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Mangaia: ‘We’ll always be here’

Thursday August 29, 2019 Written by Published in Weekend
Weaver Teremoana: “I make them to sell ... I sell it at the front of my house.” 19082808 Weaver Teremoana: “I make them to sell ... I sell it at the front of my house.” 19082808

They say Mangaia is the oldest island in the Pacific at 18 million years. But with no doctors, its schools closing and its population dropping like a rock, the stoic remaining islanders are seeking bold new solutions. Photographer Fe’ena Syme Buchanan spent time documenting their lives for a successful New Zealand exhibition.


Mangaia is the second largest and most southerly island of the Cook Islands. It’s an island whose name became synonymous with pineapples – the sweetest tasting varieties once being the main export and revenue generator for her people in the 70’s through to the 80’s. But no more.

Like more than a thousand people, the once flourishing pineapple industry ceased its presence on the island – the industry stopped and people left.

For many from the outside, life would be considered too mundane, too slow, too repetitive. Since the pineapple industry’s crash in the 1980’s, the island economy was further wounded by the 1996 national recession. These events have helped shape the island’s recent society quite dramatically.

The island flourished in the 70s. At the height of its population in 1971, that year is still the only time in 114 years that there were more than two thousand people living on Mangaia.

It was during this time when the pineapple industry had reached its pinnacle. The island was blanketed in fields of pineapples. Whole families were entirely dedicated to working rows upon rows of the prickly fruit on their own land. It was a good time.

Once harvested, ships called in regularly and tens of thousands of wooden boxes of pineapples were shipped to Rarotonga to Island Foods factory. Processed and canned, the Mangaia produce then made its way by sea to New Zealand.

Mangaia School principal Mike Papatua recalls that this “was the livelihood of our people back in the olden days. When families lived in homes by their plantations, and you would see them working in their taro patches.

“You can still see this in the evenings, locals tending to their crops, gardens and plantations in the cooler time of the day. It is interesting how the lack of employment and low wages has somewhat preserved the way of living from almost 70 years ago… just with a few modern conveniences.”

Almost overnight the pineapple industry collapsed thanks to a government decision to change factory ownership, poor management, lack of shipping and lack of payment to growers.

Mangaian families watched in despair their months and months of hard work rot away in crates on Tavaenga Wharf as pineapple exports waited in vain for ships to come.

Then a few short years later, Mangaia (and the rest of the Cook Islands) was again hit hard by the economic recession. Government workers lost jobs in a “retrenchment” programme or had their salaries cut to one-third. And so, it was mostly the most dynamic, productive sector of society that opted to leave the island.

But resilience and the island’s own abundance saw those that remain survive well off the land and sea.

As local high chief Kavana Daddy Mouriaiti puts it, “you can live over here even though you don’t have an income. You just survive. But the people overseas, no they can’t survive.” He says some locals are becoming more entrepreneurial expanding agricultural practices and dipping into tourism.

As leading businessman Aberahama Pokino says, “you don’t totally live on wages, you have to go out and do other things as well to support your family, like planting and fishing.

“You subsidise by going fishing and harvesting food from your plantation. That’s what life is like in the outer islands.”

Local resident Sam Samuela goes further, saying “you can survive on the island without money.”

Mike Papatua. “The economic bond of this island is agriculture ... it’s the backbone of this island.”

Lots of locals agree, saying Mangaia could potentially become the food basket for main island Rarotonga which struggles to grow enough to feed its own resident population of around 10,700 as well as 156,000 tourists (and increasing) a year.

So, after the highs of the 1970s, just under 500 people live permanently on Mangaia today. At 51.8 square kilometres, Mangaia’s tiny population is even more obvious – so few people living on a large island with seemingly endless arable land blessed with rich soil. Almost eerie is how one can drive for miles in the splendour of the island’s interior and not see another soul for a long time. Hours even.

The consequences of depopulation are many, some more obvious than others, like the effect on education. Two primary schools closed in the last 10 years.

The islands’ school children now attend Mangaia School up to Year 12.

Without a spending population, and tourism that barely registers a blip on the economic scale, business development is, to put it mildly, at snail pace. There are just three stores to purchase basic necessities.

Market Day is once a week on Friday mornings – pre-cooked food makes the best sales. Fried chicken on Friday morning. Limited vegetable exports to Rarotonga outlets are made by some farmers during winter.

The island is over-run by contented, mild mannered goats, but goat meat can’t be exported to established retailers in Rarotonga without a properly-operated abattoir and health certification.

Youth activities are all church-connected and some lament over the lack of things to do, but acknowledge that with few young people, fielding full sports teams can often be challenging.

