Friday, November 17, 2006

NLTB Changes Tune

The Native Land Trust Board has found a new solution to the Agricultural, Landlord and Tenants Act (ALTA) problem. We all know that the NLTB with the support of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga wants ALTA abolished and all transferred leases to be governed under the Native Land Trust Act (NLTA). The NLTB has changed it’s tune now. The Minister for Fijian Affairs Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, speaking in support of the 2007 Budget said: “I am pleased to announce that the Native Land Trust Board in their vision and humility have put forward positive options for changes to their initial stand on the NLTA, ALTA debate.”
While the Minister did not elaborate on the options, we can safely say that the land problem should be resolved as early as next year. Both institutions are concerned that ALTA has many provisions that are prejudicial to the proprietary rights and interests of native landowners. The NLTB has publicly explained why it feels very strongly that the proprietary rights and interests of native landowners would be best served if native land were removed from ALTA and returned to NLTA.
Essentially, by the provision of section 59 (2) of ALTA and by the operation of certain other ALTA provisions, native landowners are seriously concerned that their rights and interests in maintaining effective control of their land have been undermined and breached. Although ALTA leases on native land began expiring in 1997, governments and parliaments before that and immediately after were not able to each an agreement on a solution. Let us look at the stand taken by the Laisenia Qarase-led Coalition Government last year.
Details of the Government’s proposals are as follows:
1) All agricultural leases on native land are to be issued under NLTA rather than ALTA. This is to respect the wishes of Fijian landowners as expressed through the Native Land Trust Board and the Great Council of Chiefs. They want all leases on native land, including agricultural leases, to be brought under one law, the Native Land Trust Act.
2) On the consent of the landowners through the NLTB, agricultural leases under NLTA will generally be for 50 years. The land needs of the landowners must always take precedence on the use of their land. But with their consent, land surplus to their needs may be leased by the NLTB for the benefit of tenants and of Fiji as a whole. The NLTB will seek their consent to grant 50-year leases, in the first instance.
3) Only if the landowners cannot agree to a 50-year lease, will shorter leases be issued. These leases may be for 30 or 40 years, but none will be shorter than 20 years. In explaining this in Parliament, the Prime Minister also supported another possibility. This is for the Government and the Parliamentary Opposition to present a joint submission to the NLTB and the GCC for this minimum tenure of 20 years to be raised to 30 years.
4) These leases under NLTA will be renewable, subject only to the consent of the landowners as required by law. If the landowners agree to allow the renewal of a lease on their land, the renewal will be for a period of not shorter than 20 years. The Government recognises that any extension shorter than 20 years will make it very hard for a tenant to borrow funds for farm improvement.
5) To further assist the tenants, the determination of the renewal of the lease will be made well before expiry. For 50-year leases, for e.g., the determination for renewal will be made by the NLTB in consultation with the landowners between the 37th and 40th year of the lease. For shorter agricultural leases, the determination of the lease for renewal will be made at least three years before the expiry of the lease. This will remove the uncertainty of leases under ALTA where there is no provision for renewal.
6) Rent under the new arrangement will be a flat 10 per cent of the UCV of the land. The existing arrangement under ALTA is for rent of up to 6 per cent of UCV. This has created a lot of uncertainties because in most cases, actual rent levied is only between 2 and 4 per cent of UCV. Setting the rent at 10 per cent is to more accurately reflect current land values.
According to the Coalition Government the new leasing arrangements under NLTA will have fair and equitable arrangements for compensation both for the farmers and for the landowners. The Fiji Labour Party wants ALTA retained and any amendments must be within the ambit of ALTA. The revelation by the Minster for Fijian Affairs is quite interesting, especially when the BLV had made its stand clear on the issue. This stand was taken after it was briefed by the NLTB.
Surely, the NLTB has to seek the support of the BLV and it is only proper that the august body was briefed on the options in its last meeting at Levuka, Ovalau next month. The multi party government is committed to finding a solution to this problem. The issue of land reform has remained unresolved for many years. Yet it affects the lives of many of our people and also contributes to the growth of the national economy. According to the Minister for Finance, Ratu Jone Kubuabola: “With the establishment of this partnership approach through the multi party government, I believe that we are in a good position to resolve the land lease issue for the betterment of our people and the entire nation.”
The Minister for Commerce and Industry, Adi Sivia Qoro, yesterday said in parliament: “Issues associated with the land tenure system under ALTA must also be resolved. The assurance given by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Fiji Labour Party that they are committed to resolve issues relating to land by first half of next year is a clear signal that an amicable solution will be found in the near future for the benefit of all, particularly landowners as well as the tenants.”
We all want to see an end to the land impasse. For this to happen, politics must not be involved. With the NLTB now changing its tune, we all hope the options provided would be agreed upon by the FLP. I mention this because ALTA is entrenched legislation and will require two thirds of the support in parliament to be amended.
Prime Minister Qarase had tabled a Bill to amend the ALTA Act but was not passed because it did not have the support of two thirds of the members in parliament. Associate Professor Biman Prasad, of the University of the South Pacific and Head of School of Economics said, “The debate on agricultural leases has created more instability in the country and a permanent solution will have a positive impact on agricultural productivity and indirectly on investment and the macro economy.”
Let us all hope that the new options now with the NLTB will put an end to the land impasse in the country. In a new twist the Prime Minister had confirmed that the FLP had suspended all talks with him on national issues and the land impasse is included. The FLP leader said the land issue could only be solved when the ground rules for the multi party Cabinet are established. Whatever happens, the people want a solution.

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