My 30,000 taro plants could die

By Peter de Graaf

A Far North man says 30,000 taro plants and thousands of hours of labour are going to waste because a Government department misled him with promises of financial help.

Sione Vaioleti runs Te Raina Charitable Trust at Ngataki, about 50km north of Kaitaia, which over the past five years has planted 500,000 taro plants in eight varieties, as well as other fruit and vegetables.

The project aims to give whanau the skills to grow organic food and encourage self- sufficiency. For Mr Vaioleti, Tongan-born but married to a woman of Te Aupouri descent, it is also a way of giving younger family members work and stopping the exodus to Australia.

He chose taro, a staple crop in his homeland, because both the leaves and tubers are edible, and family land at Ngataki is not big enough for an avocado orchard.

However, Mr Vaioleti says the latest plantings _ 30,000 plants _ are dying because the trust hasno money to build shelters for the frost-sensitive plants.

Mr Vaioleti said he went ahead with planting after receiving assurances from Te Puni Kokiri (TPK, the Ministry of Maori Development) that the trust was eligible for grants tocover the cost of battens and windbreak fabric. The trust had earlier received grants from TPK and the Maara Kai Fund.

He was encouraged to join the Whanau Ora programme and went through the required steps of forming a charitable trust, holding a whanau day and making a whanau plan. In January Mr Vaioleti said he was given a verbal guarantee the trust would receive $5000 from the Whanau Integration,Innovation andEngagement (WIIE)Fund, and was told togo ahead with hisplans of planting 30,000taro seedlings, thenapply for a further $20,000.

However, the TPKemployee the trust hadbeen dealing with inKaitaia left theorganisation andcommunicationceased. After repeated appeals to TPK and Whanau Ora Minister Tariana Turia, Mr Vaioleti was told in a letter on May 2 that the project did not meet the criteria, because money from the WIIE Fund could not be used for capital costs, such as wooden posts andwindbreak material.

The letter said theonly possible funding avenue was the Maara Kai Fund, but that wasfully committed until September at the earliest, by which time frosts would have donetheir damage.

The letter ended withTPK's regrets that MVaioleti hadmisunderstood thegrant criteria.

``I was verydisappointed to readthat. I didn'tmisunderstand. I was misled,'' he said.

``I walk down there[to the plantation]every day and I feel sobad. I cry every day.We've had a small frostalready. I do my best,but if we have anotherfrost we're gone. This is my best stock, that's killing me.''

In the meantimeMr Vaioleti is carryingon, erecting posts tosupport the windbreakfabric he can't afford,and hoping someonewill help.

A spokeswoman forTPK said the Ministrywould continue towork through thematter with Te RainaTrust. No furthercomment would be made at this time.

- Northern Advocate

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