Māngere College Cook Islands group at the Polyfest in Auckland. About 60 per cent of Cook Islanders live in Aotearoa. Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller/21041649
Depopulation, addressing the poor lowly minimum wage, or the dependency on a single tourism income stream as a source of national income, are not new issues, writes Thomas Tarurongo Wynne.
enua i runga i te papa enua. I teia nei, te totoro nei au ki roto I te tumu
Enua,Te opu nei au i toku reo. Te kapu nei au i toku kapua,anga. Te mou nei au
toku ui tupuna. Te tu nei au ki runga toku paepae. These are the words I wrote
down and had translated by my mum, when trying to capture my heart and thoughts
as I moved to Rarotonga in 2011.
enua, the metaphor of the earthworm, from the earth’s surface, digging deeper
into the soil, and so deep into the earth that it becomes one.
And on that journey
grasping the reo, understanding who our tupuna are and standing on one’s
paepae, one’s place of belonging.
None of this
I would have been able to achieve or understand without moving and living in
our Ipukarea, and it is this deep sense of connection I so miss, while working
and living here and look forward to when we return.
it is so much more meaningful being here and possessing that deeper sense of
knowing who I am, who I am connected to and where my standing ground is, in
this constantly changing and post Covid world.
If there is
one thing our people born here of Cook Islands descent – now 60 percent of our
82,000 in Aotearoa – long for, it is a deeper sense of connection to home.
of being connected to that which identifies us, that which makes us unique, and
that which gives us a deeper sense of authenticity and identity. And if there
is one thing that those of us at home could better understand, I believe, is
how also to connect with the resource that is our people and replenish our
Ipukarea with the skills they have acquired while here in Aotearoa.
of the Cook Islands has been a discussion lately and it was heart-breaking
reading comments online about the slow but steady trail of people leaving for
maybe better wages, better jobs, and security.
But this is
not new; in fact, our people have been steadily leaving for the past 50 years.
This was accelerated by the International Airport being built in 1973, the
economic collapse of 1996, and now a global pandemic.
And I have
struggled to find any government over the years that has intentionally set out,
and with a figure in mind, to incentivise our people to return home.
has quietly simmered beneath the surface, a gap quietly covered up by now more
than three thousand foreign workers in Rarotonga and why I think it is simply
dishonest to say that Covid-19 created this problem when all Covid did, as it
has done all around the world, was pull the covers off an issue that had often already
In a paper
called ‘The politics of association: a comparative analysis of New Zealand and
United States approaches to free association with Pacific island states’, John
Henderson says that indeed, depopulation may turn out to be the most
devastating legacy left by the New Zealand-Cook Islands relationship.
He notes it
has not happened to the same extent in other Pacific island countries because
only Cook Islanders and Niueans have automatic rights, as citizens of New
Zealand, to enter New Zealand.
privilege, the envy of other Pacific islands, he concludes, may turn out to be
the curse of the relationship as its consequences call into question the future
viability of the Cook Islands and Niue.
He adds that
the many empty houses which are a feature of each Niuean village (and Cook
Islands outer Islands, or the combining of schools) are stark evidence of the
trend towards what he hauntingly called an ‘empty’ country.
addressing the poor lowly minimum wage, or the dependency on a single tourism income
stream as a source of national income, are not new issues.
exuberantly spending on themselves while asking for restraint is also not new,
and neither is the nepotism of people hired for jobs that they have little
capacity for, or being fired because they dare to speak up.
It is not Covid
that has caused our people to leave; it has simply brought these things to the
surface and clearly identified a number of the pressing issues that keep our
people from returning home.
the end, we both miss out. Those in Aotearoa because they cannot, like the
toketoke, dig deep into the earth of our Ipukarea for the treasure that lies
there. And those at home, who need our people to return to bolster our
population and skills shortages.
side of the problem you are on, what is clear is that we are in dire need for
change. And though change is something we struggle with, the election in Samoa
clearly shows that in the end people reach a point of enough is enough.