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By Jason Brown

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (March 10, 2001 – Cook Islands News)---Save Our Suwarrow committee members describe as "extremely sad" a local plan to farm pearl shells on the northern atoll.

Three million shells are proposed for farming on Suwarrow under a plan tabled with the prime minister by farmer Temu Okotai.

Announced in the weekly Cook Islands Herald on Thursday, Okotai’s plan also calls for a park ranger and research station as well as small-scale eco-tourism.

Yesterday an SOS spokesperson said they had been trying to persuade the government that large-scale development of Suwarrow is inappropriate.

"We have offered alternatives. We honestly can’t believe that a proposal of this size can even be considered given all the publicity both locally and internationally about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate," says the spokesperson.

"And for it to come from a Cook Islander is extremely sad. It shows a lack of understanding of the true value of Suwarrow."

Contacted for comment, proposer Temu Okotai was at first annoyed, describing the criticism as a "pile of crap," and asking "why should we listen to a bunch of extremist environmentalists and doctor a******s."

Later he said he has not yet got a company that the plan will come under, nor does he have a go-ahead from the prime minister.

What he wants the plan to achieve is to provide government with a third alternative to existing proposals before government.

Okotai said his plan falls between the "leave it alone" option promoted by environmentalists and full development proposed by Rock Lobster, an Australian company.

Unlike Rock Lobster, Okotai’s farming plan does not call for any settlements on Suwarrow’s Atoll.

Instead three "mother ships" will be anchored inside Suwarrow’s massive lagoon, which is bigger than Rarotonga’s. The ships will service one pearl farm.

SOS members say this is two more farms than the one recommended in an environmental impact assessment or EIA in 1999.

"So why now back to three? Quite simply, more money," says the SOS spokesperson, saying the EIA was "coincidentally instigated by Temu Okotai and his partner Tap Pryor when they were in the prime minister’s department."

Okotai says SOS is wrong to say he and Pryor were responsible for getting the EIA started. Responsibility for Suwarrow lies with the Cook Islands Investment Corporation and it was CIIC who commissioned the EIA, conducted by consultants Miles and Anderson and written by Neil Sims. Neither he nor Pryor were involved on the board of CIIC or any other capacity, says Okotai.

Miles and Anderson had originally recommended three farms and were angered when Sims rewrote it to just one, adding the "ridiculous" notion that pearl farmers could ride out hurricanes on rafts.

Okotai accepts that the government environmental track record has not been good, especially in Manihiki, where there was a disease outbreak last November.

He blames a lack of action on the government and Manihiki’s island council -- and admits his former administration is at fault as much as today’s.

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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