Thursday, December 24, 2009

Life on an Outer Island

The Mitiaro coastline.

In early December Communications Advisor Pip Robertson and NZAID Manager Julie Affleck visited two outer islands in the southern Cook Islands. They accompanied Cook Islands government officials and a team of engineers from Beca International who were working on designs for two harbour upgrades, which NZAID is funding. Pip shares her impressions of Mitiaro, one of these islands.

Flying over the Mitiaro and coming in to land, the view from the aeroplane window is startling. The island is tiny - just 6km across at its widest point - and ringed by a wide coral reef. The terrain is extremely flat and there is only a scattering of buildings on the south coast, where the population of less than 200 people live.

In these main village areas, brilliant orange pumarumaru and fragrant tipani (frangipani) trees line the streets laid with crushed white coral. Gardens are well-tended and rubbish non-existent. Inland, communal village plantations yield kumara, taro, corn, bananas and watermelons all produced without pesticides or fertilizers. As a visitor it would be easy to idealise life on Mitiaro, but there are serious issues Mitiaro residents face in their everyday lives.
A church, Mitiaro.
Mitiaro is 50 minutes by air from Rarotonga, with flights scheduled just twice a week. This provides a supply link, but the vast majority of goods (including fuel for the island's generators and all imported food) are transported to the island by a cargo ship that docks in the open sea. A barge then ferries goods from the ship to the shore via Mitiaro's harbour. This harbour is really just a channel through the reef to an excavated area and dock where goods can be unloaded. Weeks, and sometimes months, pass between the cargo ship visits and because conditions can be treacherous in this small channel, the ship sometimes returns to Rarotonga without the cargo having been unloaded.

Making the harbour safer and therefore more efficient was the main purpose of the visit to the island. The team of engineers from Beca were there to gather information to redesign and upgrade Mitiaro harbour as well as the harbour in Mauke, another of the outer islands east of Rarotonga. Both harbour projects are funded by NZAID.

The Beca engineers did a lot of technical work on the islands: measuring water depth, observing wave patterns and the condition of the sea bed, and testing the strength of the existing rock and coral to ascertain how best to design the harbour. They also investigated materials that exist on the island that could be used as the aegrogat to make concrete from, reducing the need to import materials from Rarotonga.

However, the engineers’ trip was not just about materials and measurement. Equally important was meeting with the community who use the harbour and gaining information from their long term experience of the sea conditions. This was also a chance for the community to talk about their priorities. Consultative meetings were held where plans were laid on the table and the costs and implications of different design aspects were discussed. The Beca engineers consult with the community in Mitiaro.

Richard Frankland, the lead engineer in the Beca team, stressed how important this was. “Hearing this local knowledge and having the time to observe the harbour is what makes coming here worthwhile. We’ve learned so much from being here; we couldn’t have designed this harbour just sitting in our office in Auckland.”

Safer, more efficient cargo transport will be a significant improvement for people in Mitiaro, but one of the other major problems the island faces is more complex. Decreasing population is a key issue of concern, compounding and compounded by the lack of employment opportunities. Most of the resident population is made up of school children and elderly people. The majority of adults on the island of working age are employed by the government, for example as teachers and infrastructure workers. Agriculture and fishing provide other informal occupations.

Unlike Rarotonga and Aitutaki, tourism in the conventional sense doesn't exist on Mitiaro, with only a handful of tourists visiting a year. However, the population more than doubles in the summer months as hundreds of relatives return to Mitiaro. Locals indicated that this is a time of economic opportunity for the island. Even though most of the visitors are family, there is still demand for food and accommodation while they are on the island, and for local crafts to take away as souvenirs.

But even within the resident population there are business opportunities, particularly for goods that are inconvenient to import from Rarotonga. In March 2009 Makara Murare opened a bakery with the support of an Outer Islands Development Grant, a Business Trade and Investment Board scheme that AusAID/NZAID has supported. In the scheme the business owner provides 70 percent of the funding and the grant provides 30 percent. In the nine months the bakery has been open Makara has gone from baking three days a week to baking six or seven days and trebled the amount of bread he bakes each day. His bakery is so popular that the store on Mitiaro no longer stocks bread, which was previously imported from Rarotonga and cost $7 loaf. There are possibilities that the business will be able to employ people - and this kind of venture is needed on the island, as so many people leave for employment.

At a Mitiaro Women's Council meeting I asked how many people present had lived on Mitiaro all their lives. Everyone in the room raised their hand. On further questioning, I found out that almost all of them had spent time away: living and working on Rarotonga and other islands, or in New Zealand or Australia. One woman explained that she had spent 14 years in Rarotonga working as a teacher, but saw no incompatibility with this fact and with expressing that she had lived in Mitiaro all her life. It may be semantics, but it does reinforce the deep-seated connectedness, pride, and loyalty that local residents obviously feel for their island.

This is in part because of how close-knit Mitiaro is. There is a tangible sense of community, centred around church activities and the island council. And, inevitably in such a small place, there are multiple connections between people. Even as visitors, after a couple of days most faces on the island were familiar, and we were drawing the links between families.
The senior class at Mitiaro School.
The connection Mitiaro residents have with their home is not limited to older generations. We visited Mitiaro School, which was refurbished last year by the Ministry of Education with the support of AusAID/NZAID. Speaking to a group of senior students at the high school, their love of Mitiaro was clear. Some had ambitions - to be an accountant, to be a pilot - that would unavoidably take them away from Mitiaro but most of the students wanted to remain on the island if employment allowed. Finding those opportunities will be an ongoing challenge.

Many of the things that I found so unusual about the lives of the residents of Mitiaro - its tiny land area and close-knit population - are, of course, entirely subjective. Julie asked the class of senior students what they liked most about returning to Mitiaro after being away, and one of the students seemed to speak for them all.

"Just coming back here," he said, and smiled and shrugged as if that answer were obvious. "Coming back to normal life."
Mitiaro residents prepare to go out fishing.

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