China’s Solar Projects Raise Land Grabbing Concerns

A solar photovoltaic project in northern China’s Hebei province has angered local farmers who accuse developers of forcibly grabbing their farmland, highlighting the conflict between companies pushing the country’s clean energy goals and those caught in the crosshairs.

Villagers in Xingtang County told Sixth Tone that Xingte New Energy Co. Ltd. — a local unit owned by industry giant Xinjiang TBEA Group — started installing solar panels in April even after locals refused to give up the land that would ultimately affect their livelihoods. Locals use the collectively owned farmland for agriculture and said over 200 mu (13 hectares) of wheat sprouts were bulldozed in the process.

Many from Liujiazhuang Village, which is administered by Xingtang County, said they were forced into signing a 20-year lease starting from an annual payment of 1,200 yuan ($180) per mu for the first five years, according to the contract seen by Sixth Tone. The payments would increase by 100 yuan per mu every five years until the lease expired.

A Liujiazhuang resident, surnamed Liu, said her family received over 20,000 yuan, even when they hadn’t agreed to the company’s conditions. Another woman in the nearby Qihou Village said she was physically assaulted by strangers when trying to stop the installations.

“We just want our land so we can farm,” Liu said, adding that the land was their primary source of income.

Solar panels stand on farmlands in Xingtang County, Hebei province, 2022. Courtesy of a local resident

China is the world’s largest solar power generator — it accounted for 3.4% of the country’s electricity supply in 2020 — and it plays an important role in achieving the country’s ambitious climate goals of becoming carbon neutral by 2060. The country has an installed solar power capacity of 306 gigawatts (GW) and plans to increase this by 75 to 99 GW this year.

But the expansion of renewable energy projects such as solar requires large tracts of land to install light-absorbing photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight into electricity. Such projects are scattered across the country, with many of those requiring large photovoltaic installations located in regions with abundant open space like in the north.

China’s national policy on using land for solar photovoltaic panels currently bars installations on officially listed ecological areas and protected farmlands, though local policies vary from place to place. But many companies have been found to be ignoring the rules, even in places like Hebei where provincial authorities banned farmland being used for solar installations in May.

Last year, villagers in the northwest Shaanxi province also reported that their farmland and forest belt were razed to make way for solar installations. Earlier this year, a new energy company was publicly called out by authorities in the eastern Jiangsu province for illegally taking over protected farmland in the city of Danyang.

Renewable energy companies using land seizures and unfavorable working conditions to attain lofty environmental goals has become a global issue. A tally from London-based rights group Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has kept tabs on 197 such allegations leveled against solar, wind, bioenergy, geothermal, and hydropower companies between 2010 and 2020.

Li Yifei, assistant professor of environmental studies at the New York University Shanghai, said that it was important for countries like China that are trying to promote renewable energy for a cleaner future to ensure a just transition. He cautioned against a rising trend of “green grabbing” in China, which involves a pattern of appropriating land for environmental purposes in the absence of protecting the ecological tradeoff and the rights of marginalized groups.

“When we put all our attention in terms of policy and money towards decarbonization, it is easy to forget what the cost is,” Li told Sixth Tone. “In the process of transition, more consideration should be given to ethnic and rural communities which lack a strong political mobilization ability in China.”

And the lack of awareness about their rights coupled with heavy-handed tactics from companies are often resulting in various violations in places like Xingtang County.

In another village nearby Liujiazhuang, a woman surnamed Zhang told Sixth Tone that she was angry that the solar power project had plans to take over her family’s land reserved for graves, which she declined. Those trying to stop bulldozers from razing their farms in April were met with violence from people whose identities were unknown, according to media reports.

The incident has triggered a public backlash against the project — a part of Xingtang’s “agricultural-solar complementary” project with investments from Xingte New Energy Co. Ltd. — prompting authorities to halt the project and its head to be arrested in May.

A joint investigation led by authorities in Shijiazhuang, which oversees Xingtang, found the company’s contract signing process with locals to be problematic and the construction “violated regulations.” Xingte New Energy was also suspected of “sabotaging production and operations.”

Shijiazhuang authorities also reprimanded county officials and fired the head of the local township that oversees the affected villages in May.

A month later, five farmers, including the two women, from Xingtang County told Sixth Tone they have regained parts of their farmland and removed construction debris, while residents said they had received compensation from the company for the destroyed crops.

For now, many in Xingtang County are still unsure if they can put their worries behind them. The solar panels already mounted onto the farms are still intact — and that’s still making them anxious.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Solar panels stand on farmlands in Xingtang County, Hebei province, 2022. Courtesy of a local resident)

Author: systems