Northern life revises perceptions

Saturday April 30, 2016 Written by Published in Outer Islands
The Ministry of Marine Resources team that conducted the resource assessment survey in Tongareva last year, helping to crystallise the real worth of atolls in national output. Photo: Tongareva Island Government. 16042909 The Ministry of Marine Resources team that conducted the resource assessment survey in Tongareva last year, helping to crystallise the real worth of atolls in national output. Photo: Tongareva Island Government. 16042909

I have been living in Tongareva on and off to fulfil a promise made to my father to go back and work for our people, and to complete a research thesis in my own time.


Living in the remote north has revised a lot of my perceptions of island growth models and theories. Connections are important: family, land, sea, national, and regional connections.

Being connected to my family connects me to a tradition that harbours land and marine rights. Being connected also encourages responsibility and commitments to core and positive parts of our socio-cultural tradition that keep us alive and vibrant.

I’ve spent a bit of time this early part of 2016, bothering colleagues at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management and anyone else who might listen to an earnest case for a more fiscally responsible allocation to the Northern Cooks.

The Cook Islands government allocates budgetary resources to each inhabited island based on a formula that considers demographic, social, economic and geographic variables. 

The model takes into account the condition of infrastructure, what fixed assets work, and governance size and capability to name a few. These are all configured to help determine the best (fiscally responsible) budget allocation. Nowhere in the formula does the ecological, biophysical and human capital and assets of the atolls feature.

Trends show this model has not been able to close the gaps between North and South, and has overlooked some key variables that would have painted a better picture of the real value of our atolls within the national budget formula.

Resourcing levels approved on the current budget allocation model, has challenged on-island service delivery and attention and as a result, island work that is crucial to adapting to or mitigating against climate change has been sent to the backseat of implementation priorities. For instance on most northern atolls, deferred maintenance to essential island infrastructure (airports, harbours) compromises the delivery of basic services (health, education, referrals, supplies) to the island.

The population base, though dwindling, continues to eke out a semi-subsistence existence, while at the same time containing the socio-cultural, governance and economic traits of atoll living.

Climate change has impacted the island’s coastline, water and food security, transportation on and to the island to name the visible. The resilient features of those who defy and determine to stay, could influence the valuation models and formula if allowed the opportunity.

I realise now that the threat of climate change cannot be fully appreciated using traditional neo-classical economics. Hence the reason the atoll socio-economic existence is not profiled in national domestic product. We’ve been valuing the worth of our atolls on superficial potential rather than on actual worth.

Recent marine resource assessment conducted (2015), highlights the richness of the atoll’s lagoon and surrounding ocean zone. Captured into a national domestic product model, the worth of the Cook Islands would improve in the representation of the natural and marine ecosystems and their unharnessed worth.

As the global coalition supporting sustainable development progresses, so to at last does the connecting of economics and ecology into the discussions of sustainable development.

I hope at the end of my contract and research in the home of my father’s birth to build a model and develop an approach for valuing the real socio-economic and ecological value of the atoll, and build in important human and cultural constructs that engender atoll significance within the climate change and sustainable development discussion.

During the national drought months last year, I purposely failed to file weekly water reports on the water levels of the villages, for two reasons.

Firstly, how would my weekly reporting of very low water levels influence the conventional response time when we’ve existed for a few hundred years making do with what we already have, and what friends might wish to dish out to us.

Second, northern resilience is observant, it is patient, and it is consistent in terms of island priorities and attention to vulnerable groupings.

An old traditional practice handed down from the ancestors rules and continues to rule when all other connections fail.

I’ve learnt to respect this resilience, and to quietly embrace it in my daily living there.

E te ra e......HI!

Leave a comment