Uyghur women block land grab

Radio Free Asia | 2009-05-15

Women belonging to an ethnic minority in northwestern China defend their land in a clash with officials who try to seize it for forced crop production.

HONG KONG—Women in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have turned back officials trying to implement a forced farming program on their land, but remain concerned about their property rights, according to farmers there.

The women, members of the largely Muslim Uyghur ethnic group, clashed with armed police on May 1 when officials brought in an excavating tractor to till the farmland in Ara Dadamtu village, administered by Dadamtu township near Xinjiang’s Gulja [in Chinese Yining] city.

Hesen Jan, a farmer from Dadamtu village, said officials told residents that the land was state-owned and should be developed in accordance with government plans.

“That day the officials came to our village with an excavator backed up by armed police. They tried to till the land because they wanted to change our grain production fields into a vegetable production base,” he said.

Hesen Jan said that the officials acted aggressively.

“They said the farmers should listen to government orders,” Hesen Jan said.

“We told them that we have an agreement to use the land for 50 years and that the government cannot take the land within this period by law,” he said.

Hesen Jan said that when the officials attempted to proceed with tilling the land, the women of the village took action to stop their machinery.

“An older woman threw herself in front of the tractor, but armed police pulled her away. Afterwards, younger women followed the older one’s example,” Hesen Jan said.

“The men followed with a strong response and the field became a ‘war-zone.’ Within one hour, eight women were injured and seven of them were hospitalized,” he said.

Another farmer, who asked to remain anonymous, said that officials eventually backed off, but added that the villagers remain wary about the safety of their land.

“The officials changed their mind, stopped the tractor, and left the ‘war zone,’ but our concerns remain,” the farmer said.

“There were about 30 farmers who wanted to take a bus to appeal to the city government, but the bus was blocked by armed police midway through their journey and they were not allowed to go,” he said.

Official response

Ara Dadamtu village chief Adil said officials willingly left the scene of the clash.

“We respected the will of the farmers. They asked us to stop our excavator and to go back to our office, so we did. There was no big conflict between the officials and the farmers,” Adil said.

“Only two women were seriously injured. The others were not serious injuries. All of them are our farmers. We are obligated to take care of them, so we sent them to the hospital. Now everyone is okay and the problem has been solved,” he said.

When asked whether officials had agreed to allow farmers to choose their own crops for production, Adil said “Yes, we did. We expected that and they understand us.”

But other officials were unhappy with the result of the dispute.

One official, who did not provide his name, said the farmers should realize that the government is trying to help them by signing lucrative contracts that they stand to benefit from.

“We signed a bunch of contracts with Central Asian countries to supply vegetables to them in recent years, and everyone acknowledged the benefits to farmers,” the official said.

“They should understand that our plan is for the people’s benefit. There were probably some provocateurs behind the [clash]. We will investigate it.”

Forced production

According to a farmer in the village who did not provide his name, the official order to switch production did not leave many options for farmers who had previously only grown grain in the area.

“You either produce vegetables or you must sell your land to a Han immigrant farmer who can do it, according to the order,” the farmer said.

Officials argue that Uyghur farmers make less money selling grain than the amount of money Han Chinese migrants can offer them for their land, so it is better for the farmers to sell and find other work.

Another official who requested anonymity said, “The forced production plan is a good thing for the farmers, because they are unaware of the market demand. They want to produce grain, which is less beneficial for them.”

But a farmer from Ara Dadamtu village said that the plan benefits only Han Chinese migrants.

“The plan is only good for Han immigrants in the village who have experience growing vegetables and can get support from the banks. The plan is the best way to transfer land from Uyghur farmers to Han immigrants,” the farmer said.

Villagers targeted

Hesen Jan said the farmers from Ara Dadamtu knew what to expect when officials began to push them to implement the production plan because farmers from a nearby village went through the same process and now regret having sold their land.

“This issue has occurred in neighboring villages such as Bulak Dadamtu, which is three miles from Ara Dadamtu,” Hesen Jan said.

“The farmers’ concern is not baseless. Two years ago, Bulak Dadamtu’s farmers obeyed government orders and sold their land to a few Han immigrants. Now they are unemployed and regret their actions,” he said.

A farmer who requested anonymity said that he thought the government’s plan may seem sensible now, but it doesn’t make sense for farmers in the long-term.

“The population in the village is increasing because of Han immigrants, so year after year the price of land goes up. For example, farmers from Bulak Dadamtu sold their land for 300 yuan (U.S. $44) per mu (approx. 0.17 acres), but now the price is 600 yuan (U.S. $88).”

Prominent economist and Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti said that farmers who are being forced to sell their land are left with few alternatives to support themselves and their families.

“There are no job opportunities in the villages in Xinjiang. If Uyghur farmers are forced to sell their land, they will become homeless. There are many examples of this situation in the region,” he said.

In 2007, Yengisar county carried out a forced crop-production plan which ultimately failed.

Farmers faced total damages of over 50 million yuan (U.S. $7.3 million). Farmer Hakim Sayit has appealed for compensation for the loss, but has been repeatedly turned away by authorities, he said.

Original reporting by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes.
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