The Cook Islands is a self-governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand. Their 15 small islands are widely dispersed and broadly divided into southern and northern groups. The total land area of the country is 240 sq km while their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) covers a maritime area of nearly 2 million sq km. The southern group that includes the main islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki are mostly of high volcanic formation (up to 652 m on Rarotonga) with fertile soils and lush tropical vegetation. The northern group except Nassau, which is a sandy key, are low-lying coral atolls with large lagoons and sparse vegetation, mostly coconut palm plantations for a fickle copra industry and pandanus trees.
The indigenous population is the Cook Islands Maori, Polynesians closely related ethnically to those on Tahiti and nearby islands and to the New Zealand Maori. According to the latest census (2006) the total resident population is 19,569. Since the economic reform programmes of 1995-96, large numbers of Cook islanders have migrated to New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere, mostly to seek better employment opportunities. With over 90,000 visitors travelling to the islands in 2006, tourism is the country’s main industry, and the leading element of the economy, far ahead of fishing, agriculture, black pearl cultivation and offshore banking.
Renewable Energy & Eco Housing
The Cook Islands are still largely dependent on imported refined petroleum fuels, which probably account for 90% of gross energy supply, biomass providing the remaining 10%, mainly for cooking. Nevertheless, solar water heaters are now well established and found in nearly all new housing and commercial buildings. There are also numerous solar photovoltaic installations used for lighting, radio, water pumping, fish freezing and refrigeration on the outer islands but most have suffered from the lack of funds for post-installation support. On the other hand, Telecom has installed many PV generators, ranging from 600-7,800 peak watts with excellent performance and high reliability due to the quality of installations and good maintenance using well-trained staff. However, various wind power projects have suffered from both inappropriate technical designs and the lack of expertise for post installation support. A national renewable energy assessment report published in 2004 detailed the barriers that would need to be overcome to increase the utilization of renewable energy technologies. Another technical report published in 2007 has a case study on why the wind-hybrid system on Mangaia was not a cost effective option for electricity production on this island.
In July 2011 the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Henry Puna, announced a 50% renewable energy target by 2015 and 100% by 2020. To achieve this ambitious goal the government will be launching their Renewable Energy Chart – Te Atamoa O Te Uira Natura – later in 2011 and it will include plans for a 2MW solar plant for Aitutaki to support peak electricity demand of 900 kW and take into account their future requirements as well as a new wind monitoring system for Atiu. A detailed project proposal seeking assistance from the Pacific Environment Community Fund for a solar power generation system and seawater desalination unit on the outer island of Rakahanga is also understood to be close to approval.
The country has to rely on the aid programmes of various countries and regional projects to finance new power generation schemes. For example, the Pacific Islands Greenhouse Gas Abatement through Renewable Energy Project (PIGGAREP), financed by the Global Environment Facility, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme and executed by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, is helping 11 different island countries. The PIGGAREP is supporting the Cook Islands build on five key and on-going initiatives namely:
1) Mangaia Power System Upgrade
2) Rarotonga and Aitutaki Wind Power Development Project
3) Pukapuka and Rakahanga Hybrid Projects
4) Biofuel Development Project
5) Schools Environment Awareness Programme
Most projects require an element of co-financing and it is difficult to determine which potential developments are active or redundant. The government put the brakes on a proposed hydrogen fuel demonstration project for Aitutaki because it could not afford to provide the $2-3 million the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, International Centre for Hydrogen Energy technologies was asking it to contribute. In August 2011 it was reported the government’s renewable energy proposals would be supported with Chinese solar panels funded by the New Zealand aid programme.
Waste Minimisation & Recycling
The Pacific Regional Solid Waste Management Strategy 2010-2015 was adopted in November 2009. Amongst the success stories, it makes specific reference to a tripartite arrangement of the New Zealand and Cook Islands Governments and the private sector beginning a long-term programme in 2005 to remove the legacy of ferrous and non-ferrous metal waste from Rarotonga. New Zealand funded an excavator and Hiab truck and subsidized the freight costs. The private sector provided training, and funded the purchase and operation of a guillotine and metal compactor. As a result of this on-going operation, the country is able to remove approximately 12 containers of scrap metal annually.
