Various government agencies, state-owned enterprises and private-sector companies have signed up as parties to the programme’s steering committee to begin a three-year implementation plan building on the capacities of outer-island household farmers, livelihood growers of all ages and gender, young and emerging farmers, farming association groups and the general community.
Years one and two of the programme will focus on capacity building that will lead towards “enhanced livelihoods and small business development when bigger projects start to engage in year two,” said Arioka.
By the third year in 2020, the committee envisages that farming production increases will be “ripe and ready for the picking from the markets of Rarotonga”.
Through the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), the Cook Islands Ridge to Reef programme will be resourcing the outer islands with equipment that will be owned by the Pa Enua agriculture departments as they are trained up to in turn become trainers of the community.
The first PEARL team was deployed on Monday, soon after the conclusion of last week’s meeting, to begin in-depth practical training on Mauke in nursery management, an area identified by the southern islands as being of the highest priority, and requiring urgent attention to help improve seedlings that will lead to increased crop production.
A nursery officer will be on Mauke for four weeks to carry out the training, which will include advising orchard owners on the proper pruning of overgrown fruit trees.
The programme also includes the preparation of island crop banks, which will allow communities to access suitable planting materials for growing superior plant varieties, as well as local varieties like our own yams and others.
The crop bank concept helps produce crops which are better suited to coping with climatic extremes and more resistant to pests and diseases. Land areas identified by the respective island governments will be used for mass production of these crops before they are distributed to the island populations.
Should any of the islands be hit by a cyclone or some other natural disaster, the idea is for unaffected islands to share their planting materials to help other islands recover more quickly.
The programmes are the first of many that the PEARL steering committee has approved for implementation in the Pa Enua via established project management teams made up of representatives from stakeholder partners.
Other planned programmes include the development of on-field farm work, strengthening farmer association governance and finances, empowering women in food nutrition and food safety, developing young and emerging farmers in agricultural livelihoods and agribusiness, and the revitalisation of agricultural education in schools.
These programmes are prepared with the help of partners from the ministries of Health, Marine Resources, Education, Environment Services and Infrastructure Cook Islands; the state-owned enterprises Business Trade and Investment Board, Cook Islands Tourism, Bank of the Cook Islands, Global Environment Fund under the Cook Islands Red Cross and the Cook Islands Tertiary Training Institute; and the private-sector company Prime Foods.
The PEARL steering committee has also emphasised the need to start as soon as possible on a market engagement plan, to be scheduled as early as 2019, to start engaging buyers in the tourism sector.
Reflecting on the agriculture ministry’s meeting with mayors and executive officers from the southern group islands, Arioka said the “hard work” of the ministry’s 2017 visits to the islands had finally paid off.
“The steering committee stakeholders and partners have now heard truthfully from the Pa Enua mayors, the island executive officers, and their agriculture department managers about the challenges faced at an island level, and they took to heart the future of agriculture if nothing was done today,” he said.
Aitutaki mayor Tekura Bishop echoed this issue.
“Our farming generation is ageing out,” he said. “There are no upcoming farmers because we do not have an agriculture plan that will address this very critical problem, and if nothing is done about it, then the future of our island agriculture will cease to exist.
“We need new generation of farmers to tie into more innovative technological ideas and advances while land remains plentiful and abundant, but we are more interested to quickly kick off programmes that need to help stimulate our small island economy.”
Arioka confirmed a total of 21 programmes for the 2018/2019 year, and said the ministry would be tracking and monitoring the performance of each programme implementation effort throughout the next six months as each project management team reports back on the evaluations of each training programme.
He added that the Ministry of Agriculture would like to thank the Cook Islands Ridge to Reef programme for paving the way forward and for supporting an important programme like PEARL, which rests on “a collaboration agreement between agency partners, stakeholders and the private sector, and with our Pa Enua Island Government and community”.