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Moving forward with the environment

Saturday 14 January 2023 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Features, Weekend


Moving forward with the environment
Te Ipukarea Society director Alanna Smith says the Government needs to address the risks posed by its plans for deep sea mining. 23011251

The new director at Te Ipukarea Society, Alanna Smith’s passion for the environment runs through almost everything she does.

She’s a beauty queen, an international netballer and an environmentalist. But Alanna Smith never expected to be a director for Te Ipukarea Society (TIS), the Cook Islands’ most prominent environmental-based NGO.

She began at the organisation about six years ago as a campaigns organiser.

“It was almost like the job found me. I had finished my degree in Environmental Management and didn’t have a plan other than I wanted to return home to Rarotonga,” Smith says.

“I got a call from (TIS technical director) Kelvin Passfield, who suggested I come along. At the time, I didn’t know what TIS was all about, but I thought I would give it a go.”

Smith says when she first arrived at TIS, it had only two employees, and its profile “wasn’t great”.

“My early role was to develop more content, and show people what we do,” she says.

Alanna Smith is surrounded by birds at Suwarrow in 2021. 23011326

“One of my first projects was organising a 50-day cycle campaign. We encouraged people for 50 days to bike as much as possible, and try to minimise your time using a car. We coordinated a scavenger hunt to go with the challenge, we had a lot of fun with it.”

Smith says the environmental challenges in the early years were often to do with waste management.

“That was back when polystyrene was still really prominent on the island, and we did a lot of campaigns targeting reusing of recyclable material, and refusing waste material,” she says.

“It proved effective, you don’t really see polystyrene around anymore.

“I think our profile has definitely grown, not only in Rarotonga but also in the outer islands. From our ocean health awareness campaigns to our composting educational programmes, we’ve taken big steps along the way. You can be what you want to be in this office.”

Te Ipukarea Society is one of the agencies tasked with protecting Suwarrow island, a project that has really opened up Smith’s eyes to the need to protect biodiversity. 

Projects on the island include an extensive rat eradication programme, she has visited the island on several occasions.

“There needs to be a lot of work and grassroots education about how to protect such special places,” she says.

Smith is also concerned about the seabed mining issue. In the past, she has called for a moratorium on seabed mining, especially in waters surrounding the Cook Islands.

She feels that much more time is needed for research before a decision to mine is made.  

“Much less research has been done in our waters than has been done in the international waters that are being explored for possible mining. We need a lot more time, and independent research. We cannot rely only on the mining companies to do that research,” she told Cook Islands News last year, and she hasn’t resiled from that viewpoint.

Former Miss Cook Islands Alanna Smith gets the rat traps ready for the trip to Suwarrow in 2021. She has recently been appointed Te Ipukarea Society’s new director. SUPPLIED/23011327

“The exploration boats will be taking to our waters very soon, I’m going to keep a real watchful eye on the issue over the next year,” Smith says.

Smith expects there to be a lot of change in her role this year.

“TIS has grown in many ways. The office started with four of us, now there’s about six or seven of us. There’s a definite need for more Cook Islanders to get into the environment and conservation space,” she says.

“My role over the next while is going to have a lot of managing staff and ensuring they’re doing the right thing,” she says.

“I would like to be more out in the field, but by the same token, I always love a challenge.”

Smith says she enjoys everything about field work from doing the bird surveys at the Takitumu Conservation Area, to observing marine wildlife near the outer islands.

“There’s something really addictive about being out in the field, and surrounded by nature,” she says.

When she’s not doing her bit for the environment, you will find Smith on the netball courts – she has represented the Cook Islands at international level.

In 2017, she also turned heads as Miss Cook Islands, a role which she had previously told Cook Islands News, led her to visiting many local schools and talking about her passion for the environment.

But for Smith, she’s always moving, and embracing new ways to protect the environment.

“I think the fact I’m still here with TIS, and still satisfied with what I’m doing, is pretty cool,” she says.

“We need to create positive environmental change in our community. I would definitely recommend getting involved, you end up wearing so many different hats.”