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By Cameron Scott

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (August 28, 2001 – Cook islands News)---In warning that the Cook Islands shouldn’t rely solely on tourism, Sir Geoffrey Henry is trying to reinvent the wheel, says Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism, Dr. Robert Woonton.

"Of course we should diversify our economic base. I agree with Sir Geoff about tourism, which is our number one earner, but this government has also invested heavily in marine resources and agriculture," Dr. Woonton says.

"In this budget, for instance, there has been a 40 percent increase in the amount for agriculture.

"I have told Sir Geoff that he is 12 months behind with what Government is practicing here in regard to tourism and agriculture.

"He’s still preaching while we’re putting it into practice."

In yesterday’s CINews, Sir Geoffrey warned that the Cook Islands shouldn’t put all of its eggs into one economic basket. He claimed that though tourism is worth about NZ$ 70 million (US$ 30,744,000) to the country, a large amount of the money goes back to New Zealand to purchase food.

He also claimed there was no concerted plan to develop agriculture on Aitutaki.

However, Dr. Woonton says the present government has transformed the face of agriculture in the Cook Islands over the past two years and says there’s plenty of potential to increase production to reduce the country’s reliance on imports. He says the cost of imports can be offset to some degree by working to increase exports of locally grown produce.

"Two years ago there was virtually no agriculture. It was a dead horse," he says.

"When my government came in we knew how important it was to revive agriculture. We were also aware of the increasing tourist numbers and the need to reduce food imports.

"We started a nursery and there was such a big demand for plants we had to build another to keep up. Now we have three nurseries.

"We also imported three tractors to help growers around the island."

Dr. Woonton says agricultural production has doubled in the last 18 months. Pawpaw (papaya) production is increasing and an increasingly wide variety of vegetables are available.

"It has to be remembered too that growing vegetables is a seasonal thing. However, we are trying our best to get new types of produce growing so that we can have supplies right through the summer months."

By increasing and improving agricultural production it will be possible for the Cook Islands to significantly reduce produce imports, but the country will always have to import some crops which cannot be grown here, Dr. Woonton says.

"The Ministry of Agriculture is trying to introduce hydroponic crops like lettuces and strawberries that can be grown on the outer islands where there is very little agriculture at present.

"It is also focusing on adding value to export products. For instance we’re looking at an alternative system for pawpaws whereby second grade fruit can be pureed or processed, then exported."

Dr. Woonton says there is little his ministry can do about developing agriculture on Aitutaki — apart from providing technical advice — because it is under the jurisdiction of the Island Council.

However, he says he has met with growers on the island and says there is strong support for returning the role and responsibility for agriculture back to head office on Rarotonga.

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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