HAVANA Communist Cuba has begun leasing land to private farmers, cooperatives and state companies for the first time in decades in a step forward for one of President Raul Castro's main economic reforms, official media said this week.
The move could not come at a better time, local economists said, as the country struggles with food shortages after hurricanes Ike and Gustav devastated crops last month.
"First parcels of vacant land handed over in Granma" said a headline in Demajagua, the Communist party newspaper for the southeastern province of Granma.
The report was the first mention in Cuba that land has actually been turned over since the plan was announced in July and applications were opened in September. The weekly paper said 33 parcels totaling 350 hectares (865 acres) were leased to farmers, cooperatives, individuals and other entities.
Demajagua said applications had been submitted for 61,808 hectares (152,725 acres) of the 76,675 hectares (189,461 acres) of state lands in Granma.
There has been no announcement at the national level that handovers have begun and it is not clear if the process has started in other provinces.
Farmers in central Camaguey province told Reuters they had been advised that land leases there would begin within a few weeks.
The handovers are the latest of several limited reforms implemented by Castro to try to make Cuba's state-run economy more productive since he formally replaced his ailing brother, Fidel Castro, as president in February.
Raul Castro's broadest reform has been in agriculture, where he has decentralized decision-making, reduced bureaucracy and increased prices to raise food production in the import-dependent nation.
Getting more land into the hands of private farmers, who have been more productive than state farms, is a key part of his plan.
The issue has become more critical in recent weeks after hurricanes Gustav and Ike destroyed 30 percent of Cuba's crops when they struck a month ago.
A decree law issued in July said private farmers who have shown themselves to be productive can increase their current land to a maximum of 40 hectares (99 acres) for a period of 10 years. The deal can be renewed.
Cooperatives and state farms also can request additional land to work for 25 years, with the possibility of renewing for another 25, according to the law. It did not specify how much more land the cooperatives can get.
The Cuban state owns more than 70 percent of arable land, of which more than 50 percent is fallow.
For many years the government has leased land to individuals who want to farm for the first time, but balked at doing the same for private farmers and cooperatives, by far the country's most productive.
The state-run National Information Agency said 5,692 land applications have been submitted in Granma, but figures for the entire country were not available.
The process of handing over lands will take time because of the need to do land surveys and other issues, a local official told Demajagua.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Frances Kerry)