THEME: ISLANDS & SOCIAL CONCERNS (Island Societies in Transition)

Changing Islands - Changing Worlds
November 1-7 2004, Kinmen Island, Taiwan


by Ms Imogen P. Ingram
Taporoporoanga Ipukarea Society Inc.
Rarotonga, Cook Islands (South Pacific)

Mailing address: P O Box 649, Rarotonga, COOK ISLANDS
Tel: (682) 21-144 Fax: (682) 22-128 email:



The chief export of Pacific Islands is human resources. All over the Pacific, small islands states are becoming depopulated as working-age people migrate to bigger job markets such as Australia and New Zealand in the South Pacific, and the United States in the North Pacific. There is also a migration from one small island state to fill the labour shortages in another small island state. This has resulted in a loss of valuable traditional knowledge in several key areas.

The unpredictable seasons brought about by climate change is one factor that has made difficult to carry on with traditional subsistence lifestyles. Traditionally, the islanders of the Pacific have preserved breadfruits and kumara in pits, and stored some dried fish and dried bananas for use during the hurricane season. However, the convenience of opening a can or defrosting frozen food has meant that the traditional preserving skills are becoming lost because of the reliance on imported western-style foodstuffs. The change from an active agrarian lifestyle to a more sedentary white-collar lifestyle, combined with abundant food, has resulted in general obesity in the population, and the lifestyle diseases that go with.

Sometimes our young people vote with their feet because they can see no viable future in the way things are. So they go to another country in search of better pay, better education for their children, and better health services. Once they have emigrated, there is little chance of luring them back to their homeland for anything more than a holiday. They become so westernised that the traditional handcrafts, such as weaving or carving, are being lost and replaced by visual arts like painting.

If we wish to preserve traditional knowledge, such as methods of food preservation and traditional handcrafts, we must raise awareness of their importance as our cultural heritage.


Background: The Cook Islands is made up of 15 islands, of which 12 are inhabited, spreading 1,000 miles north from the Tropic of Capricorn. The nearest neighbour is the island of Tahiti in French Polynesia. There are seven islands in what is known as the Northern Group and these are typical coral atolls surrounding large lagoons. The eight islands in the Southern Group (which includes the capital named Rarotonga) are either of volcanic origin or are raised ancient coral reefs (makatea). The people are of Polynesian descent, and speak a native language called Cook Island maori. Most are bilingual in English as well. The London Missionary Society brought Christianity to the Cook Islands in 1823, and the majority belong to the Protestant Cook Islands Christian Church.

Government: From 1901 until 1965, the Cook Islands was a dependency of New Zealand, similar in status to Western Samoa, Niue Island and the Tokelau Islands. In 1965, Cook Islanders, chose to have internal self-government instead of independence from New Zealand. Under internal self-government, the Cook Islands remain under the aegis of New Zealand for the purposes of Foreign Affairs and international relations, and carry New Zealand passports. Democratic elections are held every four years, and there are two main political parties, a third minor party and a few independents.

Economy: During the early part of the century, when the Cook Islands was a dependency, the economy was based on agriculture. Labour was still plentiful and cash crops such as fruit and vegetables were exported, mainly to New Zealand. Since 1965, the focus has shifted and currently the mainstay of the economy is tourism, followed by the black pearl industry. Tourism is mainly confined to Rarotonga and some of the other Southern Group Islands, while cultivation of black pearls is confined to the atolls of the Northern Group islands. Private sector employment is highest on the Southern Group islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki. In the other islands, government is the main employer since, aside from small family-owned accommodation establishments, and shops providing foodstuffs and fuel, there is little private sector involvement. During 1995, there was a downturn in the economy. Tourist numbers decreased, as did prices for black pearls. The government of the day was forced to undertake financial reforms, which included downsizing public service numbers. This resulted in many redundancies.

Emigration: Emigration from the Cook Islands is not a recent phenomenon. Ever since the Cook Islands maori people migrated from South China (estimated to be during 600 AD), they continued to explore and colonise islands in the Pacific. During the 1940's and 1950's, many working-age people emigrated, primarily to New Zealand. There was another big increase in emigrants after the opening of the international airport in 1972. As a result of the 1995 redundancies there was a net migration of an estimated 1,800 people (from a resident population of 12,000) in the period to 1998. Most of those who migrated were working age people and their families. Typically, the pattern was for the husband to travel to New Zealand or Australia, and stay with family or friends initially. Using his social network, he would find work, and then accommodation. Once established in this way, he would send for his wife and family. Often both parents would need to work in the adopted country, so the family would sponsor the emigration of the grandparents to care for the grandchildren. Sometimes the grandparents had to emigrate too because there was nobody left to care for them on their home island.