The Cook Islands produced a National Waste Strategy in 2004 and improving services was highlighted again in the Strategic Action Framework of the National Environment Service who along with the Ministry of Works and Ministry of Health, are the main agencies responsible for waste management. Both Rarotonga and Aitutaki have new landfill facilities but the former is filling up rapidly. Local contractors T & M Heather made improvements to their weekly rubbish collection on Rarotonga in 2011. This was in response to complaints from the public that they saw their already separated rubbish for recycling being dumped together in the back of the garbage truck. Now recyclable rubbish is placed in separate holding compartments before being taken to the recycling centre below the Arorangi landfill. Once there, the aluminium cans are squashed into compact stacks that are then placed in containers and shipped to New Zealand for recycling. Plastics can be shredded and glass crushed but shipping them off the island is proving difficult due to the low returns for the product compared to the costly shipping fees.
A private contractor collects liquid waste (sewage) mainly from residential septic tanks. The new landfills have septage ponds, which will cater for storage and treatment of liquid waste. Most of the large resorts on Rarotonga and Aitutaki have waste treatment systems for sewage.
Water Management & Security
The main source of water for the Cook Islands is from streams, rain-fed roof catchments, bore holes and community water tanks. Salt-water inundation into the fresh water lens as a result of sea level rise is a major threat to northern group islands water supply. Rarotonga water is captured in the high mountain streams and is gravity-fed into the main distribution network. Groundwater resources have been identified on Rarotonga but current use is limited although potentially important in the future. Greater numbers of water users on Rarotonga have placed pressure on the water system and in periods of drought some villages have experienced either frequent water shortages or no water. This further justifies the need to tap ground water for emergency use.
Daily water demand on Rarotonga is currently 10,645m3, which includes a 30 percent leakage or abuse. The watershed catchments can produce 64,000m3 per day. The water used for consumption is currently untreated – with no added chemicals such as chlorine or fluoride. Water is filtered through the use of fine aggregate and woven filter cloth (primary treatment), and a small percentage of households have installed water filters at the entry to the household.
Extensive Agriculture & Organic Food Production
Land ownership in the Cook Islands is under customary land tenure. Land can be leased to a maximum period of 60 years. 75% of the households are engaged in subsistence farming only, 15% in subsistence with some cash cropping and less than 10% in commercial agriculture. Most of the subsistence farmers use very little of pesticides and commercial fertilizers. The introduction of the Integrated Pest Management concept a couple of years ago plus the rising costs of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides & pesticides have seen the reduction in the use of chemicals on these farms. However, the main agricultural export crop, papaya, still receives high amounts of fertilizers and chemicals.
There are 198 organic certified growers, for a total of 688,000 square metres of certified lands. Some islands in the northern group have imposed bans of all types of chemicals including synthetic fertilizers into their islands. The Cook Islands Organic Association (CIOA) was formed in 2004 and works closely with the Ministry of Agriculture who provide several training programmes conducted on organic crop production methods. The Minister for Environment hopes to convert the entire island of Aitutaki to organic practices soon simply by forbidding the importation of chemical fertilizers and toxic sprays. Members of the Titikaveka Growers Association are now seen to be the driving force for the CIOA. This association is piloting a scheme for conventional growers to convert to organic and presently investigating various types and sizes of equipment to initiate a compost service. The association is also developing a pilot project for a wholly organic aquafarm that could possibly represent a best practice to be replicated in the region.
In July 2001, the CIOA with the help of BIO-GRO New Zealand produced a national certificate for their organic produce. This certificate is currently only being accepted by the overseas buyers of Cook Islands noni. Noni is a unique tropical fruit from a shrub type tree grown and is typically taken as a drink to enhance bodily function and support overall good health. Noni is one of the few organic products currently exported, but potential crops that could be produced as certified organic are: papaya, mango, breadfruit, coconut, local banana varieties, tumeric, taro, sweet potato, cassava, tamarind and others that do not use chemicals. Atiu coffee is organically grown on two plantations, freshly roasted at their factory and exported through mail order to private customers all over the world.