Mangaians know their island is continuously losing people, a constant outward dribble that sees the departure of younger ones who would normally work the plantations, fish and raise livestock.

Social welfare statistics point to the most beneficiaries being 103 senior citizens on the Old Age Benefit and 91 children under the age of 16 receiving the Child Benefit. The latter figure keeps dropping. It is less than half what it was a decade ago with 185 children collecting the Child Benefit at the time.

“Before on a Saturday afternoon it used to be noisy, then all of a sudden a few years later there’s none of that,” says Aberahama Pokino, fondly known as Babe.  

“We can’t even get a rugby team because there isn't enough people to make a team. You can’t get a netball team, because there’s not enough girls.”

It was with some nostalgia that 23-year old local Keanu Atariki blamed the departure of several in his peer group on “most of them left to see the big shiny lights.”

Keanu feels no urge to be dazzled by those same bright lights, preferring weekend drinks at an informal local homebrew club, spearfishing with his mates and his government job with Infrastructure Cook Islands.

One day the young man could be driving a front-end loader; the next helping collects household garbage or helping in the islands’ quarry.

An uncomplicated life on a spectacular island reported to be the oldest in the Pacific at 18 million years.

In the Cook Islands, land is of paramount importance. On main island Rarotonga where land is becoming increasingly scarce, the Land Court and Justice Ministry are consistently on over-drive processing applications for leases and occupation rights. 

What is interesting about Mangaia is their own traditional land tenure system. It is not managed by the Ministry of Justice nor do Land Court judges decide the fate of land. In Mangaia, that responsibility lies solely with each of the six district Kavana – Kavana being a word coined from the English “governor”.

The traditional name of the district high chief is Pava and the traditional land tenure system keeps land matters dignified, family feuds at a minimum and decisions made in consultation for the greater good.

In a world of debt and mortgages, the people of Mangaia are quite astonishingly virtually debt free.

Pokino explains: “Mangaia is one of those islands where people are not allowed to borrow big amounts of money from the bank, because of our land system, we can’t use land as security.”

Thus no one has big debts to repay. There are no mortgagee sales, vehicle repossessions are rare and above all, the land is safe from being seized and on-sold by banks.

Some residents believe this may be reason why the local community seems entirely free of financial pressure, because “people are ok, people are not struggling”, affirms Pokino.

Aside from this rather carefree attitude, there is an unfortunate reality within the community. Education has taken quite a whipping from depopulation, and Mangaia School is now confronted by a couple of major issues.

First, the loss of a critical $10,000 from its annual budget, because of the drop in the school role. “The school role formulae is what controls our budget. More students more money, less students less money,” says principal Papatua.

Without Year 13 classes, aspiring students have to move to Rarotonga.

This has brought its own second set of issues with high achieving students moving from Mangaia to Rarotonga to continue with senior classes only to drop out of school.

“One of the main reasons being because they don't have a good home to stay in and there’s not enough support. Whether it’s financial or otherwise, in Rarotonga,” relates Tuaine Tuara, the broker of the Mangaia Cook Islands Tertiary Training Institute (CITTI).

Tuara adds that adequate support is needed in order to encourage and nurture a student's learning and growth. There are the few “lucky ones” who are fortunate enough to receive the support they need – and thus flourish into outstanding high school graduates, she says.

What about the students who do not travel to Rarotonga or further, or who return to Mangaia without graduating?

The school responded to this dilemma with typical Mangaian stoicism which is producing good results. Offering those students an opportunity to further their studies at home.

This is all possible with the CITTI classes and vocational workshops available at the school.

As Mike Papatua puts it, “...we're sending our kids overseas to work in another environment. When we’re supposed to educate our kids to work here and meet the needs of the island. The current curriculum we have is destined for overseas. Kids travel for employment; kids travel over for studies.” 

Rod Dixon, the former head of University of the South Pacific in Rarotonga, adds to that thinking outside the square, saying, “we need to change the school curriculum so that success isn’t seen to be something you can achieve only in New Zealand, it is something that can be achieved here in the Cook Islands. So that success is considered in regional terms, not European.”

Papatua says the availability of vocational classes and their purpose for the students of Mangaia gives young one’s options.

“They will give kids the opportunity to study and learn here, especially with the availability of USP on the island.”

Rather than denying their students the opportunity of travelling overseas or students being forced to have to travel abroad for further education, they can now remain home.

“All have the option to study at tertiary level through USP and, other than to catch fish for dinner, do not need to travel over the reef.”

Keeping the mapu (young ones) home and gainfully employed and/or learning is high priority.

