From the podium

From the podium

His Excellency Robert Woonton (Prime Minister of the Cook Islands)

I would like to begin, Madam Chairman, by expressing my gratitude and that of my delegation to the Government of Italy for the hospitality that has been extended to us since our arrival in Rome, and to the Director-General of FAO for the excellent arrangements made for these deliberations.

In 1996, the Cook Islands joined other countries in endorsing the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action. The goal as set out in the Declaration was a noble one: reducing the number of undernourished people to half the 1996 level by no later than 2015. The Plan of Action that we adopted charted a realistic course for reaching that goal.

However, in the half-decade that has passed since the Summit, our achievements have been modest indeed. Despite some progress, we are still far from achieving the goal we set ourselves. People are still dying from hunger. That is a tragedy of immense proportions when it is clear that we have the means within our grasps to overcome the problems of global hunger and to address the issue of food security.

The Declaration we adopted this week has recognized the urgent need for the reinforcement of our political will and determination to implement fully the Plan of Action that we adopted in 1996. That will require concerted efforts at both the national and international levels.

As a result of neglect over many years, the agricultural sector in the Cook Islands has steadily declined in importance, particularly in the rural areas. My Government, however, is committed to giving full effect to the 1996 Plan of Action by rejuvenating the agricultural sector, including livestock, fisheries and forestry. Agriculture has once more become a focal sector for development.

Our agricultural programme involves the fruitful collaboration of Government, the private sector and civil society and is based on a holistic approach. At one level, it includes crop diversification, livestock production in the Outer Islands to meet the needs of the market on our main island, and food processing to add value and exploit market opportunities, especially overseas.

At the same time, increasing attention is being paid to important issues of food security such as quarantine measures and the necessity of our agricultural exports meeting internationally agreed standards.

As well, we are looking to take advantage of opportunities becoming available through new regional trade agreements as well as the Cotonou Agreement between African, Caribbean and Pacific States and the European Union. In the negotiation of the economic partnership arrangements with the EU, we will be looking to cooperate with the EU in capacity building in our agricultural sector.

Given that our exclusive economic zone occupies more that 1.8 million km2 of the South Pacific, we are giving concerted attention to our living marine resources. Much interest has been expressed by both domestic and overseas fishing concerns in the development of a large-scale commercial fishery in the Cook Islands.

My Government is attempting to provide the necessary infrastructure and technical expertise to support and assist local entrepreneurs to develop the agricultural sector in an environmentally sustainable manner. This is being done through devoting additional budgetary resources for agriculture, especially in the rural areas.

Complementing these national resources has been valuable assistance to the Cook Islands and other countries in our region, provided by bilateral and multilateral donors, including FAO through its TCP and TeleFood projects, that provide welcome support for capacity-building and other initiatives at the grassroots level.

Our ability to devote additional budgetary resources to the agricultural sector will be increasingly constrained by the heavy debt burden inherited by my Government. We hope to agree on some innovative arrangements with our foreign lenders to enable us to allocate those budgetary resources that would otherwise go into debt repayments to fund our agricultural development in the coming years.

Finally, Madam Chairman, there is only so much that a small country such as the Cook Islands can do alone to promote its own agricultural development, even with assistance from bilateral and multilateral sources. The Plan of Action identifies numerous areas in which there must be international action as well. I will briefly mention only four.

First is the need to protect our environment. Climate change, for example, can have potentially disastrous effects on our agricultural production, not to mention our overall national security. It is essential, therefore, that states that are the major emitters of greenhouse gases make significant, early reductions in their emission levels. We call on them to do so.

Secondly, there is an urgent need for further research on the safety of genetically modified food crops.

Thirdly, the obstacles facing agricultural exports in developing countries are burdensome enough without having to compete with the highly subsidized agricultural products of the world's major agricultural producers. We join with others in urging that early, genuine steps be taken to reform the international agricultural trading system, as called for in the Plan of Action as well as the Declaration we have adopted this week.

And finally, in 2000, we in the Pacific concluded a convention aimed at the sustainable management of the highly migratory fish species of our region. Those resources are vital as a source of food for our people as well as for our economic development. Therefore, we also call on all states fishing in the region, especially the distant water fishing states, to become parties to the convention and to work closely with us to ensure the sustainable use of those resources.

Madam Chairman, the nations gathered here today have renewed their commitments originally set out in the Rome Declaration and the accompanying Plan of Action. This time, when we leave Rome we must all be even more resolute. We must all maintain the firm political will and determination that has characterized these deliberations to achieve our stated goals through meaningful action when we return to our own countries.

My Government joins with others present in renewing that solemn commitment. The problems of hunger and food security can be overcome and, towards that end, the Cook Islands looks forward to working closely with other States in the months and years ahead.

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