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By Jeanne Matenga

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (April 5, 2001 - Radio Cook Islands/PINA Nius Online)---The Cook Islands Cabinet has bowed to public pressure and passed a motion to drop the controversial development and leasing of Suwarrow Island.

It comes after widespread public concern over the impact of proposed black pearl farming on the environmentally important atoll.

In a statement on Cook Islands Television, Prime Minister Dr. Terepai Maoate said: "Cabinet has decided to leave Suwarrow out of the development project. Cabinet will look at the rest of the proposals."

The Prime Minister was referring to three proposals submitted by Australian developers Peter Rimington and John Davies and local partner John Short.

These are for the development of a pearl farming industry on Suwarrow, a fishing deal, and the development of the Avatiu Wharf at the main harbor on Rarotonga, for fisheries.

At a public meeting on Monday evening called by the Prime Minister, people were given a chance to voice their concerns and ask questions of developer Short. Close to 700 people were in attendance.

Their main concerns were:

In a show of hands, only three people voted in favor of the development and leasing of Suwarrow. Many of the remainder held up posters with NO written on them and screamed out their opposition.

"I appreciate the view of the public," said the Prime Minister, who spent a couple of hours walking over the atoll last year.

Just before the cabinet sitting, the chairman of the Save Our Suwarrow committee presented the Prime Minister with 2,000 signatures opposing the leasing and development of Suwarrow. The committee had spent the past four months gathering these signatures.

It was a battle they had been fighting since 1998 and are relieved that the atoll will be preserved.

"We have decided that Suwarrow atoll remains a national park. We will be putting a micro shelter for a caretaker and nothing else will be done. We will also look at suggestions made by the Environment Service and the wildlife organizations," said the Prime Minister.

While the Suwarrow development has been dropped the government still would like to see some development and are considering the leasing and development of Avatiu Wharf and a joint agreement between the developers and Outer Islanders.

According to BirdLife International, the plans to develop commercial black pearl farming at Suwarrow posed a threat to the atoll’s globally important seabird breeding colonies.

"Suwarrow Atoll is the most important seabird breeding site in the Cook Islands and one of the most important sites for birds in the central Pacific," Michael Rands, Director and Chief Executive of BirdLife International, had said.

"Suwarrow Atoll deserves to be protected from commercial development to preserve its outstanding natural beauty and globally important biodiversity."

BirdLife International is a global alliance of conservation organisations working on the status of birds, their habitats and the issues and problems affecting bird life.

It said 11 seabird species breed on the remote atoll.

Local conservationists feared the proposed development would adversely impact on Suwarrow’s important bird life because up to 100 people may have eventually lived and worked on the island to service pearl farming. The total land area is only 0.4 square kilometers.

The introduction of pearl stock was also an issue of grave concern because of the increased disease risk, BirdLife International said.

Local conservationists believe Suwarrow has significant bird populations largely because it was never permanently inhabited by humans.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: 

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