Prime Minister Henry Puna does not believe Jacqui Evans deserved the internationally-renowned Goldman Environmental Prize.
The ocean conservationist won the award last year for her work in creating Marae Moana – the largest multiple-use marine park in the world.
But at a paid speaking event in San Francisco this week, Puna said the selection panel had erred because the establishment of Marae Moana was “not a single person’s effort, but a nation’s commitment”.
Puna added that if any person deserved the accolade it was Marae Moana ambassador Kevin Iro. He acknowledged Iro’s presence in the crowd at the US Commonwealth Club meeting.
Last night, Evans said the Goldman Environmental Prize was not awarded to a country.
“The PM is entitled to his personal view,” she said. “I know that many people, including the environmental community, people I worked with inside and outside government see it differently.”
Evans lost her job as the director of the Marae Moana, after clashing with the Prime Minister over her support for a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining.
But Puna and Evans did agree on one thing: she too acknowledged Iro also deserved credit “for daring to dream”.
The former rugby league star also gave the process celebrity status, she said, which attracted a lot of young men to outer island consultation meetings she organised.
Evans also paid tribute to the late Sue Taei, another ocean conservationist who convinced her that Iro’s dream could be tweaked and made scientifically and economically feasible. “Everyone had a role to play … and I’m sad that the Prime Minister hasn’t acknowledged my award. With my persistent effort and strategy behind the scenes I know I deserved it,” Evans said.
The Goldman Environmental Prize came with $300,000 prize money. Yesterday, she announced she would be using $100,000 to set up a new Moana Foundation to advance environmental activism and support the disadvantaged in the Cook Islands.
“When I talked with the Goldman Prize Foundation, I asked them where the money is expected to go they said ‘it’s your money, it’s your award and that money goes to you as a person’ which was hard to believe for me,” Evans told Cook Islands News.
“They said other prize recipients used it to build their house or they use their money for local projects or keep half or they gave away the other half.”
Evans said she established the foundation in order to build an endowment fund – independent of government or other sources – for Cook Islands non-governmental organisations that are working on the frontlines of environmental and social progress.
“This will give our local organisations the independence they need to speak openly when they believe an injustice has been done,” she said.
“I do find that working in government, there is a lot of things you are not allowed to say and I don’t think that’s right particularly when it’s the public money that is being used.”
Evans said the fund she has invested in the foundation would also enable organisations to focus on local priorities – sometimes a more elusive goal when overseas funding is used.
“We will build the fund up over time to address the pressing needs of future generations of Cook Islanders.
“My profound hope is that, one day, it will become a significant resource to protect our environment and look after our people.”
Evans also said donors were welcome to contribute to the Moana Foundation.
“It’s not a lot of money. I want to use it as endowment fund so it will take some time for money to build, the interest to build enough, to be worth funding projects.
“I have put the money away, never to be touched and any interest that comes with it will be used in projects. It’s long term but it’s a start.
“And yes, it’s open to people who want to donate and obviously more money we can build, the more quickly we can use it.”