Is there a country where the government truly makes the natural environment and its people a priority? Where every citizen is aware of their environmental footprint and is active in reducing it? Where the integration of environmental standards in enterprise is ubiquitous? If that country could be anywhere – where would it be?
My government and our traditional leaders believe it can be in the Cook Islands. We think we could become the cleanest and greenest nation on earth. We have a lot going for us. Our 15 islands in the South Pacific – located between Samoa and Tahiti – are near pristine. Our meagre 92 square miles of land and simple geology mean we don’t have the environmental threats of logging or land mining. Our people have a passion for nature and conservation and are almost obsessive about maintaining their gardens and keeping litter off the streets.
Our entire marine space was declared a whale sanctuary in 2001 and designated a shark sanctuary in 2012. We are a self-governing country with only 17,000 people, but if we adopt a good strategy we could draw upon the skills of over 100,000 Cook Islanders living overseas. Our main industry is tourism and if done right, could sustain livelihoods for years to come.
On the other hand, there is a lot we’re up against. Communities are unaware of the long-term impacts of modern conveniences like single-use plastics. Over-development of tourist accommodation on the beachfront of Rarotonga is impacting the fringing coral reef. Our forests are under the constant threat of new and existing invasive alien species such as balloon vine and mile-a-minute. And our vast ocean not only attracts foreign longline and purse seine tuna fishing vessels, but is the site of the largest deposit of seabed minerals in a single country on earth. All of these challenges are exacerbated by the effects of climate change, such as coral bleaching, sea level rise and more frequent and severe tropical cyclones.
The current government, elected in 2010, has an environmental agenda. In 2012, Prime Minister Henry Puna, pledged to establish a large-scale multiple-use marine park. Following this announcement – and together with the House of Ariki – the government held 34 community consultation meetings throughout the islands where the public provided their support. After negotiations amongst key groups to refine the details of a 20-year policy, the Marae Moana Act 2017 was passed in Parliament, with the full support of opposition members.
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