Caution Needed on New NLTB Land Rules


Usually one should wait before commenting on unseen new rules, but since the soon to be announced Native Land Trust Board (NLTB) rules on the lease of native land have not been place in the public arena for prior discussion before the Board takes arbitrary action, some concern must be expressed about likely foreign investment. The new rules, according to the PM,  will "enable landowners to go into partnership with foreign investors ... instead of landowners leasing their land." The PM says this would "mean landowners becoming major shareholders."  

One assumes (though this is not clear from what Government has released so far) that the new rules will apply to commercial non-agricultural ventures such as tourism, and agricultural ventures what include arable land presently mainly used for sugar production, and for non-arable land used for forestry. Fish ponding and market gardening are other likely uses.

The need to make better commercial use of native land is irrefutable, and if large-scale mechanisation, or management and marketing skills not available locally, are needed, some foreign investment may be necessary. More foreign investment in other sections of the economy is much needed, so investment in land-based activities should also be welcomed...

But (and it is a big But) with these important provisos: The  native landowners and their land must be protected from fiscal and environmental abuse; the grassroots (mataqali) owners must benefit substantially from the arrangements and be included in the land management; current farmers on leasehold land should have opportunities to participate, as must local investors.

And the foreign owners must be minority owners; their venture must bring obvious benefit to Fiji; they must employ and train local people as much as possible; their venture should have provisions for the sale of shares leading to ultimate local majority ownership -- and they must pay taxes. A large bond to ensure these conditions are not breached is a must.

Even after acknowledging the urgent need for action on land and a number of other important issues, I think most proposed legislation benefits from prior wide public consultations. It will be interesting to see how the new rules "shape up."   -- Crosbie Walsh.

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