International air services are provided by Air New Zealand, offering flights between Rarotonga and Auckland, Fiji, Tahiti and Los Angeles. Air Rarotonga operates seven days a week including a late Sunday night service to Aitutaki and offers passenger and cargo services to the outer islands, including the remote Northern Group. Two international shipping services connect Rarotonga with Auckland, Samoa, Tonga and Niue, and a smaller service operates between the outer islands and New Zealand. Another shipping company offers more or less regular service between the outer islands from Rarotonga.
Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing
The Tourism Corporation website provides comprehensive information on where to stay, what to see and do on the islands. The independent Kia Orana and David Stanley’s travel guide are equally useful. Though tourism is concentrated on Rarotonga, the island of Aitutaki has developed into an important secondary centre. Atiu Island, also known as Enuamanu (land of birds), is probably the best place to head if you want a more authentic experience and eco-tourism holiday. The population of 569 is divided into 5 villages that radiate out from the centre of the island on a flat-topped plateau. Surrounding the plateau is a ring of taro water gardens and then forest clad makatea (fossil coral reef). Notched into the cliffs of makatea are over 28 beaches and numerous caves two of which are home to swiftlets using an audible clicking to navigate in the pitch-black interior. The Atiu Tourism Group and Atiu Tourism Society detail everything you need to know about the walking trails, craft workers, bush beer drinking and the guided tours offered by ‘Birdman’ George Mateariki.
Biodiversity & Protected Areas
The Cook Islands has a relatively limited biodiversity, being well to the east in the general decline of biodiversity as one moves eastward across the Pacific. In addition to the eastward reduction in biodiversity, the biodiversity declines with decreasing habitat complexity. For example Rarotonga has 180 indigenous flowering plants, the Makatea islands have 90 to 100, Aitutaki has 40, and the northern atolls vary from 25 in Pukapuka to 18 on Manihiki.
All the islands in the Cook Islands have a coastal community, which has been heavily disturbed by construction and introduced plants since the arrival of the Europeans in the 1820’s. Sometimes within the coralline coastal community there are swamp plants, which with mulching are useful to grow taro or puraka. Despite the lack of flora, the plants of the Cook Islands are widely used by the people. The Natural Heritage Trust launched a Biodiversity Database in March 2003 and has documented over 1007 flowering plants of which 163 are used for food, 73 for medicines, 52 have some use in agriculture or horticulture, 20 provide timber and 406 are ornamental (leaves or flowers).
There are 52 bird species including 6 endemics, 20 resident seabirds and six Alaskan shorebirds that regularly spend the southern winter in the Cook Islands. Two of the uninhabited islands, Takutea in the Southern Group and Suwarrow in the Northern Group, play an important part as seabird sanctuaries, both supporting species not found elsewhere in the Cook Islands. The Te Ipukarea Society was a co-partner in a successful Save our Suwarrow campaign opposed to an Australian company’s proposal to farm black lip pearls in the atoll’s pristine lagoon and subsequently carried out a rat eradication project. The Society has also undertaken seabird surveys, assisted in the recovery of the Rarotonga Monarch and Starling, helped with the translocation of 27 Rimatara Lorikeet from French Polynesia to Atiu and monitored the native Kingfisher on the island of Mangaia for possible breeding failure due to Myna Bird interference.
The marine environment can be conveniently divided into the reef system including lagoons, reef flats and outer reef-slope, and the pelagic system. Twenty-four coral genera and 58 species have been identified in the Cook Islands mainly on Aitutaki and Rarotonga. Four genera reach their latitudinal limit and do not occur further south.
