Even though Chinese law offers farmers protection from land grabs, readjustments, and other confiscations, news reports paint a different picture of embattled farmers defending their land from local officials working in concert with developers. In fact, every year 3-4 million farmers lose their property to land readjustments and other forms of compulsory forfeiture in China.
Many of these farmers do not know their legal rights. According to independent surveys, fewer than 30% of farmers have heard of China’s Property Law, the most important law governing properties, and land rights. As a result fewer than 10% of Chinese farmers ever appeal to administrative and judicial institutions when their land rights are violated.
In an attempt to address this huge gap between the laws on the books and adherence to these laws, Landesa , a global NGO working on land rights for the poor, partnered for the last four years with the Guangxi University Law School to establish a legal education center (LEC) to protect farmers’ land rights in Guangxi Province. The center was established with funding from a World Bank Development Marketplace grant from the 2008 Global Competition on Sustainable Agriculture.
The activities of the LEC are three-fold:
-Legal Consultation: Provide free legal advice to farmers about their land rights, including dispute resolution, women’s rights and compensation in land confiscation.
-Educational Outreach: Travel to villages to educate farmers and local officials about land laws and policies through trainings and distribution of educational materials.
-Advocacy: Make presentations about existing laws and policies to local officials and village cadres.
This project is the first of its kind in China. And its impact has been dramatic.
From the beginning, demand for the center’s services has been tremendous and continues to grow. In 2011, the LEC provided legal consultation in 415 cases and addressed 1,625 inquiries concerning alleged violation of farmers’ land rights. About 1,000 farmers and local officials were trained in land laws and policies. Following the conclusion of DM funding, the LEC has continued its operations and expanded its outreach to farmers in Guangxi province.
Surveys of farmers conducted by the LEC indicated that participation in LEC programs boosted farmers’ understanding of their land rights under the law. Farmers’ understanding of and confidence in their land tenure security is critical in sparking agricultural investment and pulling China’s rural areas out of poverty, according to Landesa’s survey  of farmers across 17 provinces that together contain three quarters of China’s rural population. The majority of China’s 700 million rural residents live on less than $2 a day. China’s rural residents lag behind their urban cousins on nearly every socio-economic indicator.
Recently, Landesa was one of four organizations to be awarded with the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, a testament to the paramount importance of Landesa’s ongoing work in continuing to advocate for land reform in China and in other parts of the world.
Xiaohui Wu is an attorney in Beijing, working for Landesa, a global organization that partners with governments to help secure land rights for the poor. Follow them on Twitter: @Landesa_Global .