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Cuba land leases to private farmers on the rise
*Government seeks to reform sector, up food output
*Biggest distribution since post-revolutionary period
*Farmers say takes months to gain access to land
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, July 6 (Reuters) - The ranks of Cuba's family farmers have grown by more than 30,000 this year as the government conducted the biggest land-lease distribution since the country's 1959 revolution in an effort to solve an agricultural crisis, a newspaper reported on Monday.
Communist authorities began leasing 4 million acres of fallow state lands in October, mainly small parcels, to private family farmers and interested individuals as part of an effort by President Raul Castro to reform the state-dominated sector and increase food production.
The official trade union weekly Trabajadores newspaper said a total of 78,113 land leases have been granted since the program began, up from 45,000 in January when figures were last released.
"A study of fallow state lands found there were 1.69 million hectares (4 million acres), of which 689,697 hectares (1.7 million acres) have been leased, or 41 percent," Trabajadores said.
Cuba has not handed out land on such a large scale since shortly after the 1959 revolution when large land holdings were nationalized and some of the acreage given to small farmers.
Cuba had around 250,000 family farms and 1,100 private cooperatives before the land-lease program began, which together produce around 70 percent of the country's produce on less than one-third of the land.
FARMERS SEE RESULTS
Farmers said the program had borne visible results, though they added it took months to actually gain the land once granted.
"I am thrilled to see how wasted state lands are turning into food providers, but there are cases where the land is leased but has not been put to use due to organizational questions," Alfredo Estevez, a farmer in central Camaguey province, said in a telephone interview.
Trabajadores said 56,000 of the leases were in production.
Castro took over for his ailing brother Fidel in February 2008 facing an agricultural crisis that left the country importing 60 percent to 70 percent of the food it consumes, according to local experts, and residents angry over high prices at state-run produce markets.
The government, which controls more than 90 percent of economic activity, provides Cubans with a subsidized food ration which must be supplemented at the markets where a pound of meat costs more than an average day's pay and a head of lettuce, a few tomatoes and a mango close to the same.
Cubans receive various social benefits, but the average salary is only about $20 a month.
Raul Castro as part of his reform program has decentralized decision-making in agriculture and increased prices paid to farmers for produce.
Foreign and local experts said it was too early to judge the success of the reform measures, but they questioned the state's continued monopoly over agricultural supplies and distribution of what is produced. (Editing by Jeff Franks and Cynthia Osterman)
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