HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba will greatly expand the amount of land granted to private farmers, an agriculture official said on Wednesday, as the Communist-run country struggles to boost productivity in the sector.
Under new regulations expected to be approved this year, productive farmers will be eligible for temporary land grants covering as much as 165 acres (67 hectares), up from the current maximum of 33 acres (13 hectares) mandated in a 2008 decree, said William Hernandez Morales, the top agricultural official in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba.
“Those persons or lease holders that have really shown they can produce will be able to increase their land to five caballerias,” he said on state-run radio. A caballeria is an old land measure still used in Cuba equivalent to 33 acres (13 hectares).
The state owns more than 70 percent of the arable land on the Caribbean island, of which some 50 percent lies fallow and the remainder produces less than the private sector.
A local agricultural expert said private farmers produce 57 percent of the food on only 24 percent of the land.
President Raul Castro has made increasing food production a top priority since taking over from his brother Fidel Castro in 2008, but with poor results.
In one of his key reforms, the government has turned over 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) of land to 143,000 farmers and would-be farmers since October 2008, but farmers have complained that the small size of the plots and other restrictions hampered production.
They said bigger plots and a recent measure that makes it easier to employ laborers were positive steps.
“This is special. They should redistribute all the fallow land that’s been overrun with brush,” Roberto Hernandez, a farmer who leased 33 acres in 2009, said in a telephone interview.
“Now the land produces nothing, when it should be producing root vegetables, beans, rice or what have you,” he added.
Central Camaguey farmer Jorge Echemendia agreed.
“This is what they have to do without waiting any longer. I don’t know how they do it, but when the state gives the land to the people they manage to clean it up, even if with their fingernails, and put it into production.”
Castro has also decentralized decision-making, increased prices paid for produce, opened stores where secondary farm supplies such as clothing and tools are sold and promised farmers more freedom to grow and sell their crops.
Agriculture output increased 6.1 percent through June, compared with the same period in 2010, a year that saw a 2.5 percent decline despite the reforms.
Food production remains below 2005 levels and food prices at farmers markets have increased 7.8 percent this year, according to the government. (Editing by Jeff Franks and Mohammad Zargham)