During the last three decades, China has witnessed the largest migration in human history. With millions of country-dwellers migrating to cities, farming behavior and land use among rural households has also changed dramatically. Specifically, the outward migration of young, mostly male laborers has made much of the countryside the preserve of women and the elderly.
Three decades ago, at the start of the reform era, the Chinese government set up land contracts with individual rural families, giving each of them the right to farm their own plot. Later, the state abolished a complex system of agricultural levies and quotas, allowing farmers more control over land use. However, the contracts themselves cannot be sold or arbitrarily transferred to someone else; if nobody is working the land, the fields simply lie idle.
It therefore stands to reason that the large-scale exodus of farmworkers endangers China’s food security and may hold back the modernization of agriculture. These issues are particularly pressing in a country with a natural shortage of farmland: In 2014 China’s average arable land area was around 0.08 hectares per person — less than half the global average of nearly 0.2 hectares, according to the World Bank.
Every year, the squeeze on China’s agrarian resources becomes more pronounced. According to a 2015 estimate by the Ministry of Land and Resources, the country loses 66,000 hectares of arable land annually, a phenomenon that has brought available farmland perilously close to the food security “red line” of 120 million hectares set by the government in 2006. Now more than ever, it is essential that we discuss the relationship between migration and land abandonment.
My recent research has examined this problem in detail, and found that land abandonment is influenced by job security, gender, local infrastructure, and the possibility of subcontracting the land. First, rural farmers who lack formal contracted jobs are more likely to abandon some or all of their land in favor of unskilled but better-paid jobs in urban areas. Others may venture away from the village in search of higher education or vocational training, and are therefore unable to participate in agricultural production.
Some may prefer to leave temporarily rather than transfer their fields to third-party “farming agents” — village households with labor to spare who use the land for a set period, usually six months or more. However, many migrants remain reluctant to subcontract their land, thinking that if they lose their precarious city jobs, they can always return to their hometown’s farming industry. For this reason, it is essential that state authorities work to provide rural migrants with stable jobs and lives in the cities, so that they, in turn, have the confidence to sublet their farmland to be used for its intended purpose: feeding the nation.
Second, households located in villages with well-paved roads are able to farm more land and gain easier access to rural markets. These families are consequently less likely to abandon their land. Therefore, if we want to get serious about preventing land abandonment, we need to develop essential infrastructure at the local level.
Lastly, my study found that households with both male and female migrant workers are more likely to leave their farmland unworked. The reason is simple: If both husband and wife are young enough, it often proves more lucrative to earn money in the city than to stay home running the farm.
Households in which only men migrate are least likely to abandon their land, since the women can pick up the slack. But as more and more women have migrated for work every year, their status within the family has also improved. By breaking traditional gender roles, women can assert a new kind of freedom and change the power distribution within their families, playing more important roles in decision-making processes and more strongly influencing their families’ agricultural production and land transfer.
China’s urbanization drive is likely to continue for the foreseeable future and will bring further challenges to the country’s shorthanded countryside. Subcontracting land is an effective way to maintain agricultural production, but such initiatives lack strong official guidance and are often stymied by the needs of individual families. However, by giving rural workers more stable lives in the cities and encouraging them to seek out local farming agents, we can ensure that China’s empty rural villages aren’t surrounded by empty fields.
Editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A farmer walks on abandoned farmland in Changchun, Jilin province, April 10, 2017. Wang Zhendong/VCG)