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SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Mar. 8) - Sugar production in Fiji could fall because land formerly tilled for cane is lying after the non-renewal of farm leases, according to the Fiji Sugar Corporation.

Corporation chairman Ross McDonald said they were trying to integrate as many landowners as possible into cane farming so that cane land was not idle.

"It is of great concern to FSC because it affects the production of sugar. There is less production because the land is no longer used for farming," he said. "That is why we have been working closely with the ‘mataqali’ [the primary local division of Fijian society] of Fijian villages to encourage landowners and get them involved in cane farming."

More than 40,000 people are estimated to be working in the Fiji sugar cane industry. The industry is estimated to bring in about $240 million (US$145.6 million) worth of revenue for the country.

It is currently preparing for a major revamp through an $86 million (US$52.2 million) loan from the Indian government, which will see the upgrade of mills and other production facilities around the country.

The restructure program, which promised no job losses in mills, has come under fire from farmers’ organizations because it makes no allocation for the upgrade of farms.

National Farmers Union general secretary Jain Kumar said if landowners did not want to farm cane, they should allow for the return of tenants who could continue the practice.

"That is a major concern because sugar production has declined since land leases have not been renewed by landowners," he said. "This is because most landowners don’t continue to farm cane and just leave the land idle."

Kumar said the union would ask the Government to consider the return of tenant farmers if landowners wanted that.

"We have a representative who will approach the Government and ask that the land be returned so that tenants will continue with their farming to help boost the sugar industry and its production," he said.

McDonald said the Corporation had appointed a three-member committee to liaise with landowners over the development of farms.

"We have had different response from the landowners but most of them are positive and had joined in cane farming," he said. "One of the villages the committee has worked with is Sabeto and the landowners have been helpful and very supportive."

Native Land Trust Board spokesman Nimilote Naivalumaira said liaison with landowners had resulted in several leases being renewed.

Agriculture Minister Ilaitia Tuisese said over the past few years, several measures had been implemented to help farmers whose leases were not renewed.

"We resettled them in other areas like Navua and they can continue with other kinds of farming they’re interested in," Tuisese said.

But he said several farmers had chosen to move into towns.

McDonald is also a board member of The Fiji Times.

March 9, 2005

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