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Life on the Forgotten Farms of Guangzhou

A new short film captures the striking scenes of skyscrapers encroaching on farmers amid China's rapid urbanization.

Few cities in history have urbanized as dramatically as Guangzhou, China. In just a few decades, the city’s urban area exploded beyond its borders, paving over agricultural land and merging with nearby cities to create the world’s largest megalopolis. Today it’s an economic powerhouse and a major industrial hub for a region of 44 million people. But increasingly hidden amid the towers and cranes of the region’s building boom are the farmers whose families have worked the land for generations, as well as the crops they continue to grow to feed themselves and make a living.

That dissonance between rural and urban, past and present, is on stark display in Village in the City, a short documentary by Tom Ford, a photojournalist and filmmaker with the BAMM creative agency in London. Ford says he made the video as a passion project while in Guangzhou for work, drawn to the steady march of concrete and steel over farmland. And as urbanization is pushing these farmers off their land, it’s also pushing them out of the public’s mind.

“We were asking around trying to find these farms, and people living there said, ‘You’re in a city. There aren’t farms here,’” Ford tells CityLab. When he finally found a taxi driver who knew where to take him, he didn’t have to go far: The farm he visited is completely surrounded by the city. “You’re driving along these spaghetti roads and high-rises,” Ford says,then you suddenly drop down into the farms.”

Farmers working in Guangzhou
(Tom Ford)

The film’s images are striking. One shot after another shows soil, plants, and workers in the foreground, with a wall of identical skyscrapers looming on the horizon. The scenes of construction evoke an uncertain future and lend a greater sense of urgency to the farmers’ situation.

“Less than a decade ago, it was just a village. Then the cranes came,” one farmer says in the video. “They swallowed the farms and villages of our neighbors. We’ve been offered a new place to live, but it won’t replace what we have here.”

Guangzhou’s population has skyrocketed from around 2 million people in 1980 to an estimated 13 million people in 2015, according to The Guardian. That growth was deliberate: Starting in 1979, the Chinese government began opening up the economies of Guangzhou and other cities in the Pearl River Delta, allowing for more foreign investment and trade, and ultimately turning the region into a global hub of manufacturing.

“No matter where you go in the world, you’re only a meter away from something that’s been made here,” Ford says.

That industry fueled the growth of the truly massive urban region that Guangzhou is a part of today, along with Shenzhen, Dongguan, and several other cities. But in that process, more than 160 million farmers lost their land between 2004 and 2012, according to Ford’s video.

The impacts go beyond the changing borders of farmland. Manufacturing and mining have contributed to widespread soil pollution in the area, contaminating crops and sending dangerous chemicals into the food supply. And Ford says elements of city life appeared on the farms in unexpected ways: In one field he saw a mannequin being used as a scarecrow.

The farmers he spoke to had mixed reactions to the situation. Some, he says, found hope in a 2015 law that declared farmland off limits to urban and industrial development, though it’s not proving to be effective so far. Others were “really quite sad” and felt powerless to stop their land from being swallowed up by urbanization, Ford says. “They think it’s really just a matter of time.”

About the Author

  • Adam Sneed
    Adam Sneed is a senior associate editor at CityLab, focused on technology and audience engagement.