Houses on the sand

The government called the Muri Lagoon incident a national disaster, and pressured business owners to upgrade their septic tanks. But that was at best a stop-gap fix: Muri’s buildings are constructed on free-draining coral sand overlying a shallow water table, and leaching is always likely to be an issuefor this kind of sewage system.

As such, last year the government commissioned an engineering firm from New Zealand to design a better solution. The firm recommended piping the treated waste out beyond the reef into the deep ocean. But local conservationists are concerned about the impact on marine life, and are pushing for land-based alternatives like installing dry composting toilets and filtering waste through constructed wetlands.

In places like Rarotonga, which you can drive around in 45 minutes at a leisurely 50 kilometers (32 miles) per hour, the anti-pollution adage “there is no ‘away’” is particularly obvious. And in recent years, the number of people coming to the Cook Islands to “get away from it all” has increased significantly. Last year the country welcomed a record 168,760 visitors, a big influx for a nation with an estimated resident population of only 17,379. Prime Minister Henry Puna has said he hopes annual tourist numbers will hit the 200,000 mark soon.

Map shows the location of the Cook Islands, with the international date line running past on a ragged course through the Pacific Ocean. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

But much of this development is on shaky ground.

To the southwest of Muri sits a spectacle of government mismanagement: the crumbling concrete slabs and salt-encrusted solar panels of the unfinished, abandoned Sheraton resort, now home to squatters, invasive plants and a healthy squad of the island’s ubiquitous feral chickens. In 1987, the acting minister of tourism signed an agreement with an Italian construction company to build the hotel. But the company went into receivership soon after, and by 1994 the Cook Islands government found itself $35 million in debt to an Italian credit institute.

The abandoned, never completed Sheraton resort on Rarotonga. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

To service the debt, which amounted to around one-third of the country’s gross domestic product at the time, structural adjustment measures were imposed. These had the compounding effect of both boosting tourism-related development and stripping back the National Environment Service (NES) — alongside much else in the public sector. The NES lost its capacity to effectively assess and oversee the environmental impacts of new developments, and this played a major role in the pollution, erosion and degradation Muri Lagoon faces today.

Headquarters of the Cook Islands’ National Environment Service, on Rarotonga. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

Better business

As the tourism sector grows, islanders are turning away from traditional lifestyles in increasing numbers. “When tourism started getting really big a few years back, everybody wanted to go into business renting kayaks or whatever, and away from agriculture and fishing,” recalled former Ministry of Agriculture officer Brian Tairea.

In the last three decades, locals have also turned away from fishing because of the heightened risk of ciguatera, a disease caused by eating reef fish contaminated with toxins from a type of plankton called Gambierdiscus toxicus. “It’s perhaps saved the island from overfishing,” said Teina Rongo, who is the Cook Islands’ first doctorate-level marine biologist and director of the environmental NGO Kōrero O Te `Ōrau, “but the cost has been great. There’s a whole generation that didn’t learn how to fish. They don’t even want to eat fish; they haven’t acquired the taste.” As a result, most Cook Islanders’ livelihoods are now more dependent on tourist dollars than ever before. (Rongo’s included; he owns a tour boat company on the side.)

Marine biologist Teina Rongo and a student tie hooks onto traditional fishing rods known as takiri, part of a program to teach young Cook Islanders about the local environment and traditional culture. Image by Jackalyn Rongo / Kōrero O Te `Ōrau.

But soon, they may well have to collect those dollars in a more sustainable way. Under the 2017 Marae Moana Act, which designates the country’s entire exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as a multiple-use marine protected area, any new development must comply with Marae Moana’s overarching policy of protecting the biodiversity and heritage values of the marine environment.

But because Marae Moana is still in its infancy — and is subject to a whole range of competing interests — it’s as yet unclear how thoroughly that policy will be enforced. “Right now … development’s going way way ahead, and our access or means to support environment protection or conservation is lagging behind still,” said Maria Tuoro, coordinator at the environment ministry for the Cook Islands’ Ridge2Reef (R2R) program, a multi-country initiative spearheaded by the Global Environment Facility that focuses on holistic resource management and conservation.

A vivid-blue starfish (Linckia laevigata) in the waters of Rarotonga. Image courtesy of Rarotongan Beach Resort and Lagoonarium.

Tuoro seems to know what most people on the island are up to, and in her role at R2R, she’s putting the full force of her outgoing and staunch personality into pressuring tourism operators to live up to the sustainability street cred that Marae Moana has granted the country on the international stage. She and her team have convinced a number of tourism operators to offer reusable water canisters instead of single-use bottled water; gotten food outlets to switch to biodegradable straws and packaging; and corralled the organizers of the Muri Night Market, a popular dinner destination for tourists, into collaborating with the next-door primary school to rent out plates and cutlery to diners, thus avoiding their single-use plastic counterparts.

