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By Cameron Scott

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (October 8 2001 – Cook Islands News)---The government is spending NZ$ 270,000 (US$ 113,948) on five secondhand tractors and new agricultural implements for Rarotonga.

It is also buying new tractors and agricultural machinery for the outer islands of Atiu, Mauke and Mangaia, which will be paid for out of the budget approved in August.

Minister of Agriculture and Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Robert Woonton says the machines coming to Rarotonga are being purchased at the request of districts on the island and will be paid for with United States Forum Fishing Agency (FFA) funds.

Last Friday he denied suggestions that the tractors were only going to Government constituencies and said each of Rarotonga’s 10 constituencies had been allocated NZ$ 25,000 (US$ 10,550.80) to spend on agricultural machinery.

"Five of the constituencies did not want tractors and are getting other agriculture-related equipment," he said.

"I can say categorically that I can prove government has apportioned NZ$ 25,000 (US$ 10,550.80) for each constituency. Four of them are not government constituencies. It is up to them to decide how they use the money."

Dr. Woonton says the government applied to the FFA to buy the machinery. The government usually receives about NZ$ 240,000 (US$ 101,287) a year in FFA fees, though the actual amount can vary. The money is the Cook Islands’ share of money paid by the U.S. to Pacific region countries for the right to fish in their waters.

He says there’s nothing secret or mysterious about the fact that the government is using the FFA money, which goes into a Project Development Fund earmarked for projects related to agriculture and marine resources.

"Government felt that the NZ$ 600,000 (US$ 253,218) put aside this financial year for the development of marine resources, was sufficient.

"It therefore allowed the use of the FFA fund for agricultural development. As Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources, I am very aware that both must be developed and use of the fund puts agriculture on more of a par with marine resources."

He said the NZ$ 600,000 (US$ 253,218) put into marine resources was made up of NZ$ 400,000 (US$ 168,812) from NZODA and NZ$ 200,000 (US$ 84,406) from government revenue.

"The money is going to areas defined by the fund. I have explained all this several times before."

Dr. Woonton says demand for the machinery was prompted by a shortage of tractors and other agricultural equipment to handle an increased workload caused by a big increase in growing on Rarotonga.

"When this government was elected, agriculture was in a run-down state and the department had only one tractor, which was broken down most of the time," he says.

"So we spent NZ$ 181,000 (US$ 76,387.40) on three tractors and implements and they were operated by government employees.

"But every day agriculture was getting complaints that tractors weren’t turning up to do work that had been booked.

"So we started the round the island scheme where the tractors worked their way around Rarotonga. That took one year to do but they were still not keeping up with demand.

"Three months ago we saw it was not working the way it should, so we decided to give them to private operators to use so that the tractors would work more hours than the 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. regime worked by the government operators."

Two tractors were put into general use and the third one went is being used by the pawpaw (papaya) producers, Dr. Woonton says.

"Pawpaw production was down and we let the growers have it for plowing, etc. The result has been an increase in pawpaw production."

Dr. Woonton says the tractors are still owned by government, but the private operators pay maintenance and fuel costs.

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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