The Land Rights and Sustainable Development Project (LARISDE)


Purpose of the project

The initiative for the project springs from a clear demand from the Chinese Ministry of Land Resources and the Ministry of Agriculture for international support. The longterm goal for the project is the establishment of a land cadastre and the improvement of land policies and laws. In order to attain this goal, five shortterm goals have been formulated in discussion with Chinese scholars and officials:

  1. Research into problems of land administration and registration in three locations in China, representing different ecological and socio-economic conditions;
  2. The training and education of staff members within the Ministry of Land Resources and Ministry of Agriculture and selected provincial/county institutions;
  3. Policy recommendations on land administration to relevant government institutions;
  4. Legal support and information for rural collectives and legal persons during land registration;
  5. Stimulating societal and political debate regarding the recognition of customary and historical land rights of the rural collectives.

Problems and issues addressed

The fate of China’s land is closely connected to its erratic political and economic history. Since the establishment of the rural collectives in 1956, all private land became collective ownership. For almost 30 years, the production team (the smallest administrative unit within the commune) remained the basic owner of rural land. With the disbandment of the communes in the early 1980s the team, too, was replaced with the village collective (or villagers’ group). The economic reforms have sparked an unprecedented commercialization of rural society and, thus also, a call for clearer and more privatized land property rights.

Land problems are one of the most fundamental issues in China today, yet due to the socialist ideology the issue is still relatively sensitive. China seems a semi-capitalist society to many, but looking at the angle of economic theory one of the three means of production – land – is still firmly in the hands of the state. The Chinese government claims an alternative path of development on the basis of state and collective ownership of land. But liberal economists have expressed strong doubts whether longterm economic growth is possible without privatization. Most problems encountered in rural China today – unsustainable land use, environmental pollution and forced eviction of farmers from their land – actually relate to land property rights.

And this is where the problems start: land holdings have never been systematically registered! The common village lands were often claimed by unwritten, customary law, whereas the land permits of Land Reform were issued to individual farmers and not the entire village. That is, if they had been issued at all and if they are still existent. Many land permits have been lost during the upheaval of subsequent political campaigns. There are two critical issues that call for our attention.

First, in the past customary village land was frequently expropriated in the name of socio-economic development. Official land requisition procedures were seldom followed at the time. As the village collectives can prove no title to such land, many land disputes have erupted as a result. The unclear nature of land ownership to natural resources has often caused unsustainable land use practices. This is particularly the case in frontier zones with large grassland and forest reserves, where historical reclamation has created "islands" of unrecognized collective land in otherwise state-owned natural resources.

Second, rapid urbanization has led to a "mad scramble for land resources" for real estate development. The lure of big money has given way to "territorial theft" by using the inconsistencies in the law on land ownership. Cities buy and expropriate entire villages, while the farmers are forcefully migrated. In the developed coastal zones and peri-urban areas there is a significant danger for the victimization of rural collectives in the shifts of ownership rights.

Being such a fundamental issue, research on land issues and support in the establishment of a national land cadastre cannot be done overnight. For this reason, the research will tackle specific areas: socio-anthropological issues, GIS and remote sensing, policy and legal problems, and (agro)economic questions.

Research will be done in two areas: Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang and Zhejiang Province. The research in these regions should yield representative case-studies on various natural resources (arable land, grassland and forest), as well as in different socio-economic settings (rich urban regions vs poorer, rural areas).

The research results will be used for the formulation of policy recommendations.


The project will develop the following activities:

  1. PhD candidates and MSc students will be selected to pursue studies in environmental sciences and spatial planning in the Dutch universities. It is imperative that students are selected who are already working within the government bureaucracy, and who will return to their original employees after the end of their studies abroad;
  2. the training of officials in the central and provincial bureaucracy through short courses in China by Dutch experts. In the future, the courses are meant to be taken over by the Rural Development Research Center of the Ministry of Agriculture, so that longterm sustainability of the courses is ensured;
  3. international exchange through the visits of Chinese study delegations to The Netherlands and the organisation of conferences and seminars in China;
  4. shortterm research by international experts on land rights and sustainable development through research fellowships;
  5. the dissemination of the project and research results in the form of policy recommendations to relevant state organs.


Information about the project organization

The project will be coordinated by the Environmental Policy Group (EP Group), Wageningen University. The EP Group will be responsible for the coordination of research, training and educational activities. Also the financial administration and organisation of seminars and conferences will be the prime responsibility of the EP Group.