To protect varieties of the nation’s bananas, shoots of the plantain type bananas locally known as “utu” have been collected and sent to a research centre in Belgium for preservation; the facility has the largest collection of bananas in the world but it is short of Pacific selections.
New growths of these bananas were also sent to the Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees in Fiji, another preservation laboratory for Pacific crops.
Led by William Wigmore, director of research at the Ministry of Agriculture, the project also involves officers from Hawaii and France who assisted with the collection of banana shoots from our hills.
One local planter says we need to do more, though. Tauira Nikoia Jnr argues we should be planting more of the different varieties locally – especially the utu – to protect them here.
“There’s the Pa Enua, why can’t we promote and nurture growing more of the utu and other banana varieties on these islands so they don’t become scarce,” says Nikoia.
Wigmore’s not concerned about sending varieties of our plants away for safe-keeping, saying we get back more in return than we put in to such places. These centres in effect, provide insurance cover against the loss of the plants they hold, in their home countries.
“In 2004, the Cook Islands became a party to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which facilitates the conservation and use of plant genetic resources.”
“The materials sent to these centres can be repatriated in the event we lose them as a result of a natural disaster or a pest attack.”
Twenty years ago, varieties of taro from Rarotonga and Pukapuka were sent to Fiji, “we feared those varieties might disappear from our islands, some have since disappeared, such as the variety known as ‘Tiitii Teatea’, says Wigmore.
Fortunately, laboratories such as these are established to protect these varieties which we can have sent back at any time, he said. “More and more varieties of important crops worldwide are under threat of disappearing as a result of land use changes, changing diets and changing climatic conditions.”
Wigmore also cites a case where a single variety taro crop in Samoa was hit by disease in 1993 and virtually wiped out – one of the great dangers of a single variety crop.
Taro plants held in Fiji resistant to that disease were used to rebuild the food source that was lost.
A survey on the varieties of plantain (utu and Maori) bananas growing on Rarotonga and Aitutaki is now complete.
Between 30 and 40 varieties of bananas are found in the Cook Islands, and of particular interest is the utu – some of which have extremely high nutritional value.
Teremoana Napa, who sells fruit at Punanga Nui market on Saturdays, has been working to educate locals and visitors about the Cook Islands’ extraordinary range of little-known fruits.
She stocks both utu and Maori plantain; they are good for eating raw, she says, but even better cooked.