Temu Okotai voiced his fury at the government shutting down, speaking at an industry forum.
The forum was hosted by the Ministry of Marine Resources and the Pacific Community, focused on developing a new strategy alongside the pearl workers of Manihiki, Rakahanga and Rarotonga.
The Pearl Authority was shut down this year, and responsibility for managing the industry shifted to the ministry.
“My view of what government has done is, they’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water,” Okotai said. “They’re telling us that there is no future for the pearl industry.”
He said there had been two reports conducted: one by Maureen Hilliard, the other an internal expenditure review by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management.
The Ministry’s unfavourable report was based on one entity, and one interview with the Pearl Authority. It pointed out the failure of the pearl industry, and implied the authority was no longer needed, he said.
“We pearl farmers are not happy with what government has done, we were not consulted; at the last budget it was discovered that the Pearl Authority was disestablished – there was no budget allocation.”
Until now, he said, nobody had explained why they disestablished the Authority and why some of the functions were placed under the Ministry of Marine Resources, he says.
Government planned to strike out the Cook Islands Pearl Authority Act at the next sitting of Parliament, he said. “We are lobbying for government not to abolish the Act, let’s plan for the growth of the industry.”
Pearl farmers in the industry were not consulted, he said. “Now we don’t have a voice.”
Okotai acknowledged the Pearl Authority had been ineffective, and the Ministers knew farmers were not happy about it.
Both reports had recommended there be a forum be held with the industry – but, he asked, why shift management to the Ministry of Marine Resources?
The Pearl Authority should be given a chance to prove it can work, he argued. “The pearl industry is going through consolidation and changes worldwide, it’s how we manage that transition.”
Okotai believes there are fewer than 20 operating pearl farmers on Manihiki, down from over 200 farmers. “To be viable now, you need to be producing 20,000 to 30,000 pearls.”
The Pearl Authority previously managed a Pearl Exchange that helped farmers get their product to market.
Last month, Ministry Secretary Pamela Maru said the government had recognised the importance and functional value of the Pearl Exchange to the industry by mandating the transfer. “Urgent work is underway to remedy legislative constraints, as current laws do not provide the Ministry the mandate to operate the trading aspects of the exchange.”