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SUVA. Fiji (Fiji Times, Jan. 2) – Fiji should adopt a single land leasing system, the Asian Development Bank says.

In an assessment on the country's private sector, the bank said the single land leasing system should see the government having the master lease with the Native Land Trust Board.

"The Government will lease all agricultural land from the NLTB and sub-lease the land to tenants," the bank's report says. "In this way, the Government will make payment to the NLTB and be responsible for the collection of rents from tenants."

Another option is for the Government to collect the rent from the tenants and for NLTB to reduce its fee.

The report calls for work to start immediately if the Government is to solve land problems in Fiji.

The report and recommendations have been handed to the Government for consideration.

Most agricultural land in Fiji is governed by the Agricultural Landlords and Tenants Act, which limits a lease to a maximum of 30 years and maximum lease payments equivalent to a return of six per cent per year of the unimproved capital value of the property.

The report said this situation provided little incentive for landowners to renew leases for productive use.

"Fiji law does not permit construction of non-removable improvements on native land without the permission of the Land Trust Board and the lessors, which is a time consuming procedure," the report said. "Currently a substantial number of leases either have recently expired or are set to expire. Controversy has resulted because many lessees had undertaken apparently non-approved improvements, for which they have not been compensated."

In addition, because of the non-renewal of leases, many highly skilled farmers lost the use of the land they had been cultivating, often for generations, the report said.

"There is anecdotal evidence that the landowners, having failed to cultivate their reacquired properties successfully, would like the lessees to return, but this claim could not be verified."

The report said whatever the situation, the recent uncertainty surrounding the renewal of leases would adversely affect investment in agriculture.

It says the structure of ALTA is holding back the development of the Fijian agricultural sector, "which is a vital part of the economy".

The report says ALTA "creates uncertainty over lease renewal and landowners get very little in return for their land". The land lease issue has effectively used by politicians to polarise the nation with neither Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase nor the Opposition Fiji Labour Party willing to back down.

Leases under ALTA started expiring in 1997, with the vast majority coming up for renewal in the next two to five years.

A result of the expiry of leases has seen the displacement of farmers becoming a major political football for both sides of the political divide.

The land leasing framework in Fiji is far more advanced than in the Pacific region but there are still many problems to overcome, the report says.

January 3, 2006

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