Farmers in China say they are being beaten, driven off their property, deceived out of money, and even wrongly imprisoned as officials rush to meet lofty goals to increase national green energy output.
China has pledged that the forthcoming Winter Olympics in 2022 would be the first to be totally powered by wind and solar energy, and has erected a slew of facilities to accommodate the demand — but environmentalists fear that regular people are being exploited by “land grabs” as a result.
The Long family, who say they’ve lost more than half their agricultural land to a vast solar farm next door, now have so little money that they’re heating their home with corn husks and plastic bags in the winter.
Using a Chinese measure of land equivalent to around 667 square metres, farmer Long from Huangjiao village said, “We were promised just 1,000 yuan per mu (mou) of land each year when the power company leased the land for 25 years.”
“We can make more than double the amount by growing corn in the same area. Now without land, I eke out a living as a day labourer,” he added.
China is the world’s leading manufacturer of wind turbines and solar panels, and the Winter Olympics are being used to promote the country’s green technologies as it seeks global markets.
To provide an uninterrupted power supply for the Games — and to remove the winter fog that has engulfed Beijing — Hebei province, which borders Beijing, has built a massive facility that draws energy from the region’s renewable energy initiatives.
Every year, just one plant generates 14 billion kilowatt hours of clean electricity, roughly equivalent to Slovenia’s yearly energy usage.
The green energy boom, on the other hand, has made life more risky and difficult for farmers like Long and his neighbour Pi.
Pi claims that villagers were compelled to sign lease contracts with State Power Investment Group (SPIC), one of the country’s five largest utility corporations, to lease their property to the solar park developed by SPIC.
Those who refused to comply were pummelling by police, he added, adding that “some were hospitalised, some were detained.”
After a public demonstration, Pi was sentenced to 40 days in prison, while Long was sentenced to nine months in prison for “illegally gathering and disturbing the peace.”
“The situation is similar to a mafia,” Pi said. “If you complain, then you’ll be suppressed, imprisoned and sentenced.”
Long and Pi both stated they can no longer make the average annual disposable rural income in Baoding, which is around 16,800 yuan ($2,600).
Since that information isn’t publicly available, AFP couldn’t confirm whether electricity from the SPIC project near Huangjiao would be used to power the Olympic venues directly.
When questioned by AFP, the corporation declined to comment.
However, the Zhangjiakou administration, which is co-hosting the Games, claims that the area has “transformed itself from scratch (into) China’s largest non-hydro renewable energy base” since winning the Olympic bid in 2015.
As China scrambles to decrease air pollution before the Games, government subsidies for wind and solar farms have expedited building of such projects in other parts of Hebei.
“Forced evictions, illegal land seizures, and loss of livelihoods related to the loss of land” were among the most common human rights concerns associated with the wind and solar energy sectors, according to Amnesty International.
By 2030, China intends non-fossil sources to provide 25% of its electricity.
To do this, the country will need to more than double its present wind and solar capacity, but environmentalists worry that as energy companies hurry to generate renewables, land seizures may become more common.
Even though Beijing has established a number of lofty goals for the Winter Olympics, green activists in China suffer intense pressure if they deviate from the official line.
For fear of retaliation, some people told AFP they were uncomfortable publicising Beijing’s environmental goals for the Games.
China imposed severe compensation requirements in September for land taken over for ecological initiatives, such as the development of green energy.
“Our land zoning (rules) also clearly regulate what agricultural land, especially farmland, cannot be occupied,” Li Dan, secretary general of the renewable energy professionals committee, which encourages green development, said.
“This is a red line.”
She believes that if farmland is used for renewable energy projects, such as powering greenhouses, there should be a benefit sharing programme in place.
However, according to numerous farmers contacted by AFP, firms are labelling agricultural fields as wasteland to get around the laws.
A solar system installed during the build-up to the Games cost Xu Wan, a farmer in Zhangjiakou, his land.
“The company told us this was non-usable land, but actually it’s all very good agricultural land used by us farmers,” Xu said.
“They said they would give us 3,000 yuan per mu of land. But in the end, we got nothing.”
The solar project in Xu’s village was installed by Zhangjiakou Yiyuan New Energy Development, which did not answer an AFP request for comment.
According to Jiang Yi, a Chinese Academy of Engineering expert, China will require an additional 30,000-40,000 square kilometres of land in the future to meet its renewable energy needs.
“Where the land comes from has become the biggest issue restricting the development of the industry,” he said.
Last year, renewable investments accounted for more than half of new projects under China’s global infrastructure push, the Belt and Road initiative.
Some developers have also been accused of dubious activities while purchasing land overseas, according to Priyanka Mogul of The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a UK-based non-profit that has investigated the impact of Chinese renewable investments abroad.
“The most prevalent issue was inadequate disclosure of environmental impact assessment (data)… followed by issues related to land rights and loss of livelihoods,” she said.
Most solar farms are presented as poverty alleviation projects, with villagers receiving free electricity from solar panels installed on their roofs, to prevent confrontations while taking over village land.
Utility providers should then buy back the additional electricity in a programme to raise two million families out of poverty by 2020, according to state guidelines from 2014.
According to the National Energy Administration, more than twice as many people benefited last year.
Only two rooftops in Huangjiao, which has over 300 households, had solar panels, and people said there had been no solar panel installation programme.
“At a central level, the government has good policies for farmers,” Pi from Huangjiao village said.
“But once it comes to the village level, things change. The corruption at the grassroots level is intolerable.”