Saturday, May 24, 2008

The pearls of Raviravi

from w
The women of Raviravi in Macuata are working hard in their collective to grow black pearls. Way to go, ladies.
article from Fiji Times today:
The hand that rocks the oysterSunday, May 25, 2008

Black pearls and their potential have attracted the women of Raviravi Village in Macuata. Fringed on three sides by the third largest reef in the world and sheltered on the other by a pristine swathe of lush Macuata coastline lies a simple waterborne shed from which protrudes several yards of wooden gangway and a floating pontoon.

The blue iron-roofed structure opens on three sides and no more than 20-feet square has been built out of exterior ply and home-grown flooring timber, as with the gangway, visually seductive with their uneven saw tooth finishes. The local artisans have left their charming indelible marks and unique workmanship on this quaint four-year old example of marine architecture known as the 'seeding shed'.

The small buoys at the front, gently bobbing up and down on the cut glass water, seem innocuous enough until you look closely and realise they have been laid out in an organised and highly structured grid pattern. It is only then that it dawns on you that something else is, quite literally, under foot.

Silently lurking in the depths of this stupendously beautiful marine park are about 15,000 Pinctada Margaritifera in various stages of strictly monitored incubation in vertically closed square nets distributed over 20 hectares.

After two or four years depending on whether they have been gathered wild or farmed from the start, they are harvested and prised open by inserting a small wooden wedge and a mounted clamp keeps the bivalve open wide enough for technician, Dionani Salaivanua, to extract a single gem - a black pearl.

Navatudua Pearl Farm, floating a few hundred metres off the north western flank of Vanua Levu, is a small intimate operation owned and managed by a 39-member women's collective from Raviravi, a village about 70 kms from Labasa and accessed only by 4WD in dry weather and by boat from neighbouring Navidamu Village during the wet season. The farm is an outcome of a Fisheries Department drive in 2004 to encourage maritime communities to invest in pearl farming as a sustainable source of income. The department provided the initial seeding costs of the oysters and equipment and support at the outset.

Trainee technician Alacia Diana trained for six months in pearl farm management at the Government Pearl Oyster Demo Farm set up in Savusavu in 2004. Ongoing aquaculture support and guidance is being provided by marine biologist Dr Maraia Haws from the University of Hawaii.

Other women are being trained as technicians, those who plant a 'seed' into each oyster thereby kick starting the coating process which eventually produces a pearl.

"The success of the harvest depends on how good the technician is at seeding the oyster. If the technician is good, about 60% of the oysters which are seeded will produce saleable pearls of which 10 per cent will be A grade, 10 per cent B-grade and the rest C-grade and 'circles'. So a major factor is how good the technician is," Diana said.

"The best technicians, who are mostly Japanese, get paid between $1000 and $2000 a day, so we're training our own technicians," she said. The farm harvests between 1500 and 3000 oysters between the cooler months of May and October when the bacteria levels in the sea are at their lowest.

Each oyster is retained and can be re-seeded up to four times after which they are retired back to the sea to breed, restock the reef and help maintain a large gene pool. All Navatudua pearls, which range in colour from a dusty ivory to ash to slate grey (none are actually black), are sold to buyers in Suva and Nadi and the occasional tourist who visits,

Earnings have fluctuated from year to year and as the farm is still in its infancy it is difficult to predict a regular annual profit margin. Diana says a 5-15% return on turnover on a good harvest would be a good return as there were a lot of factors which influenced this - whether the harvest had been a good one, the quality and health of the shells, the quality of the pearls themselves, whether the technician had done a good job and lastly, the weather.

Their dreams of becoming successful business women have been tempered by the reality of the nature of the operation - it is a hard grind with a two to four year waiting period for harvests, the lack of technical expertise which would maximise their return, the absence of good technical equipment and last but not the least, the need for crucial ongoing investment funds to keep the business, quite literally, afloat.

There is also competition from larger farms, Tahitian pearls, Chinese freshwater pearls and cultured pearls farmed in other countries. They are trying to break into the US with the help of the Fiji's Trade Commissioner in Los Angeles, Ilisoni Vuidreketi.

So far most of the profits have gone back in the business. They've invested in two boats and equipment. The rest has gone into electrifying the village, rebuilding the hall, building a kindergarten (since collapsed) and setting up a scholarship fund. The women also run a shop.

Work on the farm itself is done by the women on an 8am-4pm shift rotating shift basis and between 7am-5pm during seeding season. The men are co-opted for the heavy building and maintenance work and any scuba diving required.

It is a fledgling business and after four years the women are still coming to grips with the complexities of running a complex and highly technical operation, not to mention having to grapple with the sales and marketing side.

Hard as it is the women are driven by the benefits their unstinting efforts so far have had on the upkeep of the village and the welfare of the villagers, especially the children. The business has catapulted them and Raviravi smack bang into the shrewd face of the global gem market and the often exasperating fluctuations in the US Dollar on which the price of black pearls is based.

It is a small cog in a very big wheel, but a cog nevertheless, and a very special cog at that.


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