7 Aug 2015

Cook Islands' colourful celebration

2:54 pm on 7 August 2015

Ferrying the people from the Cook Islands' Pa Enua, or far-flung outer islands, to Rarotonga for Constitution Day celebrations was not an easy task.

Young dancers prepare to welcome dignitaries at 50th celebrations in Rarotonga, Cook islands

Young dancers prepare to welcome dignitaries at 50th celebrations in Rarotonga, Cook Islands Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

In the end neighbouring French Polynesia helped transport 1000 people from the Cook Islands' 12 inhabited islands, which are dotted within a sprawling 1.8 million square kms of water.

Along with them went the elaborate head dresses and dozens of outfits for the dancing competitions which made up two weeks of Te Maeva Nui festivities surrounding the national holiday.

This year's affair was even grander than usual because the Cook Islands are celebrating 50 years since the nation became self governing "in free association with New Zealand."

Relatives and friends met for the first time in years to eat, dance and catch up.

A Cook islands woman watches Constitution Day celebrations, August 2015

The Constitution Day celebrations drew hundreds to the Avatiu waterfront Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

This week New Zealand and the Cook Islands re-affirmed their strong ties a half century after the novel deal was forged to allow self government for the Cooks and New Zealand passports for its people. The Cooks have continued to receive foreign affairs and defence help from New Zealand under the deal.

"Although that form of arrangement was an option presented by the United Nations, there was no description of what it really meant, and no precedent for how it might work," New Zealand Prime Minister John Key told the crowd in his formal speech to Cook Islanders and gathered dignitaries.

"It was up to us to forge our own path."

He said the relationship was a living and dynamic one which went beyond simple international engagement.

Cook Islands' Prime Minister Henry Puna said despite debate in 1965 about the arrangement, the deal had brought value to the Cooks as well as a stable economy and transparent government.

Cook Islands & New Zealand prime ministers mark 50th anniversary of special ties

The two prime ministers Henry Puna and John Key held talks in Rarotonga Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

"The special relationship we enjoy with New Zealand is enshrined in our hearts and in our constitution," he said.

Between 60,000 and 70,000 Cook Islanders live in New Zealand; six times more than the Cooks' island-based population.

Earlier Mr Puna admitted the ease of entry to New Zealand and Australia had brought the country one of its biggest challenges - the permanent departure of Cook Islanders to the bright lights, jobs and bigger pay packets of larger neighbours.

"It is indeed a double-edged sword, but that's life," he told Radio New Zealand International.

"I have yet to hear any reasonable option of addressing the issue. Cook islanders have always been voyaging people. They love to travel, that's how we got here in the first place."

The 2011 census showed a staggering 40 percent loss of 15 to 24 year olds since 1991.

James Beer of the opposition Democratic Party described the ongoing depopulation of the Cooks as a tragedy.

Cook Islands Democratic Party member James Beer.

Cook Islands Democratic Party member James Beer. Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

He said there needed to be a better plan and better expertise to develop the economy, create jobs and bring people back.

"We've become a one-dimensional monoculture of tourism, and it's become too important to the point where it's not being able to deliver the results that we expect it to deliver, " he said.

"A lot of the talent that was here no longer is here and getting that talent to co-ordinate those efforts is the biggest challenge the country is facing at the moment."

But Mr Puna said his government was working with development partners and not standing idly by.

"Providing clean and green energy to the Northern group islands 24/7 is a huge first step and we hope that that would be a signal and a magnet to attract Pukapukans back to their home island."

New Zealand Aid mini solar panel farm in the Cook Islands.

A NZ funded solar power farm on Rarotonga Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

New Zealand has placed renewable energy among the top priorities of its $78 million in aid to the country for the past three years, including the 1 megawatt Te Mana o Te Ra solar power facility opened in 2014, which provides 5 percent of Rarotonga's electricity.

An education official in the Cooks, Sharon Paio, said New Zealand's 50th birthday gift of a $12 million school upgrade would help stem the outward flow of people by bringing Cooks' education into the 21st century.

"Currently we still have quite a lot of families who think that sending their children to New Zealand for their education is a better option. We know it's not. Our (NCEA) results show it's not and the quality of education is often judged by the environment in which students are learning, so this will have a huge confidence boost I think."

A mural illustrating the Polynesian settling of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, on a wall at the country's main secondary school Tereora College

A mural at the soon-to-be upgraded Tereora College illustrates the Polynesian migration to Rarotonga Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

Back at the celebrations, a young 19 year old from one of the Cooks' most remote atolls, Penrhyn, was hanging out, enjoying the atmosphere.

He said he was not thinking of jumping ship and joining the exodus abroad.

"I was thinking, as a young person, of going to NZ and Oz, but I thought about it and thought what's the point of going there?" he said. "You work hard for your money and you also spend there, but back on the island everything is free."

He suggested more youth-focused policies and attention to culture and tradition would attract more young people home.

  • Cooks celebrates 50 years of self-government
  • Cook Islands and NZ reaffirm ties