The sea is blue, beaches consist of golden sand, and palm trees are bent almost to the water surface. Underneath hardly detectable waves, marine life is fascinating and diverse. On hotel terraces, the coolness of coconut juice burns the refined throats of jet setters. Traditional huts rub shoulders with some of the most expensive resorts in the world. 500 US dollars would hardly sustain a couple for more than a day here and it is not meant to – this may be one of the most expensive parts of the world.
Welcome to Rarotonga – the main island of the "Cooks", a country covering a huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean. "Raro" may be the main island of the country, but the length of its coastal road is only a bit over 31km.
The Cook Islands, a former New Zealand colony, are the subdued English speaking answer to their Francophone neighbor and one of the most lavishly posh places on earth – French Polynesia.
With all that beauty, one would expect an enormous influx of foreigners, uncontrollable population growth, a local demographic explosion. But the opposite is true: the Cook Islands are losing people at an alarming rate. And despite the arrival of desperate migrant workers from Fiji, the Philippines and elsewhere (almost 300 were given permanent residency status this year), the total number of people living here is declining rapidly.
Between 2005 and 2007, according to statistics of the Ministry of Education of the Cook Islands), student enrollment in elementary schools decreased by 6%; by 20% since 1996; all as a result of migration.
There are now 60 thousand Cook Islanders living in New Zealand alone. The total population of the Cook Islands is only around 18,700, of which between 10 and 12 thousand live in Rarotonga.
"I can definitely understand why people are leaving", explained a painter Ani Exham-Dun who owns the small gallery Art@Air Raro – a Cook Islander who was born in New Zealand. "There is nothing they can do here. Another day a girl was caught painting graffiti on the wall in the capital. As a punishment, she was told to scrub graffiti off the wall. That’s what the government did, instead of thinking how to make the life of local young people at least a little bit more exciting."
Boredom is, of course, only one problem the Cook Islands have to struggle against. With luxury tourism becoming the main money earner, prices have skyrocketed. A small bag of cassava chips at the gas station now costs almost 4 NZ dollars (3.50 US dollars) while a milkshake sells for 7 or even 10. Food, like in the rest of the Pacific, is mostly imported from New Zealand or Australia and is exorbitantly expensive. But the local minimum wages are stagnating at 5 NZ dollars an hour.
"The Cook Islands are one of the best performing countries in the Pacific", explains Elisabeth Wright-Koteka, Director of Central Policy and Planning Office of the Prime Minister. "Our people want the same standards as New Zealand. But we do not have enough resources to satisfy them. Independence was both a blessing and curse. Blessing: because we have our own country and we have freedom of movement, which is guaranteed by the fact that all of us are in possession of New Zealand passports. If we wouldn’t have it, we would be just another Tarawa (in Kiribati) – overpopulated, stuffed and desperate. Curse: because now we don’t have enough people and we have to import workers from the Philippines and Fiji and even that is not enough to fill the gap."
The Cook Islands are not the only country that is exporting people to the richer nations in the area.
There are more Samoans and Tongans living abroad than at home. These two countries are sending young people to New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere, so they can support families at home. More than half the GDP of Tonga is covered by remittances and foreign aid, Samoa not being far behind. According to "Statistics New Zealand", in 2006, Samoans were the largest Pacific ethnic group in New Zealand, making up 131,100 or 49 percent of New Zealand Pacific population (265,974)." The entire population of (independent) Samoa is around 180,000. Over 50,000 Tongans live in New Zealand, further tens of thousands in Australia and the United States. 112,000 live in Tonga itself.
Needy people from some of the poorest nations in the Pacific – like PNG (Papua New Guinea) and Solomon Islands – find it difficult to obtain visas. Only the relatively well off and educated citizens can secure their trips to Australia, New Zealand or the United States, leading to brain drain.
Three Micronesian countries – Palau, RMI (Republic of Marshall Islands) and FSM (Federated States of Micronesia) – have a "Compact" agreement with the United States: a deal that brings foreign aid to government coffers, while allowing American military bases to be built on the territory of these nations. Citizens of Palau, FSM and RMI can travel to the US and settle there. They can also send their children to study. Many educated ones never come back. Some of the families from Kwajalein Atoll (where Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site (RTS) is located) that receive rent money from the US government never spend it in the Marshall Islands.
