Uyghurs Protest Orchard Sales

In a new twist on land development tensions in China, authorities in Xinjiang are reclaiming orchards farmed by ethnic Uyghurs.

Fruit-Market-305.jpg Buyers haggle over apricot prices with a fruit-seller at the Sunday Bazaar in Kashgar, June 15, 2008.
HONG KONG—Authorities in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang have confirmed a plan to buy back orchards from ethnic minority Uyghur farmers two decades before their contracts expire, saying they will auction them off to Han Chinese farmers instead.

"We leased these orchards to the farmers for 50 years with a contract," Abdusamet, head of the township government of Turpanyuz in Gulja [in Chinese Yining] county, Ili prefecture, in the northern part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, said.

"Right now it still has 25 years remaining, but we will buy it back. For one year per mu (approx. 0.17 acres or 0.07 hectares) of orchard, we will pay 200 yuan (U.S. $30)," he said.

Turpanyuz has 14,676 residents, more than 95 percent of whom are Uyghurs. The area has around 2,620,000 mu (approx. 43,141 acres or 17,467 hectares) of tillable land, with an average of 2.2 mu (approx. 0.36 acres and 0.15 hectares) tillable land per person.

Orchard farmers have strongly protested the plan, saying government compensation takes no account of years of labor put into the orchards to make them profitable.

"We suffered a lot to build these orchards, but at the same time, we also enjoyed working on them," a Turpanyuz farmer identified as Umgulsum said.

"Now it is time for us to enjoy the orchards, but they want to rob us and give us no peace," Umgulsum said.

Local peasants say they leased the orchards at issue—former wasteland—in 1983, on condition that they raise fruit trees on it.

“The county and the village governments are forcing us to sell the orchards to them,” she said. “Then they will be able to sell them at auction to Chinese immigrants. We have only the contracts in our hands, but we don’t know what to do.”

Another orchard farmer, identified as Nuri, said his village chief had approached him last month with an offer of one million yuan for his orchard.

"The labor I put in with my family is worth at least two million yuan," he said. "With the other costs, we have spent at least four million yuan."

"In fact, this orchard is worth at least five million yuan. But they said they could only offer I million! I was really upset. So I told them I would not sell it," Nuri said.

'Better managed'
A woman works in her family's vineyard in Turfan, May 9, 1997. AFP

Township government chief Abdusamet said the orchards would be better managed if they were bought back.

"The farmers are unable to manage their orchards well," he said. "That is why the township government will take it back—we will manage it better."

"We will auction the orchards to Chinese businessmen from the rest of China," Abdusamet said.

"The Uyghur farmers are unable to benefit from these orchards, and our township government needs income," he said.

The head of a village in the region, Pahirdin, declined to comment on the plan, though he didn't deny its existence.

Land scarce

Arable land remains one of China's most precious nonrenewable resources, and the amount available is shrinking fast as a result of urbanization and the conversion of farmland for industrial use.

Numerous clashes have erupted in China in recent years over the appropriation of residential property for commercial development, with authorities often paying below-market prices for land.

A new law, the Urban and Rural Planning Law, has meanwhile brought rural land within China's land-planning system, so that all rural land use must  comply with official planning department plans.

Uyghurs, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority, twice enjoyed short-lived independence after declaring the state of East Turkestan during the 1930s and 40s, and many oppose Beijing's rule in the region.

They often complain of heavy-handed repression and economic policies that benefit Han Chinese immigrants to the region, while unemployment and poverty among Uyghurs remain rampant.

Original reporting by Mihray for RFA's Uyghur service. Director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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