VANILLA RETURNS TO TEMPT ATIU

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By Jason Brown

ATIU, Cook Islands (March 2, 2000 - Cook Islands News)---Is a sweet flavor enough to turn around a "depressed" island? Atiu leaders seem to think so.

Ask Deputy Prime Minister and Atiu MP Norman George what happened to the island’s last vanilla growing project and he says simply: "It fizzled."

Tahitian businessman Charles Lehartel was another businessman who came to the island in 1988 promising big bucks from vanilla growing. At the time, the then Demo coalition government grew impatient with landowners querying sub-lease arrangements. Today, the former coalition minister describes Lehartel as a "fly-by-nighter." Atiu residents suspect their land would have been subdivided into attractive lots and sold off to overseas buyers dreaming of a little slice of paradise.

Sitting in Rarotonga, it’s easy to be equally suspicious of yet another griculture project, the latest of dozens over the last few decades. Vanilla, pineapples, snow peas, woods - you name it, the Cooks has seen them come and go.

"There are no hidden agendas, no hidden secrets on this project" Barton told Cook Islands News while sitting on the back of a truck in Atiu, touring 12 year old vanilla plantations overgrown with bush. He had no problems with a reporter sitting in on the meeting.

That kind of openness probably helped island councilors and Rongomatane Ariki get up at the end of Barton’s hour and a half presentation to get behind the project.

"There is a traditional chant in Atiu that says be careful, be prepared and expect the unexpected," Moetaua Boaza says in response to Barton at the informal meeting in the Government Representative’s office.

EMPLOYMENT

Also a traditional leader, Paerangi Mataiapo, Boaza continued, "Since our transition, we have been so depressed, the aronga mana, the island council, we have been quite depressed at the level of unemployment. We have lost so many of our energetic young people to migration. Fortunately there are some left to carry out the hard work.

Some. From what he remembers as a high of 1,477 people when he arrived on Atiu in 1977, Mayor Roger Malcolm says there are now just over 623. Of the missing 800, half of them left slowly over two decades. In 1996, the economic crisis rolled in and the other half climbed aboard planes too.

Malcolm says the island is still losing people, but much more slowly now. Barton’s venture may be what the island needs to halt the migration, maybe even turn it around. Barton is plain about how much hard work it would be - full time, not part-time.

LONG TIME

"It takes longer than pearls," says Barton. "It takes a long time and it’s not for the faint-hearted. But the rewards are good."

If Atiu gives the go-ahead to look at the proposal further, Barton says company experts could be on island as soon as May to check out whether the land on offer is suitable in terms of water, position, access and so forth.

"The project needs a significant amount of land to be able to absorb the sort of costs that are likely to be involved in not doing a hobby farm but a serious vanilla farm."

Barton preferred not to name his partner, but described him as a 73-year-old German Samoan who lives in the United States and has dealt with the Pacific for over 50 years.

Atiu’s greatest concern, replies Boaza, "is that the remaining young people will take the path followed by the others and also go overseas."

"It’s God’s gift that you have come and blessed us with this proposal of great potential for our island."

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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