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SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Aug. 15) – Drastic lessons of the past few years has led to many landowners now preferring to renew leases early — securing tenancy and income for their mataqali, the Native Land Trust Board says.

The comment comes as 60 landowners in Tavua entered early talks with tenants to renew leases due to expire in three years' time.

NLTB manager North-Western Solomoni Nata said more landowners were joining the growing list of those who simply wanted to see leases renewed or partly renewed.

And, he said, the change corresponded with more farmers wanting to stay on to farm native land.

Mr Nata said landowners were slowly realising their loss when leases were not renewed and many who needed land were now considering leasing out at least half of it to ensure that they had rolling income.

Mr Nata said NLTB had seen many pieces of cane farmland, on leases which were not renewed, turn into bush.

He said NLTB was collecting data on how much land was renewed and how many landowners were successfully farming land taken back.

Mr Nata said landowners in Tavua had told the NLTB that they would renew their leases.

Talks were in the final stages with all particulars due to be made public later this week, he said.

Mr Nata said with the 60 leases expiring in the next three years it was better to reach a solution in advance.

He said it was disappointing that the land issue had turned into a political football and that landowners and farmers could be caught by politicians trying to take advantage of any impasse.

Mr Nata said NLTB was the custodian of all native land and did not want to get involved in politics nor allow landowners to be influenced.

He said the first batch of land under the Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act had expired in 1997 and negotiations for any renewal should have started a few years before that.

"We are expecting 147 leases to expire by the end of this year, out of which 70 per cent have already been renewed," Mr Nata said. "Last year, 55 leases expired and we renewed 33 and by 2010 we hope that all the old leases will expire and the new terms will start.

"We are working in advance now and landowners in Tavua whose leases will expire in the next three years have already indicated their interest.

"This is a very good indication and we hope that with the introduction of NLTA we will have more leases renewed for a 50-year term.

"Both the landowners and the tenants have learnt drastic lessons in the past when some substantial leases were not renewed.

"It is sad to see land lying idle and farmers being displaced and staying in squatter settlements. We are sure that with the renewal of the leases the squatter problems in towns and cities will be solved.

"Non-renewals have created a vicious social and economical cycle. NLTB's main interest is the welfare of the farmers but the solutions we are seeking now will benefit the tenants and the economy"

Mr Nata said the NLTB was now waiting for Parliament to decide on the adoption of the Native Land Trust Act (NLTA).

He said NLTB did not want to waste time commenting on statements issued by politician, because it would be of no use to the landowners and tenants.

The comments come as Parliament faces an ultimatum from the President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, that a solution be found to the native land problem.

Ratu Josefa told the Ad-hoc Select Committee on Land to resolve the problem of expiry of land leases quickly.

He told the committee to treat the issue with "absolute urgency" and reach an agreement within the next few months.

Meetings of the Ad-Hoc committee have been questioned after the Fiji Labour Party made a decision to boycott meetings while the Government pursued the Promotion of Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill.

Mr Nata said that while the politicians debated, it was the landowners and tenants who were missing out.

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