There are usually several reasons for the emigration, the foremost including:

Raised Aspirations: Since the colonial days, Cook Islanders have enjoyed improving standards of employment, housing, health and education. At NZ$4 per hour, Cook Island workers earn a relatively high minimum rate in comparison to their Pacific Island neighbours. However, even the pay rates for even menial jobs in New Zealand are Australia are two to three times higher.

Inadequacy of local salary to cover cost of living: Even if both husband and wife work in the Cook Islands, the high cost of imported food, building materials and vehicles makes it difficult for families to achieve the standard of living they aspire to. In their adopted country, the migrant will often accept a lower-status job than he or she is qualified for because pay rates. Sometimes accepting a lower-status job is because of prejudice in the labour market of the adopted country; sometimes it is because their qualifications are not recognized by the adopted country.

Political allegiance is a barrier to employment by government: Political allegiance (or merely perceived political allegiance) of an individual may act as a barrier to employment by government. Thus, the best qualified person to undertake a job may not be considered for a government position, and instead someone is hired that is less competent but who is considered more acceptable because of their political allegiance.

Land Tenure is a barrier to investment: The Cook Islander's main economic resource is land. However, land tenure in the Cook Islands is a customary system where many owners share common ownership of land. On those islands that fall under the Cook Islands Land Court system, there is a procedure to obtain majority consent of all customary landowners in order to create a leasehold . Outright sale of land is not possible, so the lease instrument, which is transferable to another party on payment of a financial consideration, is effectively the only way for an investor to obtain an individual interest in the land. The process can be time-consuming and costly, but those who persevere end up with a tradeable asset, but one which depreciates in value over the term of the lease. Financial institutions often require a lease as security (or collateral). Three of the Cook Islands remain under traditional land tenure - Mangaia and Mitiaro in the southern group and Pukapuka in the northern group. Land on these islands may not be alienated by lease, and therefore may not be used as security for a loan to build a family home or a business.

Poor social services: Many families migrate because one family member is chronically ill and there is little or no specialist care available on the home island. Sometimes these illnesses are caused by dietary and lifestyle changes resulting in diabetes, hypertension and/or heart disease. There are currently no facilities for dialysis, angioplasty or heart bypass surgery in the Cook Islands, so families need to migrate in order to obtain the services, and the funds to pay for them. Many parents undervalue the education system and feel their children would have better educational opportunities overseas, which could lead to better employment prospects.


Depopulation Through Emigration:

Since 1965, Cook Islanders have participated keenly in sports and cultural events overseas, which has given them a chance to experience an alternative to the traditional lifestyle. But I believe the most profound effect has been the introduction of television during the early 1990's. TV showed Cook Islanders a glamorous view of how life was lived in other countries, and raised expectations of how people wanted to live. There has been a drift of population from the Outer Islands to the capital of Rarotonga, and from Rarotonga on to Australia and New Zealand. The Outer Islands in particular have become depopulated of working-age people, with only the elderly and children up to 12 years old remaining. The resultant labour shortage has affected the tourism and the construction sectors, who are unable to fill job vacancies. There has been a recent liberalization of the work-permit system to allow more foreign workers in.

Loss of Traditional Maritime Skills: The use of conventional shipping and air transport has meant that navigational skills have fallen into disuse. When, during the 1980's, there was a revival of interest in ocean-voyaging on traditional canoes, Cook Islanders had to be tutored by Micronesian and Marshallese navigators. However, 20 years later, there is no evidence that these lucky recipients are passing those skills on to successive generations. Basic knowledge about building the canoes has been lost - such as which tree provides the most suitable wood, how long to leave it to mature, the optimal shape of the hulls, the manufacture of sennit (coconut fibre rope) for the lashings, the method of lashing, the shape and size of the sails .

Loss of Maori ( Indigenous) Language Skills: Until 1965, the main language was Cook Islands maori. There were relatively few non-Cook Island residents whose main language was English. Movie theatres, radio and out-of-date print media were the main source of information about the outside world. In many homes, the Bible was the only printed matter. Radio programs were broadcast both in English and in Cook Islands maori, and Parliamentary sittings were broadcast throughout the Cook Islands. While there was some "Western" influence on music, there were few barriers to recording Cook Islands music for broadcast. The production and distribution of music cassettes became significant in the local economy. The market for these extended to the migrant communities of Australia and New Zealand.

