because of this harrowing historical background, a key aspect of what makes the farmland to forest project well received is that it keeps the farmers on the land, leaving open the choice to return to agriculture in dire circumstances.

Late in 2004, the farmland to forest project began to substitute cash payments for in-kind grain payments. While some local people noted that this was a reasonable effort to streamline logistics and to address the problem of the poor quality of the distributed grain, most farmers were more guarded about the switch. The substitution of cash for grain, along with the fact that each year the payments had been reduced slightly, generated worries that the program was running low on funds and could not keep pace with the rising price of grain (in part caused by the farmland to forest policy). It also caused heightened concern that local officials would have an easier time skimming from their payments. Some farmers began to spontaneously worry about the potential of a return to a time when they would not have enough to eat. Most families interviewed indicated that if the grain payments were to stop now, they believed they would need to return to grain cultivation on the steep slopes.

Why do farmers persist in placing this emphasis on grain and subsistence even while their market derived wage incomes have grown significantly? State planners might be tempted to label this as stubborn and backward thinking on the part of the peasants, but this way of thinking is not only rooted in experiences in the revolutionary period, but also derives from their interactions with the new market economy. Looking at the tidal wave of rural migrants in the cities in recent years, many Chinese as well as foreign observers have been led to conjecture that farming is of decreasing importance to the class of migrant workers. While the state counts on the project expediting a necessary transition of the local agricultural economy away from subsistence, from a farmer's perspective, even with the advent of more time free from agriculture, increasing wages are barely able to keep pace with the increased costs of living. Xiakou, the village where we work, has almost all its land holdings on steep slopes, nevertheless, the young men of the village have done relatively well in the wage economy with their specialized trade as stone masons. Looking at how the farmland to forest project has affected their domestic economy dramatizes the processes operating across the mountains of southwest China in an instructive way. We can do this by comparing survey results from household surveys we carried out in 1992 with similar surveys repeated in 2004.

In 1992 mean family incomes stood at about 1600 yuan. Because of their dearth of paddy land, village families spent about 250 yuan a year to purchase the rice needed to feed themselves, while corn harvests were used in animal husbandry sidelines to provide a marginal income. At that time wage labor commanded a price of 8-10 yuan a day but was pretty sporadic. We have calculated typical annual expenses for an average family in 1992 at about 980 yuan including the cost of the rice. Twelve years later, the wage earning ability of families had increased perhaps as much as five-fold with the men earning 20-25 yuan a day and working more regularly. Corn was no longer grown but purchased to feed just the pigs the family would need for their own consumption. Families needed to spend roughly 1000 yuan to feed two pigs and the price of corn had gone from .3 yuan per jin in 1992 to .8 yuan per jin in 2004. Other livestock sidelines were largely now absent because of the high price of corn and new environmental regulations regarding animal waste. Rice was provided by the forestry project. Beyond the cost of grain, however, the domestic economy had significant new expenses to contend with. School fees and healthcare costs had risen precipitously. School fees for basic primary education had gone from 50 yuan a year to 1000 yuan. Additionally, families were investing more in higher levels of education for their children hoping to give them a better foothold in the new economy. Fuelwood had in this period all but run out in the area, and each family now depends on burning coal to cook and heat water adding a new 40 yuan a month to a typical family's needs. While the electric bill is not a big burden, recently many families have installed phones at a cost of 20 yuan a month. Families still buy fertilizer for the bamboo and (small) rice crop, and piglets and vet bills are a significant expense meaning that despite the withdrawal from corn farming, the costs associated with agricultural production have actually gone up slightly in this period. Thus, by our calculations, total household expenses have gone from an estimated 980 in 1992 to 4660 in 2004 exclusive of transportation and increased food (not grain) purchases! While farmers are not against a transition of the rural economy in principle, as long as their economics remains so close to the subsistence margin, the continued success of the farmland to forestry project will remain dependent on grain payments or cash payments that can keep pace with the steadily rising price of grain.

1992 family of five(Prices in Yuan) 2004 family of five(Prices in Yuan)
Income 1600 (1000 wage income +600 agricultural income) 6000 (all wage)
Tuition/ school fees 50 1300
Medical expenses 130 600
Grain purchase 250 (rice at .4 yuan a jin) 1000 (corn at .7 yuan a jin)
Energy (coal, electric) and phone No data 900
Agricultural costs 550 660
Basic expenses 980 4660

From the above survey results we see that the majority of increase in wages is devoted to expenses that used to be negligible. While the farmland to forest policy has meant more free time for men and women, wage labor for women and old people was still harder to find than for the young men and so many people simply had additional free time. While a wage earner usually is willing to contribute the bulk of his earnings to the family this is by no means a universal rule. Because some families are without a wage earner, or because some families wage earners' contributions are minimal, there are individuals in the village who have no recourse but to eke out a living from the land. Furthermore, when wives as well as husbands left the village to work, the burden of childcare was given over to the older members of the village-this was hard on both the children and the old people. It should be emphasized that with the wages earned by these families, it would have been very difficult if not impossible to support the whole family in an outside location where food and housing would need to be purchased. Workers traveling away tend to live in dormitories or tents unsuitable for families. Children and old people are almost always left in the countryside helping to pay their way by raising pigs and vegetables, and reduce living costs by dwelling in existing homes. This profile demonstrates that instead of replacing the subsistence economy, the wage economy rather depends on it for the costs of reproduction while at the same time the agricultural economy has become increasingly dependent on the cash infusions.

Local people want economic development, but they want to participate in and benefit from the development process. From the local perspective, this means holding on to the land as a measure of security, while enlisting government support in building the infrastructure that would enable local initiatives. Both of these expectations are based on recent historical experiences. Villagers remember the state sponsored local development projects during the socialist period of the early 1950s and 1970s, from which they benefited, as well as the top-down imposition of national development during the Great Leap Forward. They also remember the long-term leaseholds on the land the state granted them during decollectivization in the 1980s, and have appropriated a new discourse of legal rights to protect their hold on the land. Rights to the land are the inter-generational link that forms the community and informs the local understanding of the landscape. While grain payments are a legitimate way to facilitate changing patterns of land management, a livelihood wholly based on market exchanges still seems a poor gamble to the average farm family in this region. Socialist policies of the past aimed at guaranteeing subsistence while allowing communities to embark on local projects that developed the economy or served the greater good. It is these associations that give socialism an enduring currency. The local understanding of socialism as guaranteeing equal access to the security of subsistence, and the conflict of this meaning with the ecological engineering goals of development socialism, are more pronounced and more urgent in the case of the key component of the Western Development Policy: hydropower development.

One farmer, for example, lamented in 1993 that "Under the production team system it (reforestation) could have been tackled. Now people are too spread out" (Leonard 1995 p215).

For an interesting example of this from a public intellectual, see the journalist Ma Jun's (2004) dissertation on China's water crisis in which he asserts that socialism is ideally suited to managing the commons for the common good.

estimates based on observation, what families said of themselves and what they said of others, and knowledge of average daily wages.

About This Essay

The Village Economy in 2004

This analysis is based on observations and surveys on household economy gathered in 2004 by Pam Leonard, John Flower, and two graduate student volunteers from the Sociology department of Sichuan University , Zhang Jie and Che Lirong. The essay outlines the radical changes brought to the village economy since 1993 by rising costs of living and by the "farmland to forest" ( tuigen huanlin ) policy that compensates local farmers for converting their cropland to agro-forestry. The survey data were first presented in the paper "Ecological Engineering on the West China Frontier: Development socialism as policy, practice, and contested ideology" for a conference in Oxford , England in July of 2005.