The future of the Cook Islands and its people is in the ocean that surrounds us, prime minister Henry Puna believes.
And, Puna says, the viability of the country’s biggest industry – tourism – depends upon protecting our surrounding ocean and environment.
“I think it is important that we impose standards to ensure that the future generations can enjoy the same beauty of the ocean that we do today.
“I am always mindful that we are basically custodians of the environment for the sake of future generations.”
The prime minister says his government has a plan, a national vision, and at the moment that is based on the fact that our major earner is tourism.
“Well, really, there is not a lot else in the Cooks.
“We have tourism, but tourists don’t want to come to an island that is exploited. So it’s a very good move for the Cooks to protect our waters and do it sensibly.
“We want … and I think that it is smart of us … to make a point of difference with the other destinations.
“And in keeping with our environmental consciousness, we have decided that we are going to make this little country very clean and green because I believe that is how the world is moving.
“The world is very conscious about the environment now. Tourists want to go somewhere clean, not to a place that is just preaching about being clean and green – but actually practising it.
“That is our national vision.”
And Puna says the idea of setting up the Marae Moana Maritime Park was to be able to control what happens in the ocean around the Cook Islands.
“The reality is, our country is a country that was bought up on conservation. Our ancestors they practised conservation in their lives.
“We planted crops by the moon phases. We went fishing by the moon phases and by the tides. So when you really look at it closely, our existence is related to nature.
“I guess in terms of our marine resources, we were in a situation where we had to just take enough for the family, or for the tribe, on any particular day because there were no refrigerators in those days.
“But it was a real advantage, it taught us conservation. When we go fishing, we only take enough for the day or for the weekend. That has sort of been passed on to us through generation after generation.
“When we decided to make conservation a policy issue for government, it just awakened a consciousness about conservation in our people.
“When we started talking about conserving our ocean, it was simplified by the fact that our traditional leaders bought into it. They saw it as a very important role to be involved with government and they in fact took the idea to our communities.
“We are where we are today because of that close partnership between the traditional leaders and the government and our people. That is something that I haven’t seen replicated or reflected elsewhere in the world.”
The prime minister says: “That’s what is unique about our conservation here. It is an all-community initiative.”
He says he was immensely proud of the recognition given to the Cook Islands by Conservation International when the organisation invited to last year’s Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, to tell the world “why we are where we are with our conservation efforts with our ocean”.
“It is amazing. It is something that I am really proud of.”
And does the prime minister feel like he jumped the gun on the Marae Moana exclusion zones by announcing a 50 nautical mile limit so far in advance of Cabinet approving the distance?
“No, in fact, as early as two years ago we spoke about this issue in Cabinet.
“My chief of staff at the time, Elizabeth Wright-Koteka, was going to an oceans conference sponsored by the US Secretary of State then in Washington and Kevin Iro, who is the architect of Marae Moana, was one of the two going.
“They wanted something big. A big announcement to make and we were talking about this idea of taking the idea of the territorial seas from 12 to 50 nautical miles.
“So we actually endorsed that idea and we authorised these two to announce it. That announcement was made and then subsequent to that the traditional chiefs went around consulting with our communities about this idea of an exclusion zone around each island.
“Cabinet had already thought about it and we wanted to ensure that our people were happy with the marine park idea and also give them assurance that there will be protection for their livelihoods in the ocean and what better way to do that there can be no outside or commercial activities within that particular zone?”
The prime minister says that at times there was vigorous debate over the exclusion zones.
“Of course the Ministry of Marine Resources was keen to protect their sector and they argued for 24 nautical miles.
“I believe we gave everybody a fair go, in terms of putting their case forward. We actually invited Jacqui Evans, on behalf of the environmental lobby, to come in and put the case for the environmental groups and then Ben Ponia from Marine Resources to put their side.
“Sometimes it is a difficult exercise, because governments sometimes have to make an unpopular decision.
“It is never lost in me that our task is to govern and make the best possible decision for the country at any given time.”
Puna says: “It is not to say that it will be set in stone … circumstances might change, but we need to be flexible.”
One of the reasons behind creating the marine area, he says, is to ensure that “when it comes time to explore or to harvest, that we do so to the highest possible environmental standards”.
“I believe that is absolutely critical. We are not going to just rush in and explore like cowboys!”
By Richard Moore for Cook Islands News, 9 May 2017