Papatua is enthusiastic over the expansion of Mangaia’s a trade facility tutored entirely by locals. “Open to the community, anybody can come in to run trade skill programmes; carpentry, automobile, plumbing.”

Book-keeping, carving, food preservation and so forth are now repeat courses because of “local interest and needs.”

“Our plan was, when they (school kids) move out of the school system, they have the qualifications to work on the island ... to use the vocational programme to meet the needs of the island.”

Mike Papatua, with the help of colleagues and the Ministry of Education, have created some answers to try and adapt to Mangaia’s depopulation challenges and still fulfil the demands of a tiny island community.

Since 2016, the outer islands of the Cooks group (excluding Aitutaki) have no longer been serviced by resident doctors or dentists. Doctors do not make regular visits to the outer islands.

A nurse practitioner runs the local hospitals and treats patients. Some Mangaia locals attribute the removal of qualified doctors and dentists, to the shrinking population – basically not enough people to warrant two fulltime health professionals. Health issues force some older citizens to leave.

“There are now no doctors, no dentists, no medicines,” says Rod Dixon. “People are getting weak and sick, but that’s not quantifiable.

“For those living with medical conditions and issues, living in Mangaia isn’t an option. It is complete hypocrisy, as the government says we have to protect the outer islands and at the same time slugs them.”

Without sufficient health services, employment benefits, and education funding, it encourages the community of Mangaia to move away from reliance on the government, says Dixon.

Alicia Ryan and her Mangaian husband Sonny returned to Mangaia to live permanently three years ago. That plan has been shelved indefinitely – Sonny needs hip replacement and that’s meant reluctantly shifting back to Australia.

Alicia Ryan is bitter about having to leave Mangaia, saying for the island not to have a resident doctor is unconstitutional.

“They (government) are really treating the outer islands people like second class citizens.” Many locals believe the hope of Mangaia’s economy being revitalised lies primarily with boosting agriculture and potentially tourism.

The belief is that Mangaia, with so much available fertile planting land, can become the leading producer of the southern Cook Islands. Some orchards are being started by Rarotonga-based farmers with Mangaia heritage – exotic fruit, vegetables normally imported from New Zealand to feed the insatiable Rarotonga market.

It’s the consistency of supply, transportation and ultimately, availability of workers that will be the big hurdles.

Like others, Kavana Daddy leans towards agriculture, “Mangaia is not really for tourism … we over here on Mangaia don’t have any infrastructure. We have to utilise the land just sitting wild here – overgrown with trees and shrubs. It should be planted with something and exported.”

Principal Papatua reaffirms, “I still believe the economic bond of this island is agriculture. We gotta go back to it if agriculture is to thrive, pineapples may not be the answer.”

Tuaine Tuara believes gone is the time of relying on the government to create jobs for the community, the opportunities are in agriculture and being enterprising.

“If somebody says to me there’s no opportunity here, I will flatly say, no you’re wrong.

“Because there’s heaps of opportunities here. But in order for people to begin seeking these opportunities, the community must band together to create a solution in response to depopulation.”

Once bustling with a booming export product, Mangaia today is quiet, sleepy and pretty much uneventful. As expected, people left because of the economic decline.

Pokino, Papatua, Tuara, Dixon and others are some of the movers and shakers who believe the answers to Mangaia’s problems must come from within the island community itself – not thought up by policy makers in Rarotonga who don’t know first-hand the hurdles confronting the island.

Dixon says, “I don’t think it would be wise to look to the government for a solution, it would be wiser to look to the community for it.”

Mangaia is unique with a special set of problems. Those who steadfastly remain on the island keep the home fires burning and the small community thriving.

As one Mangaian said, “although there may not be many of us, some of us, the best of us, will always be here.”

Most of my days were spent exploring this mysterious, wonderful island. Driving slowly through quiet villages, stopping to take photographs and moving on.

During one of those excursions, something caught my eye. It wasn’t the derelict buildings, but a handsome, mature woman comfortably perched on the step of her front door, quietly weaving a pandanus hat.

I felt immediately drawn to her. I approached her gently, introduced myself and asked for permission if I could sit with her, and take a few photos. I was grateful for the opportunity to share her front step.

“What is your name?”


“What are you making these hats for?”

“I make them to sell”

“Ae, and do you sell them at the Friday morning market?”

“Kare, I don’t sell there because there’s already plenty people selling. I sell it at the front of my house.”

We chatted for a little while before I carried on with my exploring. I really enjoyed this quiet moment, watching Teremoana’s skillful hands. I hope her hats are selling well.

Authors note: Mangaia’s ancient name is Au’au Enua 

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