After reading stories about the present government declaring the lagoon a national disaster, UK journalist Jonathan Harwood says he was reminded of reaction to two stories he wrote about the lagoon while working at CI News in 2003 and 2004.
In both cases, he says he attracted the anger of then Cook Islands Tourism boss Chris Wong, who accused CI News of trying to destroy the country’s tourism industry.
However, visitor numbers continued to grow – and under the Democratic Party government of the time, nothing was done about tackling the lagoon’s environmental problems.
To demonstrate that there is nothing new under the sun, Harwood, who now works for one of Britain’s most successful internet news websites, yesterday sent CI News links to his stories.
The first appeared in shorter form on the Radio NZ Intenational website on August 27, 2003 under the headline, “Cook Islands pollution watchdog unable to fight lagoon problems.”
It reads: “The Cook Islands pollution watchdog says it’s been unable to prosecute anyone for the massive poisoning of the lagoon of the main island.
“An Australian scientist, Mark Skinner, has found the bacteria level in Rarotonga’s Muri Lagoon is 20 times higher than the limit set by the World Health Organisation.
“He says it will take years for the algal bloom the bacteria causes, to disappear.
“Tania Temata of the environment service says it has been difficult to identify who is responsible for huge levels of toxins in streams flowing into the lagoon.
“Because it’s not actually a direct discharge into these waterways. What it is is that some farmers spray or use some pesticide or chemicals for their farming activities but it’s not actually discharging it into the waterways.”
“Tania Temata says she hopes Mr Skinner’s briefing for government officials tonight will identify where the pollution is getting into Rarotonga’s marine system.”
The following year, on March 4, another Harwood story was repeated on Radio NZ under the headline, “Cooks conservation group gets $2,000 grant.”
It reads, “The Cook Islands government has presented conservation group Avana Muri Marine Action Group (AMMAG) with a grant of $2,000 to help raise awareness of pollution issues in the Muri area.
“The group received the cheque early this week and is now planning a scheme to make people take better care of the lagoon.
“An AMMAG spokeswoman said that an educational poster campaign in Rarotonga’s schools was being prepared as one way of spending the money and added that the group was very grateful for the donation.
“The organisation applied for the funding last year and was pleased to be granted the money this week.
“The voluntary group, which comprises landowners, scientists and concerned individuals, was formed in 2002 and has been active in raising environmental issues particularly in the Muri area.
“The organisation backed the research of Australian scientist Mark Skinner last year, who discovered that nutrient levels in the lagoon were contributing to algal blooms.
“That work prompted the Environment Service to take action against inland livestock owners and to push for compliance with regulations in the foreshore area.
“Tania Temata of the Environment Service said that the money had come from the education and awareness budget.
“’The funding is a result of the problems they experienced in the lagoon last year and has been granted for them to come up with targeted awareness programs for that area,’ she said. ‘The Environment Service awareness program is more general and country wide rather than covering one area, and we realised that they needed something for Muri’.”
“She said that now the group had a plan to spend the money the cheque had been handed over.
AMMAG is also hoping to secure more funding through the United Nations’ International Waters Program so that it can continue to fund scientific research on the state of the lagoon around Rarotonga and look for solutions to problems it encounters.”
Cook Islands journalist Flo Syme Buchanan says she can recall writing about the state of Muri lagoon back in the 1990s, when again, politicians and environmentalists failed to take any action.