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Maungaroa Valley inches closer to UNESCO world heritage status

Saturday 3 February 2024 | Written by Candice Luke | Published in Environment, Features, Local, National, Weekend

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Maungaroa Valley inches closer to UNESCO world heritage status
There are at least eight maraes on Maungaroa. Pictured is Highland Paradise mataiapo Danny Mataroa. TUTU PIRANGI/ 24020106

The Maungaroa Valley in the Cook Islands is one step closer to becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognising its cultural significance and prompting calls for wider protection of cultural and natural heritage sites in the region.

Teuira (Tutu) Pirangi, managing director of Highland Paradise cultural centre, nestled on Maungaroa says: “It’s a huge milestone. Maungaroa is only one step away from being declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site.”

Pirangi has continued the work of her father, the late Raymond Pirangi Sr, for the living legacy of the Tinomana tribe, researching and collating documentation for the application, with support from the Ministry of Cultural Development and University of Auckland among others.   

“It’s taken over 50 years to make it to the tentative list. I say that because in the 1970s through to the 1990s, my father, who was then Tuki Rangatira, began the effort by engaging with archaeologists and contacting researchers from the Auckland Institute and Museum, and the University of Sydney to begin studying and documenting the cultural site.”

She says the milestone validates many years of hard work by many people, including her father. 

“Being a world heritage site will ensure the protection and preservation of one of the largest cultural historical sites in the region. It recognises our culture as something worth keeping in the future for our people, and for the world.”

Last year a report released by Dr Anita Smith, associate professor of archaeology and heritage at La Trobe University in Australia, recommended that cultural sites in the areas adjacent to the boundary of Maungaroa Valley be protected, and the impact of development in the buffer area mitigated. 

Dr Smith also found that the Cook Islands Cultural and Historic Places Trust Act had been inactive since 2013. 

Pirangi says this needs urgent attention.

“This needs to be reviewed, amended or a new act created. There needs to be legal protection along with traditional protection for cultural heritage places in the Cook Islands like Maungaroa.”

Cook Islander filmmaker and environmentalist Liam Kokaua spent time in Rarotonga’s mountains and valleys to create his six-part documentary series Te Mekameka O Te Pa Maunga (The Glory of the Mountains). 

Kokaua says Maungaroa is a reminder that Māori had the ability to live in the maunga, away from the coasts for extended periods of time.

“Maungaroa to me is important because it has been relatively protected from clearance or development, unlike other historic settlements. In my opinion the most important lesson we will be able to learn in future years is about our traditional architecture.”

Little is known about traditional housing but the work being done on Maungaroa has the potential to start a renaissance of traditional housing structures. 

“This will be able to influence modern Rarotongan architecture so that we can blend traditional elements into our modern designs. I do not believe anywhere else has as many ancient house sites as Maungaroa.”

Kokaua hopes that other local sites will follow Maungaroa onto the UNESCO list as they are at risk of human threat. 

“One would be the taro vai (ancient taro wetfield terrace systems), also known as taro tāvari, within the Takuvaʻine Valley. While Takuvaʻine is not the only valley on the island with taro vai it is certainly the largest and has the most that are functioning.”

He says the valley’s terraces would be as old as the earliest human settlement of Rarotonga.

“Not only are there ancient stone terraces an example of our ancestors’ incredible knowledge of engineering and wetland agriculture, but in the Takuvaʻine Valley they are actually still being maintained by a handful of growers, it is therefore a part of our living culture.”

Another site is the Cloud Forest of Rarotonga, which has been called “the best-preserved Cloud Forest in the Pacific”.

Kokaua explains: “The Cloud Forest forms about three per cent of Rarotonga’s total land area and is generally believed to begin from around 400 metres above sea level up to the highest peak of the island at 653m (at Maunga Te Manga). It includes the mysterious punāvai (spring) which emerges from the crater of Maunga Te Koʻu, the punāvai itself being of cultural importance to our people as it features in stories which relate to some of the earliest settlers of Rarotonga.”

“Rarotonga’s Cloud Forest is a sanctuary for the island’s rarest plants. Of the 18 plant species endemic to the island of Rarotonga, 12 occur in cloud forest habitats. Two are found solely in the Cloud Forest and include Te Manga cyrtandra (Cyrtandra lilianae) and cloud grass-fern (Radiogrammitis cheesemanii).

“Despite a slowly increasing presence of exotic plant species Rarotonga’s Cloud Forest is still considered one of the best remaining examples of original small-island montane rain and cloud forest (Wildlands Consultants Report commissioned by National Environment Service in 2016).”

Pirangi says it could take between five and 10 years for Maungaroa to make the final cut as a world heritage site, but she looks forward to having more hands-on deck to see the application through successfully. 

“Everyone from our government, the community, our agencies, our traditional leaders need to network.

“We need to change the mindset of those that are holding back the success of what we are intending to happen in our generation and not wait for another decade.”

Pirangi is grateful for all of the support from family, friends, and organisations to get Maungaroa on the list. 

“I want to give a special meitaki ma’ata to the Minister of Education and the chairman of the Cook Islands National Commission for UNESCO, the Honourable Mac Mokoroa, for pushing this important document through.”