The opening of the airport in 1972 and the beginnings of tourism required more English-speakers for the service industries. Until then it was important to hold on to the maori language; after that it was noticed that English language speakers progressed faster in the job market so more people became fluent in English. Because of high costs, TV broadcasts in the Cook Island maori language have been limited. Nowadays, school children at play call to each other in English. Traditional leaders are looking for ways to pass on a sense of pride in speaking the native language.

Increased Alienation of Customary Lands:

The standard term for a leasehold, most often used as security for financing, is 60 years. When that term ends, majority support of all landowners is generally required before the relevant land may be leased again. Sometimes, the holder of the lease will want to sell it before the end of the term while it still has about 35 years until the term ends. Sometimes, the family has had the foresight to insert a clause in the lease which states that the customary owners have first right of purchase in the event of sale. There is usually a six-month period in which the customary landowners search for finance to meet the proposed sale price. However, unless several branches of the customary landowner families co-operate to form a company and provide individual guarantees as security for the financial institution, they are usually unable to meet the price being offered by other (often foreign) purchasers. Often, by that time, the surviving family has lost the sense of ownership and use of that land, and has become accustomed to receiving the lease monies. Also, the older people who agreed to the lease and who had a relationship with the land, have died and the next generation do not feel the same sense of belonging. In this manner, the traditional customary land ownership is being usurped and land is becoming alienated from the traditional clans.

Loss of Traditional Cultivated Areas: The loss of working age people means that there is nobody to undertake the hard physical work needed to cultivate and harvest traditional crops such as taro and other root vegetables, bananas and other fruit. Land that has been under cultivation for hundreds of years now remains unproductive. . Even cultivation of relatively high-earning crops such as vanilla or coffee beans is undertaken with difficulty because of labour shortages.

Loss of Traditional Agricultural Methods: Because traditional foods are no longer being cultivated, traditional methods of planting by the ancient lunar calendar (known as arapo) are falling into disuse. This traditional method allocated an ancient name to each of the days in the 28-day cycle. Certain days were regarded as best for planting crops, while other days were not recommended for planting. There were also days that were considered best for fishing. Nowadays, although many middle-aged adults know of the lunar calendar and its usefulness, they do not know its details. Most are reliant on the publications printed occasionally by the Department of Agriculture if they want to use the traditional lunar calendar. The traditional leaders who used to know the details of the calendar are passing on, and with them goes this traditional knowledge.

Change in Traditional Diet: Because is it more difficult to grow and prepare traditional foods, the diet of the island residents (especially the smaller Outer Islands) has changed. Store-bought commodities, financed by remittances sent by family members and meagre pensions or child allowances. This change of diet, together with loss of the active traditional lifestyle, contributes to health problems.

Loss of Traditional Handicrafts: Collection of small shells for bead work, pandanus and other handicraft materials has become more difficult with less working age people available. There are seasons when it is optimal to collect or harvest these raw materials, but the traditional knowledge of how to judge the optimal time is being lost. Craft skills to convert these raw materials into the traditional crafts are not being passed on to the new generations because many of the elders who would have taught and encouraged the new generations have emigrated.


Promote Awareness of the Importance of Traditional Skills: In order to change the attitude of communities towards the status of traditional skills, so that they are valued more highly, there is a need to highlight their importance in defining our culture. In the Cook Islands, I see it as encumbent upon the traditional chiefs, to take this up as part of their leadership role. Fortunately, the role o traditional chiefs has been enshrined in the Constitution of the Cook Islands (1972) and the House of Ariki Act, which created two new bodies. The House of Ariki consists of the paramount chiefs, and the second is the Koutu Nui, which is made up of mataiapo (independent sub-chiefs) and rangatira (chiefs). Also recognized as part of the traditional leadership are the ta'unga (advisors on traditional medicine).

Set Up Learning Centres for Traditional Skills: In partnership with education authorities, traditional leaders could assume a valuable role as teachers of the traditional skills. This would give traditional leaders a definitive role (other than figurehead) in modern society, while carrying out what I consider to be a valuable function. It is understood that this may require documentation of what the traditional knowledge systems are, and that they may be considerable debate needed before agreement is reached. However, this type of debate would be healthy and useful, leading to comprehensive record, for which future generations of Cook Islands maori would be grateful.


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