Photo: Julio Martínez Molina

In July of 2008, the Cuban government approved Decree-Law 259, authorizing the awarding of idle state lands in usufruct to individuals and incorporated entities.

For the first time in the country, this type of process was implemented on a massive scale, with the goal of getting these underutilized lands into production, to contribute to an increase in food available to the population, and reduce imports.

Four years later, Decree-Law 300 was promulgated to replace 259, assuring the continued cultivation of land awarded by facilitating the incorporation, permanence, and stability of the workforce, as well as the definitive settlement of families onsite.

From that time to date, 1,917,000 hectares have been awarded, representing 31% of the island's agricultural land. Of this, 1,733,000 hectares were granted to some

222,000 individual persons.

Since these policies were implemented, agricultural production has increased across the board, although supplies still do not meet the population's needs. Data provided by the Ministry of Agriculture reflect annual growth of 5% in root vegetables and greens; 6% in corn; 6% in fruit, and 8% in rice.

Nevertheless, at the end of 2016, some 894,000 hectares of land remained idle. This reality, along with the need to update several regulations - including the time period for which parcels are awarded in usufruct - led to the recent approval of the latest modifications of the policy by the Council of Ministers.

Eddy Soca Baldoquín, the Ministry of Agriculture's director for soil and land use, explained to Granma that the readjustments were necessary given the new panorama which has developed with the updating of the Cuban economic model, and proposals expressed by agricultural workers, including those presented in the Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) Congresses.

With the approval of the highest level of government, land grants to individuals are now operative for 20 years - double the 10 previously established - a period which can be extended indefinitely, at the conclusion of each term. In the case of incorporated entities, a grant can remain in effect as long the parties involved comply with established obligations. (Previous law allowed for 25 year grants in these cases.)

This decision, Soca explained, will allow the usufruct grant holder to have more stability, and presumably better results. Moreover, with crops like coffee and cocoa, cattle ranching, and forestry, a longer time period is needed to recoup investments made, he noted.

Another piece of good news concerns the number of hectares to be awarded. According to Soca, the amount was raised from 13.42 to 26.84 hectares (two caballerías), for individuals requesting land for the first time, to produce food or lumber. For cattle ranching and farming in agricultural poles, 26.84 hectares is now the minimum to be awarded, with a view toward facilitating the application of technology and the achievement of greater yields at a competitive cost. Such grants can be as large as 67.10 hectares (five caballerías), if the parties comply with established requirements and appropriate conditions exist.

Recent modifications also allow for the awarding of idle land, currently held by state livestock enterprises, for the raising and fattening of cattle. The only areas exempted are those currently held by milk producers, a sector in which a development plan is being implemented.

Also stipulated in the latest regulations is the requirement to plant feed crops on lands awarded for the purpose of cattle ranching, to ensure that the grantee is prepared to provide adequate nutrition to the livestock.

Soca commented, "In the previous regulations, this issue was not addressed, which meant that the animals, searching for food, wandered about loose, becoming a mortal danger as they crossed roads. With this new measure, more discipline will be gained, there will be greater control, and mortality due to malnutrition will be reduced, something that has been a significant problem over the last few years."

Likewise, the possibility now exists for individuals who receive - or already have - land grants to link up with state enterprises or join cooperatives working in agriculture, the sugar industry, or forestry, Soca explained.

"This is an interest of producers throughout the country," he said, adding that grantees who decide to work with an enterprise or cooperative will receive more direct attention, but must first turn over the land they hold in usufruct to the entity and become one of its workers or a cooperative member.

Addressing another issue, Soca noted that added to the reasons for which grantees may lose their land is the use of illicitly acquired funds to finance operations, explaining, "With this measure, money laundering is prevented. We must ensure that economic gains come from the effort and sacrifice of those who do the work. To do so, the bank has approved a series of measures directed toward facilitating land holders' access to credit."

He added that one of the requirements for the awarding of land in usufruct is that individuals requesting a parcel are able to work and administer it personally and directly. Although the hiring of workers to guarantee harvests is permitted, as has been the case to date, Soca noted.

He likewise reported that the portion of land granted that may be devoted to constructions was increased to 3%, while those permitted are "buildings, installations, and other works necessary or useful for the adequate attention and protection of crops, animals, and plantings; the conservation and improvement of soil and harvests; woods, permanent fruit orchards, and others; as well as the dwellings of the beneficial owner and family members."

Lastly Soca reported that land ownership or possession taxes, as well as those levied on idle land, will begin to be applied gradually in 2018, as both are already established in tax law.

Work is currently underway on regulations that will reflect the modifications approved by the Council of Ministers on the awarding of idle state land in usufruct. Granma will offer more details on the subject as these are published and go into effect.