The protection of areas and species of special significance is not a new concept in the Cook Island. Reserves have existed for hundreds of years in one form or another. The imposition of the raui system: a traditional method whereby access to a particular resource or area is forbidden for a given period is still being practised in the Cook Islands. Although it appears that the raui system aims at the conservation of food resources, it is in essence protecting whole ecosystems. Nevertheless, there exist today national parks and reserves aimed at the conservation of species rather than as a resource to be replenished.
Suwarrow Atoll was the first island to be formally established as a national park in 1978 and is breeding site for eleven species of seabirds. It supports regionally significant colonies of Lesser Frigatebirds (9% of world population), Red-tailed Tropic Birds (3% of world population) and the only large colony of Sooty Terns in the Cook Islands. Takutea is another important breeding ground for seabirds and the traditional leaders of Atiu manage the island as a wildlife sanctuary. There are nine marine and terrestrial reserves dotted right around Rarotonga including the Takitumu conservation area that has many well marked walking trails. Some 15 other protected areas are located on different islands.
In 2001 the Government declared the Cook Islands with its ocean EEZ of 2 million sq km as a whale sanctuary. These waters are now a safe haven for migrating humpback whales that consistently migrate through the Cook Islands every year from about August to October. The Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation has been conducting surveys on this species over many years and run a whale and wildlife centre in Atupa, Rarotonga that has undergone a series of recent renovations with new exhibits including the remains of a fully mature giant octopus and the skull of a young sperm whale.
In 2010 Prime Minister Henry Puna officially announced that a national marine park covering all the territorial waters of the southern group islands had garnered sufficient support from both political parties and the community to move forward to full design and establishment. If created, it would cover approximately half of the Cook Islands sovereign domain with an area of one million sq km of their EEZ making it the largest marine park in the world. According to the proposal the park would not mean a ban on fishing, seabed mining and other activities but they would have to be conducted in a sustainable manner. Under the proposal a charitable trust would be set up as part of the management of the park. It would develop a strategy to attract donors to have sponsorship rights to selected areas of the park.
Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures
The Cook Islands government recognised the importance of responding to climate change when it signed the United Nations Framework on Climate Change in 1992. A National Climate Change Team was formed in 1997 and published their Initial Communication in 1999. Work on their Second National Communications Project has been ongoing since mid 2006 and will further strengthen national capacities and raise general knowledge and awareness on climate change and its effects. The Cook Islands Climate Action Network represents over 20 NGOs and works at a more grassroots level.
The Cook Islands like most small island nations in the Pacific experience extreme climate events, such as tropical cyclones, intense periods of rainfall or droughts, high winds, sea surges and high air temperatures. These have the potential to significantly impact or damage the physical infrastructure of the nation. The Director of Cook Islands National Meteorological and Hydrological Service was selected as the interim chair of a Regional Committee which serves as the steering group for the Pacific Islands Global Climate Observing System. This programme started in 2002 and is coordinated by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme based in Apia, Samoa, who also maintain a Climate Change Portal. The Cook Islands also participated in the
South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project that ended on 31 December 2010.
The Pacific Adaptation to Climate Project (PACC) has been running from 2008 to 2012. It will help develop three key areas that will build resilience to climate change in 13 Pacific island countries: food production and food security, coastal management and water resource management. Under the project, Fiji, Palau, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands will focus on food production and food security. The Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Samoa and Vanuatu are developing Coastal Management capacity and Nauru, Niue, Republic of Marshall Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu are looking to strengthen their water resource management. More specifically, the project will deliver outcomes and outputs that include improved technical capacity to formulate and implement national and sub-national policies, legislation, and costing/assessment exercises. Climate change risks will be incorporated into relevant governance policies and strategies for achieving food security, water management, and coastal development. At the sub-national level, pilot demonstration activities will deliver adaptation benefits in the form of practical experiences in the planning and implementation of response measures that reduce vulnerability. These benefits will be integral for future replication and up-scaling, and also to identify larger-scale investment opportunities from multilateral banks supporting countries with climate change adaptation. The project will also foster regional collaboration on adaptation.