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EDITORIAL Fiji Times Suva, Fiji Islands Monday, August 23, 1999

The war of words between the Native Land Trust Board and the Government does not augur well for planned talks on land.

It only adds to the anxiety and worry of tenant farmers over what the future holds for them.

They know as well as everyone else that the Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act today poses one of the biggest obstacles to national progress and development.

The sooner it is resolved, the better for everyone, especially the Government.

The Government plans to talk with the board next month, to find ways of resolving the ALTA issue. It hopes, among other things, that the board will help to secure lease agreements that guarantee security of tenure for sugarcane farmers, and a fair return to the landowning units.

The board makes it clear it will do all it can to help - but only within the confines of the Act, which defines its role as far as native land ownership rights are concerned.

It will not and cannot do anything beyond its legal responsibilities and limits. Its stand is clear.

It will act only on the consent of the landowning units. Even the chiefs or clan leaders on their own do no have authority to give out land for leasing to outsiders.

It has to be emphasized that the board can only overrule the wishes of the landowners if it thinks it is in the their best interest to do so.

The board has a legal duty to safeguard the rights of the landowners and will act against their wishes only if their rights are threatened.

Any talks on ALTA have to start with the sides appreciating this reality.

The Government has to understand that the board has no legal power to force landowners into giving their consent to a land deal if they do not so wish. Whatever it asks the board to do should be realistic and legal.

And as suggested here before, it is wise that the land talks begin with the traditional leaders, preferably at the Great Council of Chiefs level. Their advice will be a good starting point for land talks.

The Government cannot go at it alone, much as it wants to prove to those who elected it to power that it does not have to rely on outside help to solve important national problems.

The time to seek advice and assistance is now.

It's in the best interest of the nation.

If it's not willing to do that, it can only prolong anxiety and pain for many people.

For additional reports from the Fiji Times, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Fiji Times).

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