Main languages: Cook Islands Māori, English
Main religions: Christianity (mainly Cook Islands Christian Church)
According to the 2016 census, there were 17,459 people in the Cook Islands on census night. However, that number includes both residents and non-residents (mainly tourists). This represented a slight decrease of two per cent compared with the population in 2011.
Cook Islanders are indigenous Polynesians. Other than a small number of contract workers, mainly from New Zealand and more recently from Fiji working in the tourism industry, there are no minority groups in the Cook Islands.
Numbering just 17,000, more than half of the Cook Islander population now live on the main island of Rarotonga, and most other islands have declining populations. Over half of all Cook Islanders live overseas, mostly in New Zealand, and the present national population is steadily falling due to lower birth rates and emigration in search of employment. This is accompanied by significant internal migration from outlying islands to Rarotonga. A significant number of foreign workers have reportedly immigrated to fill the ensuing labour shortages.
Climate change impacts, in the form of higher temperatures, rising sea levels and ocean acidification, also pose a serious threat to traditional livelihoods such as fishing and agriculture. Previously common species of fish have declined in numbers or even become locally extinct. Many families have long planted fresh water taro, but rising sea levels have caused salt water incursion in the soil and endangered this food supply.
In July 2017, the Cook Islands government established the vast Marae Moana (‘sacred ocean’) ocean reserve, comprising 700,000 square miles of sea. The reserve is intended to protect local fisheries from over-fishing by foreign commercial fleets. It should also mitigate against the impact of climate change by protecting coral reefs.
As is true elsewhere in the Oceania region, violence against women and children is a significant issue in the Cook Islands. While the number of reported cases of domestic violence dropped from 185 in 2016 to 170 in 2017, the police and activists are worried that violence against women and children remains deeply ingrained in Cook Islands culture. In December 2017, the police instituted a new ‘no drop’ policy, whereby any complaint would be followed up – regardless of whether a victim came under family pressure to drop a claim. While working to support victims, activists note that more needs to be done to rehabilitate repeat offenders, who may not be getting the help that they need for mental health and other issues.
The fifteen Cook Islands, the northern group of which are coral atolls and the southern group are of volcanic origin, have a small population spread over an area of more than a million square kilometres. The islands are particularly prone to cyclones.
The Cook Islands had been settled for many centuries by Polynesians from what is now French Polynesia, Samoa, Tonga and elsewhere before the first European contact in the sixteenth century. According to local tradition, the first arrivals from what is now French Polynesia occurred around 800 CE. This is backed up by archaeological evidence suggesting that an ancient road, the Ara metua on Rarotonga, dates back 1,200 years.
The first contact with Europeans occurred in 1595 when Pukapuka was sighted by the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendaña. The first landing, again by Spaniards, occurred in 1606. The British arrived in the area in 1764, and Captain James Cook explored the southern islands between 1773 and 1779. Contact with Europeans was limited until the arrival of British missionaries in the early nineteenth century. Exposure to disease led to a drastic drop in the islands’ population, from an estimated 6-7,000 in the middle of the nineteenth century to fewer than 2,000. The outer islands were also targeted by Peruvian slave-raiders; most of those who were kidnapped did not return.
During the 1870’s, the islands prospered under the rule of Queen Makea (Makea Takau). Fears of an imminent French invasion grew steadily following the invasion of Tahiti in 1843 and resulted in the Cook Islands eventually becoming a British protectorate in 1888 before being annexed by New Zealand in 1900.
The Cook Islands have been self-governing in free association with New Zealand since 1965. They are not a member of the United Nations, although in 1995 they sought membership, but largely to make and implement their own foreign policy. Already in the 1980’s, the Cook Islands joined several UN specialised agencies. In 2017, the government announced a renewed push to join the UN, although the New Zealand government warned that Cook Islanders risked losing New Zealand citizenship if that were to happen. Despite the significance of tourism, the economy is largely supported by New Zealand aid and also by remittances, but government deficits have been common.
Cook Islands has a Parliament of 24 seats, and political parties are of some importance though not distinguished by ideology. Politicians frequently change parties and allegiances and governments rarely last long. The upper House of Ariki (hereditary chiefs) has advisory powers only but some influence in cultural affairs. Islands have island councils and local vaka (district) councils.
Governments have changed frequently in recent years. Despite some occasional concerns over limits to sovereignty, the Cook Islanders have not sought full independence (preferring substantial aid from, and freedom of migration to, New Zealand).
Punanga Tauturu Women’s Counselling Centre
Updated March 2018
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