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SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Dec. 18) The Native Land Trust Board is asking landowners to renew 523 cane leases expiring by the end of the year to help prop up the ailing industry.

The NLTB revealed yesterday that of the 728 leases expiring under the Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act this year, 523 were cane leases.

NLTB spokesman Nimilote Naivalumaira said 1,279 leases would expire between now and 2010.

Mr. Naivalumaira said farmers were entitled to a grace period of one year if they were farming the land properly and were up to date with their rent payments. "It is within this period, that negotiations on the renewal of the leases should be undertaken," he said.

Naivalumaira said the Government paid the rent on all ALTA leases for and on behalf of the lessees-tenants for the one- year grace period.

Interim Fijian Affairs Minister Ratu Epeli Ganilau said there was no way the interim Government could renegotiate the rent formula for leases under ALTA because that could only be done with a two thirds majority of an elected parliament.

ALTA lease rentals are calculated on the unimproved capital value (UCV) of the land, through which some landowners end up receiving minimal rent because the rent is split among mataqali members.

Ratu Epeli said the new formula of rent to be paid on leases under the Native Lands Trust Act was not based on market value as had been recommended by the independent audit team on Fijian institutions led by Apakuki Kurusiga, and endorsed by Cabinet.

"All we can do as far as ALTA leases are concerned is to encourage farmers to help prop and support the industry as this will benefit the economy," Ratu Epeli said.

"We can only respect the decision of the landowners when they make it and there is no way we can rush into these things and shove it down their throats.

"Different landowning units have different requirements. Some may want to develop their land for other purposes."

Ratu Epeli said the negative side of a landowner taking over his own land would be if they failed to make any productive use of it.

Naivalumaira said discussions with landowners on the renewal of leases were an ongoing thing the NLTB always undertook in its dealing with tenants and the landowners.

The number of cane leases expiring over the next three years are:

Naivalumaira said if landowners insisted the land be given back to them when the leases expired, the NLTB would respect those wishes.

However, he said the NLTB was always trying its best to look at the interest of the lessees and the landowners even if it meant subdividing the land so the tenant could remain on the residential site while the rest of the land was given back to the landowners.

"While some landowners have decided to move into the sugarcane farming and taking over ALTA expired leases in the process some have decided to renew leases to those leasing on their land," he said.

"The board is working closely with the FSC and other stakeholders to ensure that we retain the number of sugar farms or increase it if we have to, to sustain the tons of cane we supply to each of our sugar mills," he said.

The Sugar Cane Growers Council is adamant expiring land leases will have an impact on sugar production over the next few years.

Council chairman and National Farmers Union president, Jain Kumar said until they were able to improve productivity within a hectare of every farm, the industry’s viability could be at stake.

Mr. Kumar said with more than 500 leases expiring this year, all sugar cane farmers would have to increase the total tonnage to ensure sugar production was improved significantly from this season’s achievement.

Kumar said he could not determine how many expired leases belonged to NFU members.

He said they started this season with an estimated production of 300,000 tons of sugar but after a poor performance caused by continuous mill disruptions and unfavorable weather conditions, sugar production was estimated to be less than 250,000 tons.He said their main concern at the moment was growers holding leases not producing enough sugar cane.

We have 59,000 hectares of sugar cane farms throughout the country and we need to improve our yield per hectare to sustain the industry’s viability.

With our target being set at 4.2 million tons of cane or 420,000 tons of sugar by 2010, production should be increased significantly.

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