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Restoring the lustre

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Cook Islands is famous for its black pearls, once the country's second largest export, until the near collapse of the industry.
There's now a serious campaign here to restore pearls to its former glory.


Clement Paligaru: Manihiki is one of the most northerly atolls in the Cook Islands. It lies twelve hundred kilometres away from the capital Rarotonga, and is home to around three hundred people.

Ngamata Napara, pearl farmer: It's very small, it's very remote and we all love it.

Clement Paligaru: For most of last century, copra was the big earner here. Now the atoll is almost entirely dependent on an underwater crop. Today Manihiki is called the Island of pearls. Seeding houses dot the lagoon. This is where the pearls oysters are cleaned, seeded and harvested and where many find employment.

John Mcleod, pearl farmer: We all rely on the pearl industry to survive here. People have been diving for pearls in the Cook Islands since the 1800's. Pearl farming caught on here and in Tahiti in the 1970's.

Apii Piho, Manihiki MP: Black pearls is actually produced in the black lipped oyster. And that is only found in the regions of French Polynesia. And the northern islands of the Cook Islands. By 2000, it was the Cook Island's second biggest earner, with 60 million dollars in exports.

George Ellis, Cook Islands Pearl Authority: At that time we were the second largest producer of black pearls next to Tahiti.

Clement Paligaru: But after a decade of prosperity, the Cook islands pearl industry all but collapsed - victim of oversupply, disease, a cyclone and falling prices. The number of farms fell during the peak period to around twenty five now. And many farmers abandoned their operations such as this one.

John Mcleod: In 2000, we had what we call a vibrio breakout in the lagoon, which is a type of sickness which affects the oysters. And that's when production started dropping for many farmers.

Clement Paligaru: It's estimated Manihiki lost sixty percent of its oyster stocks.

Tangi Napara, pearl farmer: There was no proper management of how they were going to farm through the proper way. And their waste. That's another problem we had. - their waste. It's not dumping somewhere else. They were dumping back in the lagoon.

Clement Paligaru: Then prices plummeted.

George Ellis: Tahiti did something quite phenomenal. They doubled their production and flooded the world market with black pearls. And guess what happened. The price crashed and fell by fifty percent over a period of four years.

John Mcleod: That's when it really hit everybody financially. Prices dropped dramatically. When we were earning say fifty and above for pearls, we were down to ten to 12 dollars apiece.

Clement Paligaru: Exports fell to just over a million dollars a year.

George Ellis: Many packed up and left the island. Then within three years, the islands of the Northern Group had lost something like forty percent of their population.

Sam Karaponga, pearl technician: It was quite scary for a lot of farmers and a lot of young youth on the island, knowing that there could be a chance that the farming industry could disappear.

Clement Paligaru: But the industry didn't go under.

George Ellis: While they were severely hit, there was a basic core of the operation that survived.

Ngamata Napara: Tagi and I, we decided to stay and carry on with the pearl farming. We love what we do. And also we are also helping with other families. We get to come and work for us. It helps them with their homes.

Tangi Napara: I changed my farming practice and tried to cut other costs out so to maintain the farm.

Clement Paligaru: Pearl farming is again growing steadily on Manihiki.

John Mcleod: So we can see that prices are coming up and there is a road to recovery.

Clement Paligaru: But Cook Islands pearl producers are struggling to regain their position on the world market. So they have launched an ambitious campaign, which they hope will boost their reputation and set them apart from Tahiti, which is famous for its pearls.

Raymond Newnham, pearl grader and retailer: Our history in terms of selling our pearls - the prices were always dictated by what the Tahitian pearl industry was doing. Because they produce more than ninety percent of the worlds black pearls.

Clement Paligaru: The campaign aims at commanding premium prices for the best Cook Islands pearls.

George Ellis: We felt that the market lost confidence in the standard and quality of Cook Islands pearls. And we believe that the pearls from our northern Cook Islands' lagoons ranks among the very best in the world. We have to create something different and reposition ourselves.

Clement Paligaru: The highest quality Cook Islands pearls will now be known as Avaiki Pearls.

Apii Piho, Manihiki MP: Avaiki means the birthplace of Polynesia.

Raymond Newnham: We see that it's a way to distinguish ourselves from Tahitian black pearls. And hopefully give us a little bit and try to get the returns that we want from the pearls.

Clement Paligaru: To achieve this, there will be a strict focus on grading, quality and accreditation all the way from the pearl farm to point of sale.

Raymond Newnham: They arrive as a big mixed bag. You will count them just to verify the count that the farmers have made. They will then be sorted into sizes. From there we take each size and then we short them into shapes. And within each shape we start to assign grades.

Apii Piho: We have to treat it like farming on land. That is, planting vegetables and tomatoes. If you are given a small plot, you must have spacing so you'll have a bigger yield of tomatoes. It's the same principle in cultured pearl farming.

Clement Paligaru: On Manihiki, farmers recognise that a new branding campaign will need to be matched by better farming practices.

Tangi Napara: It's very important that we do get it right so it'll be no problem selling it.

Clement Paligaru: Rarity and colour will be promoted.

Raymond Newnham: Black pearls isn't a good name for our pearls mainly because there are so many different colours in them.

Saleswoman: That's a lovely pendant. It's got wonderful hues of deep green and rose.

George Ellis: We aren't after making our pearls look prettier in the advertising world. We are actually trying to salvage an industry.

Raymond Newnham: If farming doesn't work and people continue to leave the island, then we are going to lose our heritage from there.

Sam Karaponga: I have talked to a lot of people, especially cousins, close friends that I encourage them to stay. For example they see that me as a young person here on Manihiki with my sister - we are doing pretty well, with our seeding.

Mehau Johnson, pearl technician: It's about commitment and perseverance. You do not produce an A-grade pearl overnight or within the first harvest. It takes years of practice and fine tuning that skill.



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