The Democratic Party candidate in the RAPPA by-election says: “I will not promise you that I will pave your road, or put street lights in your neighbourhood, because this should be the responsibility of ICI. But I can promise you that I will work hard to give your children and their children a better future.”
Rongo is a 44-year-old businessman and adviser on climate change – he is also a father of six.
“I didn’t want to be a politician at all, I got into Environmental Science to sort out the problems we are facing today.
“But I see the need to do this from the top and to have influence in order to change some of the policies on environment issues.”
Among those are the way Cook Islands resources are being managed and purse seine fishing.
“I’m against that and will try to phase out purse seining in our waters.
“I’m in support of developing our own sustainable pelagic fisheries. Before this, we need to carry out extensive research to better understand the pelagic species within our waters. I would also support the development of coastal fisheries such as aqua-farming among other activities to generate revenue.”
Rongo is also passionate about culture and language and believes: “We are not heading in a direction to develop our own people and maintain our own identity and language.”
He would like to see the school curriculum changed.
“The one we have is developed on a New Zealand curriculum. We no longer teach our history in schools and, if we do, it is minimal. We need to bring back patriotism to our people.
“There are certain activities no longer in schools, such as agriculture which can connect our children to the land.
“When I look at how we were in school, back in the days, every classroom would have a garden. It was part of learning and very therapeutic for kids see plants grow.
“Watering them and looking after them is connecting them to the land and I think we have moved away from that awareness and understanding of the environment. It is also what connects our kids to their culture.”
And Rongo has strong views on tourism and culture.
“We have gone beyond what the country can handle in tourism. We are such small islands – Rarotonga and Aitutaki – and we need to be living more in harmony with nature and be aware of our limits.
“We have 150,000 tourists annually at the moment and we don’t know the optimal number we can handle, but seeing what is happening to the lagoon, we are not in good shape.
“It is an indicator we may have gone over that capacity.”
And Cook Islands culture has been changed by tourism, he says.
“In catering for a tourism mentality over decades we have lost our culture … it’s now one for entertainment rather than who we are. We are losing it, particularly our young ones.
“We really need to reconnect and practise some of the things we used to do. Our language is difficult for our children to learn today because we are practicing a Western culture. Learning Cook Islands Maori needs to go hand-in-hand with our own culture.”
In saying that, he adds: “That doesn’t mean we do away with tourism, but tourism needs to be controlled.
“The way forward is eco-tourism. It is our environment and our reefs people enjoy so it is in our best interests to protect them … not only for tourism and our livelihood, but our future.”
On the electorate of RAPPA, he says: “The government does not realise how important this constituency is. It is basically the heart of the nation.
“Everything comes in here and goes out of here.
“They are not doing enough for people here.”
He says all the local cyclone shelters are in flood zones and need to be relocated or new shelters built in safer areas.
And with a 30-year period of more rainfall predicted he says that considering the risks, the government needs to look closely at preventing people from building in wetland areas, as well as the important ecosystem services these habitats provide.
“We need to improve building codes, which are currently under review, and review the Environment Act and environmental assessment guidelines to ensure developments are not built in flood-prone areas or, if they are, that they are developed properly.”
Rongo says while there has been a good reaction to his views from places he has door-knocked, he doesn’t know what his chances of winning the seat are.
“My opponents are both strong.
“When we started I thought I had no chance at all. After campaigning for a month, it’s looking better than when I started. People are responding to the vision, and not what party I’m affiliated with. And this is what I emphasize - that I am standing to represent our people regardless of political affiliation. But I am grateful that the Demos have given me this opportunity to stand under their banner.
“I really don’t know what to expect.”
“It took me a long time to think on standing.
“The longer I thought about it, the more I realised there needs to be a change and it would help if I was in there.”
“In RAPPA, we need more than one person to take action, we need the community.
“I would work hard to provide the community with the tools needed to do things themselves to build resilience, not reliance. This is where education is key.”
Rongo wants to bring communities back together and last year he and his wife Jackie created the Rising Stars Netball Championship, which became a reality with the sponsorship of BCI, Bluesky and others who also believed in this vision.
“The championship not only promotes a healthy lifestyle, but has the underlying goal of bringing communities back together and strengthening them through sports.
“We also need to utilise and support organisations within our society, such as our churches, to foster community cohesiveness.”
Rongo believes that a strong community is a safer, closer, more resilient one.