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Last Updated: Monday, 25 June 2007, 05:34 GMT 06:34 UK
Chinese farmers battle the elements
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Earlier this month, as farmers were harvesting their wheat crop in a small village in northern China, disaster struck.

Burnt wheat
Flames reduced the fields to ashes

A careless relative of one farmer started a fire to clear what was left of their already-harvested field.

Unfortunately, the wind fanned the flames and before long, the fire had spread to nearby unharvested fields.

Farmers desperately cleared a path in front of the flames to halt their advance. They succeeded, but not before the fire had destroyed 60 mu (1 hectare =15 mu) of wheat fields.

Furious villagers in Donglu, in Shandong Province, demanded compensation from the woman responsible after seeing a sizable chunk of their annual earnings go up in smoke.

"She was only thinking of herself," said the still-angry Wang Yuzhen, who farms 11 mu of land with her husband Lu Qingze. They lost several mu of wheat.

"The woman came back from the county town to help her brother with the harvest. They wanted to clear the field quickly so they could plant their maize crop," Mrs Wang explained.

Slim pickings

The woman responsible eventually agreed to compensate each villager 400 yuan ($52) for each mu of wheat they had lost.

Villagers accepted, but in doing so, received only about half of what they would have earned if they had harvested and then sold the wheat on the open market.

And a neighbouring village, where fields were also damaged, has still not agreed compensation terms.

Farmers there are threatening to sue the woman who has, perhaps wisely, gone back to her home and job in the nearby town of Chiping.

The sums may appear small, but to these farmers, who have not benefited from China's economic boom as much as urban workers, it means the difference between a good year and a bad year.

Wang Yuzhen
Wang Yuzhen and her husband are typical Chinese farmers

Like others in Donglu village, farmer Wang and her husband harvest just two main crops a year - wheat in June, maize in the autumn - on their small plot of land, which was allocated to them by the village head.

Together they can expect to earn a total of about 13,000 yuan ($1,700) a year from the two crops.

They also have two cows, one pig and a yard full of squawking chickens, which they will sell to earn a little extra.

Other villagers grow vegetables such as beans, onions, tomatoes and aubergines to earn more money, but profits are small. Mrs Wang and her husband don't think growing them is worth the effort.

The couple supplement their annual income with money sent home by their three daughters, who have all left the village to work in China's big cities.

Mrs Wang and Mr Lu are currently arguing about whether to buy a washing machine or a refrigerator with money they expect their daughters to give them next year.

Wealth gap widens

Donglu villagers are typical of others across China. Some provinces are richer than others, but all farmers generally earn less than their city cousins.

In January this year, when the Chinese government held a news conference to talk about the economy's performance in 2006, the overall growth rate of 10.7% made most of the headlines.

But at the same event, the government also revealed that the income gap between rural and urban workers widened last year. Workers in towns and cities now earn more than three times more than farmers.

Urban people had an average disposable income of 11,759 yuan ($1,543) last year, a figure that was higher in more developed cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. Net income in the countryside was just 3,587 yuan ($471) a head.

Part of the problem is that prices for agricultural products have not risen as much as for other goods in recent years.

Chinese farm workers in the fields
Chinese rural workers still have a hard life

In a report published in 2006, the World Bank estimated that 8% of the Chinese population - about 106 million people - lived on less than $1 a day. Most of those are in the countryside.

This does not mean that Chinese farmers are not benefiting from the economic boom - they are.

Last year, average rural incomes grew by more than 10%. The problem is that urban incomes are growing faster.

China's government recognises the problem and sees the potential social problems that can arise if the income gap continues to widen.

It has initiated a number of schemes to reduce the burden on rural people, such as scrapping agricultural taxes last year - taxes that had been levied for 2,600 years.

"It made our lives a lot easier," said Mrs Wang, whose family previously paid 400 yuan in tax every year for each person.

However, a report issued by China's National Development and Reform Commission earlier this year said government efforts to narrow the income gap between rural and urban areas had so far had "little effect".

For the farmers of Donglu and elsewhere in China, that means they will be at the mercy of accidents, natural disasters and fluctuating market prices for some years to come.

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