MANGAIA, COOK ISLANDS: GOING BACK TO THE LAND

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By Charlene Thompson

MANGAIA, Cook Islands (July 24, 2002 – Cook Islands News)---On an island with fewer than 700 people and job prospects relatively hard to come by, some residents of Mangaia have had to find other means of earning an income.

While some public servants were fortunate enough to retain their jobs during the reform period in mid-1990s, others were not so lucky. The majority of the island's population has since left for Rarotonga, or gone overseas, leaving behind vacant homes on sections overgrown with weeds.

Those left behind have gone back to the land to support themselves.

Mangaia is one island well known for its white or yellow shell 'pupu' garlands. Many dance or community groups call on Mangaia to make the beautiful 'ei' for their costumes for local and overseas performances.

Today Mangaia women are also making the most of the rauara (pandanus flax) and maire (scented fern garlands), which grow in abundance on the island.

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"People need money. [For some families] there is no other income for them," says Mangaia's agent for maire, Babe Pokino.

Before the island began exporting maire, most women made ends meet on a small fortnightly children's benefit allowance.

Mangaia first started exporting maire on March 22 1999 and since then the quota for orders from Mangaia has increased steadily.

Only 20 families are involved in the maire export trade, according to Pokino, a drop from 30 families in the last year.

Pokino says this is mainly due to whole families leaving the island or finding other methods of getting an income.

Unfortunately maire is only found in the makatea and it is no easy task climbing those sharp ragged coral cliffs. The maire is sometimes hard to find and sometimes it can be a real struggle forcing one's way through tall bushes and the dangerous raei (sharp stones).

There are no roads through the makatea, and Pokino says he has not heard of any proposal to put one through for an easier access to the maire.

Since the beginning of the maire industry on the island, Pokino says it has been a family effort, with the men folk helping the women.

"They pick the maire and the mamas make the eis," says Pokino.

A comment reiterated by the president of Mangaia's Council of Women, Akerurutaura Tangatakino, who also makes ei to supplement her husband's income.

In 1999 the local agriculture officials saw the viability of the maire market and were encouraged to plant seedlings in a bid to keep the numbers of the plants up.

Tangatakino says some people may say that making the maire is women's work. "It shouldn't be. This should be done by both men and women. There is good money in it."

Pokino says in the off-season, where demand from the Hawai‘i market is lower, families make about NZ$ 100 a week (US$ 46.61) -- and more when the demand is higher.

"It may not look like it but that is a lot of money for Mangaia," he says.

The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) encourages the equal sharing of responsibilities and resources by men and women.

Traditional practices and the stereotyping that making maire ei is "woman's work" appears to have been done away with, with the men contributing towards the making of the ei.

"The mamas are paid NZ$ 5 (US$ 2.33) for each ei. Some months it's NZ$ 6 (US$ 2.80), depending on the orders from Hawai‘i," says Pokino.

Some may question what happens to the money when it is given to the mamas.

Tangatakino says, "I am speaking for myself. The money I get I keep. My husband does not ask for it even though he is the one who goes out to get the maire.

"I believe it is the same with the other mamas. I haven't heard any complaints when we have our meetings," she says.

Pokino says when the order arrives he allocates the numbers to the families and they pick maire on Wednesday or Thursday.

While the maire industry seems to be doing okay, another form of income for the island's women is the making of shell ei and baskets.

After a day or night of rain, women are seen out collecting the shells.

President of Mangaia Child Welfare, Tuaine Parima, says the women of Tamarua are concentrating more on making the shell ei, as they find it easier than going into the makatea to gather the maire.

Now the island has adopted a new means of increasing productivity using the shells by adding tuarina, which is becoming very popular, rather than the plain shell eis.

Parima says the women folk sometimes find it hard to meet demand.

"We get a lot of orders from Rarotonga. Sometimes we are able to make enough but then we never have any eis in stock, as people keep calling for more," she says.

Baskets are also proving very popular with visitors to the island.

The baskets are made out of flax, which fortunately grows in abundance on the island and it is a lot easier to get.

The baskets, which look like ones made in Samoa, have been snatched up by visitors to the island or families returning for a holiday.

Tangatakino says there is never enough of the little baskets. The women who make the baskets at most times take their work to the island's administration office, where they are paid upfront for them. The office then on-sells the products to Rarotonga.

"There is a big market for our local craft work. It is a good money earner for the mamas," she says.

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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