This year, R2R has also partnered with local NGO Te Ipukarea Society, the Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council, and the national tourism organization Cook Islands Tourism Corporation to develop and launch the Mana Tiaki Eco Certification scheme for tourism outfits. The idea is to motivate more operators to adopt sustainability standards on a range of elements such as waste management, water and sanitation, energy use, biodiversity and shoreline protection.

“It’s not like they’re brand new to thinking about the environment,” Tuoro said, “because if they didn’t have this particular environment, they wouldn’t have a business or products. But it can be hard to get them to value it enough to start acting differently.”

Supply and demand

Hidden in the hills of the Matavera district on the northeast side of the island, Ikurangi Eco Retreat provides an interesting prototype for what lower-impact tourism might look like. It was established with exactly that intention by Rarotongan-born Luana Scowcroft and her husband, Matt, in 2015. At Ikurangi, guests stay in “luxury safari tents” on untreated wooden platforms, use composting toilets, swim in the saltwater pool, and use the resort’s bicycles to travel around the island. “It’s all about having a small footprint, and still giving the guests a nice luxurious stay,” said expat New Zealander Alan Chrastecky, who bought the resort with his wife, Vicki Candish, earlier this year.

The word’s getting out about what they’re doing — particularly in the challenging area of waste management. Chrastecky described a recent visit from a local elder: “His house is in a wetland area, and he said that at certain times of the day all he can smell is septic tanks, because the ground is quite wet and nothing’s really dispersing. So he was coming round and going, ‘OK, show me your composting toilets and how they work.’”

Brian Tairea, a former officer with the Ministry of Agriculture who now works at the Maire Nui Gardens & Cafe. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

Tourists to Rarotonga are also beginning to seek out food that’s produced more sustainably. “People at the resorts, they want to know where their tomato is coming from,” said Tairea, who quit the Ministry of Agriculture in frustration at the government’s focus on industrial farming methods and now works as an organic gardener and sustainability educator at a local botanical garden. “Whereas before it was like, ‘a tomato is a tomato; who cares.’”

Teach them to fish

While some of the solutions to Rarotonga’s ecological problems might be found by following overseas examples, Rongo, the ciguatera expert, is adamant that the lion’s share can — and must — come from within. As in many Pacific Island states, the Cook Islands government has often been criticized for outsourcing problem-solving to expensive foreign consultants and companies — such as the engineering firm that designed Muri Lagoon’s offshore sewage outfall system — and bypassing community members’ needs, ideas and intimate knowledge of the land they’ve lived on for generations.

That’s why Kōrero O Te `Ōrau focuses on making sure future generations have the knowledge and skills to maintain and advocate for these islands as a haven for those who live there; not just those who fly in for a few days of warmth each winter. Helping kids reconnect with the land and sea is the highest priority. “If you understand and appreciate your environment, you will protect it,” Rongo said. “Right now, because we’re so disconnected, people don’t care what happens to it: ‘Go ahead and build a hotel there; we never use it anyway.’”

Cook Island students learn to fish with traditional rods. Image by Jackalyn Rongo / Kōrero O Te `Ōrau.

Kōrero O Te `Ōrau has begun working in schools and running holiday programs teaching children all about marine and terrestrial ecosystems, with a good dose of practical experience in the kinds of skills the previous generation grew up with. “We’re teaching kids to fish, catch a chicken, clean the chicken, go harvest their coconuts,” Rongo said. Planting gardens and weaving are also on the agenda.

“Then you don’t have to bring in a consultant to teach you,” he said wryly. “You all know how to do it.”

Kids play by a Rarotonga beach. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.
An anti-littering sign at a Rarotonga school. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

Monica Evans is a freelance writer based in Aotearoa New Zealand who specializes in environmental and community development issues. She has a master’s degree in development studies from Victoria University of Wellington. Find her at www.monicaevans.org.

Correction 9/25/19: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the travel company Cook Islands Tourism Corporation was a partner in launching the Mana Tiaki Eco Certification scheme, not the travel site TourismCookIslands.com. We regret the error.

Update 9/30/19: Four days after this article was published, the office of the Cook Islands’ prime minister announced that Maria Tuoro, project coordinator for Ridge2Reef,  would replace Jacqueline Evans as director of the Marae Moana Act’s coordination office, according to the Cook Islands News.

Correction 10/15/19: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation is the country’s national tourism organization, not a travel company. We regret the error.

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