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China's green energy push ahead of Winter Olympics destroying farmers' lives

By Caravanserai and AFP

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A farmer tending sheep near solar panels on a hillside at Huangjiao village in Baoding in China's northern Hebei province on October 22. [Greg Baker/AFP]

BAODING, China -- Beaten, forced off their land, cheated out of money and even falsely imprisoned -- farmers in China say they are paying a heavy price as authorities rush to deliver on ambitious pledges to ramp up national green energy output.

China has vowed the upcoming Winter Olympics 2022 will be the first Games to be run entirely on wind and solar energy, and have built scores of facilities to increase capacity -- but activists warn ordinary people are being exploited by "land grabs" in the process.

In a hamlet near Beijing, the Long family -- who say they've lost more than half their agricultural land to a sprawling solar farm next door -- now have so little income they are burning corn husks and plastic bags to stay warm in winter.

"We were promised just 1,000 yuan per mu of land each year when the power company leased the land for 25 years," farmer Long from Huangjiao village said, using a Chinese unit of land equal to approximately 667 square metres.

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A woman burns corncobs in a stove in Huangjiao village in Baoding in China's northern Hebei province on October 23. [Greg Baker/AFP]

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A farmer tending sheep on October 23 near wind turbines at Caozhuangci village, Baoding, in China's northern Hebei province. [Greg Baker/AFP]

"We can make more than double the amount by growing corn in the same area," he said. "Now without land, I eke out a living as a day labourer."

China is the world's biggest producer of wind turbines and solar panels, and the Winter Olympics is seen as an opportunity to showcase the country's green technologies as they seek global markets.

But Beijing's pitch to be the global leader for climate change is undermined by its heavy investment in coal, and its exploitation of local and foreign communities in its quest to appear "green".

'Suppressed and imprisoned'

For farmers like Long and his neighbour Pi, the green energy boom has made their lives more dangerous and difficult.

Pi says villagers were forced to sign contracts -- seen by AFP -- leasing their land to the solar park built by State Power Investment Group (SPIC), one of the five biggest utility companies in the country.

Those who didn't agree were beaten by the police, he said, adding "some were hospitalised, some were detained."

Pi was jailed for 40 days, while Long languished in prison for nine months for "illegally gathering and disturbing peace", after a public protest.

"The situation is similar to a mafia," Pi said. "If you complain, then you'll be suppressed, imprisoned and sentenced."

The average annual disposable rural income in Baoding is about 16,800 CNY ($2,600), a figure both Long and Pi said they can no longer make.

AFP could not confirm that electricity from the SPIC project near Huangjiao would be used to power the Olympic venues directly, because that information is not publicly available.

The company declined to confirm when asked by AFP.

But the Zhangjiakou government -- the city co-hosting the Games -- has said that since winning the Olympic bid in 2015, the area has "transformed itself from scratch [into] the largest non-hydro renewable energy base in China".

Government subsidies for wind and solar farms have also accelerated construction of such projects in other parts of Hebei, as China scrambles to cut air pollution before the Games.

"Forced evictions, illegal land seizures and loss of livelihoods related to the loss of land" are among the most frequent human rights concerns associated with the wind and solar energy sectors, Amnesty International said in a statement.

'We got nothing'

In September, China announced strict rules for compensation when land is taken over for ecological projects, including the development of green energy.

"Our land zoning [rules] also clearly regulate what agricultural land can't be occupied, especially farmland," said Li Dan, secretary general of the renewable energy professionals committee, which promotes green development.

"This is a red line."

If farmland is being used for renewable energy projects, there should be a benefit sharing programme in place such as powering greenhouses, she said.

But several farmers AFP spoke to said companies were labelling agricultural fields as wasteland to skirt the rules.

Xu Wan, a farmer in Zhangjiakou, lost his land to a solar installation built during the run-up to the Games.

"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 [$471] per mu of land. But in the end, we got nothing."

Zhangjiakou Yiyuan New Energy Development, which installed the solar project in Xu's village, did not respond to AFP's request for comment.

Renewable investments also made up over half the new projects under China's global infrastructure push -- the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- last year.

Priyanka Mogul from The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a UK-based non-profit that has studied the impact of Chinese renewable investments abroad, said some developers had also been accused of controversial practices when acquiring land overseas.

"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.

'The corruption is intolerable'

In China, to reduce conflicts when taking over village land, Beijing has billed most solar farms as poverty alleviation projects, where villagers get free electricity from solar panels installed on their roofs.

According to 2014 state guidelines, utility companies should then buy back the extra electricity in a programme to lift two million families out of poverty by 2020.

The National Energy Administration said last year more than double that number benefited.

But in Huangjiao with over 300 households, only two roofs had solar panels, and villagers said there had been no programme to install solar panels.

"At a central level, the government has good policies for farmers," said Pi from Huangjiao village.

"But once it comes to the village level, things change. The corruption at the grassroots level is intolerable."

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