Columnist Thomas Tarurongo Wynne. Photo: CI NEWS/16040843
Nothing brings us together or tears us apart like our connection to land, especially when that land is divided, shared, allotted, or occupied by different members of our family, writes Thomas Tarurongo Wynne.
the recent Cook Islands census, 2021, Cook Islands Māori residing in the Cook
Islands now total 11,603, or 77 per cent of the total population.
compared to the nearly 140,000 Cook Islanders living offshore, the ratio is
roughly 12:1, meaning for every one Cook Islander living at home, there are
approximately 12 living offshore.
23 per cent of our total population in the Cook Islands is now not Cook Islands
Māori, or nearly one in every four people we see every day.
why the need for consultation and the revision of our land laws is essential
because they are simply no longer fit for purpose, for the lived reality of
those Cook Islands Māori living and residing at home, and those living in New
Zealand, Australia, Tahiti and abroad.
need for change is complex, but falls into two clear pressures – firstly that the
law no longer reflects the pressures faced by our communities and/or the way by
which families understand, share, revoke, allot or develop land.
secondly, that the development of the Cook Islands as a country cannot be held
back by land that sits idle, vacant, or undeveloped, so as we all who call
ourselves and identify as Cook Islanders, can have a home nation that is
thriving and prosperous with enough land available to develop, feed and house
those that chose to reside in our beautiful Ipukarea.
1957 the Land Court, sitting as an Appellate Court, made a ruling that would,
according to Dr Ron Crocombe, Dr Makiuti Tongia and Tepoave Araitia in their
paper called “Absentee landowners in the Cook Islands: Consequences of change
to traditions”, significantly affected land tenure in the Cook Islands.
ruled that all children inherit equally in all registered native lands of all
ancestors. In effect this meant that every person would inherit an equal share
in all the lands of both parents, all four grandparents, all eight
great-grandparents and so on.
ruling, which became binding on all Land Court decisions, thereafter, legally
destroyed custom on registered native lands and resulted in ever increasing
fragmentation of ownership – though many now accept this error as “custom”.
Cook Islands Act of 1915 has been often described as the “preservation of
custom”, but this has been hotly debated as time has gone on, and as we better
understand what was “customary” as opposed to what has been customarily
practiced in a post 1915 world.
in Mangaia, Mitiaro and Pukapuka do not have a Land Court, but one could argue,
that in fact it is still families, in all the islands of the Cook Islands that
practice custom, regarding land even though it often sits outside of what is
legal or enacted in law.
way we treat occupation rights and succession, which is often outside of the
legal framework is a clear indication of this.
problem we have is if one family member decides to take our families to court
on the face of what is legal, not what is practiced, the law will be on their
side and not that of what has been “customarily” practiced and understood by
many of our families in the Cook Islands or offshore.
have our Minister for Justice, Vaine “Mac” Mokoroa and the Head of Ministry
Tamatoa Jonassen and team come to consult with our people here in New Zealand
and Australia, is long overdue and welcomed, and signals we all have a vested
interest in how these land law changes are proposed, constructed and make their
way through Parliament at the end of 2026.
for those that attended, with packed halls and churches, everyone that has land,
either resident, or absentee, feels very strongly about the passage of this
consultation and change, and seen in the comments and tears, laughter, and joy
in those meetings.
behalf of our people across the Moana, we are grateful for the consultation,
and despite some frustrations with the process, it has prompted us to consider
and organise meeting again, educating ourselves on land law process, and better
understanding the proposed changes so we can provide proper remits in writing
back to the Cook Islands government for then to consider. Let the conversation