HAVANA Cuba has approved 45,500 land grants in the largest land redistribution since the 1960s, the Communist party Granma newspaper reported on Monday, as the country turns to the private sector to increase food production.
"Deputy Agriculture Minister Alcides Lopez explained 96,419 applications had been received as of January 22 ... for 1,300,000 acres of land," Granma said, "of which 45,518 were approved."
Lopez's comments at a meeting of government leaders provided the first national data on the program begun by President Raul Castro late last year to lease land to workers, private farmers, cooperatives and state companies.
According to various provincial reports, the vast majority of leases have gone to individuals seeking land for the first time and small family farmers.
Communist 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 has around 250,000 family farms and 1,100 private cooperatives, which together produce around 70 percent of the country's food on less than one-third of the land.
The remainder of the land is owned by the state, and half of that lies fallow.
The program is part of Castro's agricultural reform aimed at increasing domestic food production and decreasing reliance on imports. Cuba imported around 40 percent of the food it consumed in 2008 at a cost of nearly $2 billion.
Castro moved earlier to decentralize agriculture management, once centered in Havana, and increase farm supplies. He has also doubled and tripled amounts the state, which dominates food distribution, pays for most agricultural products.
Castro took power provisionally in July 2006 after Fidel Castro underwent intestinal surgery for an undisclosed ailment, and was formally elected by the National Assembly a year ago to replace his brother.
The land lease program lets private farmers who have been productive lease up to 99 acres for 10 years, with the possibility of repeatedly renewing for another 10.
Cooperatives and state farms also can request unspecified amounts of additional land to work for 25 years, with the possibility of renewing for another 25.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)