The 2006 ADB Study on Remittances in the Pacific states, "Migration is very significant in Pacific island states, especially in Polynesia, primarily as a response to uneven economic and social development. In many Pacific island countries, the remittances that flow from internal and international migrants to family members at home have been of growing importance, again especially in Polynesia where they often represent the single most prominent component of national income. They reach levels rarely found elsewhere in the world."
But in the Cook Islands, claims Elisabeth Wright-Koteka, migration is not necessarily about remittances. "It is different here than in many other island nations. It is not about escape from the culture like in Samoa or Tonga. It is not necessarily about money. We have a culture of migration. We are sailors. Our whole history is about movement. We used to be a colony of New Zealand and we used to send migrant seasonal workers. Migration became part of our culture, of growing up. Young people always like to go away and experience how it is to live in big cities, in "big smoke". Some come back. The biggest cohort of returnees is that of the people in their 40’s who managed to save money abroad and want to start their new life back in Cook Islands".
The Secretary of Education of the Cook Islands, John Herrmann would probably agree, but due to migration he is facing urgent problems: "I am struggling to find secondary school teachers", he explained at the meeting with UNESCO representatives. "Many of our teachers have left the country and we are increasingly relying on overseas teachers, particularly on those from New Zealand."
In fact, almost the entire country is now relying on foreign workers and professionals.
A skilled masseuse in one of the luxury resorts on Muri Beach turns out to be a university-educated economist from Suva, capital of Fiji. Although she doesn’t want to be identified, she is ready to assess the situation on conditions of anonymity: "There are more than 600 Fijians working in the Cook Islands. About one half are employed legally, the other half overstays. After the last military coup in Fiji, the situation is extremely bad. Families are breaking apart because they have no means to survive on meager salaries. We are forced to leave. But unlike the Cook Islanders, we have only our own (Fijian) passports and now we need visas to go almost anywhere. The Cook Islands are one of the best countries for us to work. There is almost no racism here, unlike elsewhere in Polynesia. People are very welcoming and compassionate. Wages are low for them, but excellent for us. Many Cook Islanders are leaving for Australia or New Zealand and there is always a demand for foreign workers. We are simply filling the gap."
It is obvious that the problem is becoming increasingly severe. The Pacific is losing people. Environmental refugees are pouring out of Tuvalu, which may be the first country to become uninhabitable due to global warming and the rising sea level. Kiribati is facing the same problem, plus overpopulation and social malaise. And the same can be said about the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) with some of the worst ecological and demographic problems anywhere in the world (mainly as a result of the US nuclear experiments and present day missile range on Kwajalein Atoll).
Social destitution and racial intolerance in the larger Melanesian countries (PNG, Solomon Islands and Fiji) are sending tens of thousands of people to distant shores, in search of better living or simply survival.
And Polynesia, that eternal paradise once immortalized on the canvases of Gauguin, is not doing much better than the rest of the Pacific. Riots in Tonga, child abuse and feudal oppression in Samoa.
"I left the Cook Islands and went to New Zealand", recalls Elisabeth Wright-Koteka. "But I decided to return. I simply like to be here. I like my job, my house. I would like my kids to grow up here. To be a Cook Islander… What is it, really? Maybe a sense of belonging, something we carry inside. It is abstract. We are like Parrotfish from a long reef – a fish that travels the world but always finds its way home. But coming back doesn’t mean that we stay in one place forever. Maybe our lot is exactly that: a movement between the wide world and the reef."
As she speaks, a light breeze begins to penetrate the tropical heat. It is suddenly easier to breath. But the water of the Pacific is slowly rising while there are more and more people boarding planes with a one-way ticket that will take them far away from the palm trees, transparent water and quiet nights of unspeakable Polynesian beauty.
ANDRE VLTCHEK – novelist, journalist, filmmaker and playwright. Co-founder of Mainstay Press publishing house for political fiction and LibLit. His latest novel – Point of No Return – tells the story of war correspondent covering New World Order conflicts. He lives in Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at [email protected]