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By Jason Brown

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (March 12, 2001 – Cook Islands News)---Save Our Suwarrow committee members are now unsure about the support Environment Minister Norman George has given them to protect Suwarrow.

On Friday morning, they released a press release praising George for giving them "positive indications" towards an atoll management plan.

By that afternoon, however, members caught up with Thursday’s Cook Islands Herald, in which George backed the concept of a National Park -- and, at the same time, endorsed a proposal by farmer Temu Okotai for pearl farming on Suwarrow.

Said George, "I am keenly aware of Temu’s dream for Suwarrow, and I find no fault in the idea that we will have to have some form of economic activity to pay for that luxury."

"Visit the national parks of America and you will see tightly regulated commercial operations inside the gates. It pays for the management of the park," he told the Herald.

George’s office has not responded to requests for an interview with Cook Islands News.

In a second press release, SOS committee members attacked Okotai’s plan for its potential to disrupt bird life on the atoll.

"Aue," said one member, "one step forward, two steps back."

At a meeting with George, SOS committee members made four requests for the Environment Minister to consider.

SOS members are asking him to:

· Ask government to acknowledge the National Park status of Suwarrow.

· Draft clauses to add to the Environment bill to protect Suwarrow forever.

· Consider introducing a management plan before any development proposal, instead of "fitting" a management plan around development proposals.

· Develop a management plan that includes low impact eco-tourism.

· That the caretakership of Suwarrow reverts back to the Minister of the Environment.

"The committee will be following up these requests in a formal letter, but the minister did give positive indications towards the requests," said committee member Jolene Bosanquet in a press release.

Members of the SOS committee say George told them he is trying to stop the sale of a lease of Suwarrow to foreigners who want to develop pearl farms on the atoll.

"This was a very concerned Norman George who shared his feelings with us and he stated that he was doing his best in Cabinet to prevent the lease to foreigners succeeding," said SOS member Jolene Bosanquet yesterday.

George is Environment Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and has emerged as a vocal opponent to plans to lease Suwarrow to an Australian company, Rock Lobster, for pearl farming.

However, it now seems that he is not opposed to pearl farming, just foreign pearl farming.

The Australian plan has been backed by Marine Resources minister Dr. Robert Woonton, who has asked Cabinet to approve the application.

When SOS members asked George why the proposal was going through Cabinet and not the Cook Islands Investment Corporation and other proper channels, Bosanquet quoted the minister as saying he has often wondered that himself.

Part of the Rock Lobster plan involves a large fishing venture based in the north along with millions invested in infrastructure, including improvements to airports, roads, water, schools and hospitals.

SOS members described the Rock Lobster proposal as "over the top." Committee members say they told the acting prime minister about the need for "appropriate development," whether development plans are local or foreign.

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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