Caritas visit to Cook Islands gains insights on environmental initiatives and impacts

WelCom October 2021 Martin de Jong, Advocacy Adviser, Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand Representatives from Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand visited the Cook Islands in July to ensure that effective health and…

WelCom October 2021

In Rarotonga (l-r): Te Ipukarea Society’s Senior Projects Officer Kate McKessar and Projects Officer Terena Koteka-Wiki, with Caritas Director Julianne Hickey. Photo: Caritas

Martin de Jong, Advocacy Adviser, Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand

Representatives from Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand visited the Cook Islands in July to ensure that effective health and safety processes were in place for Catholic Volunteers Overseas (CVOs) and to review areas of environmental and social interest.

The visit allowed Caritas Director Julianne Hickey and Executive Assistant Kate Go to support a new Caritas volunteer, Andy Doherty of Christchurch, settle into his assignment with the Rarotonga Diocese. Andy is the first Caritas volunteer under the Catholic Volunteers Overseas (CVO) to be placed since the outbreak of Covid-19. He is there are at the request of local Bishop Paul Donoghue sm.

The week-long visit was also an opportunity to gain insight firsthand on climate-change initiatives and the impact of the global pandemic on the Cook Islands, which to date has had no Covid-19 cases.

The visit included meetings with local Catholic parishes and schools, and appointments with the New Zealand High Commissioner and members of Te Ipukarea Society, a local environmental group.

Te Ipukarea facilitated connections with Caritas’ environmental advocacy work and monitoring issues in Oceania. The Caritas visitors shared copies of the Caritas State of the Environment for Oceania Reports with the groups they met with.

Te Ipukarea 

Te Ipukarea Society focuses on five main areas in the Cook Islands – waste management, biodiversity, youth, ecosystem development including sustainable tourism and climate change.

Te Ipukarea and Caritas share a common concern around the potential impact of deep-sea mining on ecosystems, food sources and local livelihoods – a topic that is widely debated in a number of Pacific Islands, including the Cook Islands, where the government is considering four licences for seabed mineral exploration.

The visit was an opportunity to see first-hand how some of the funds provided to mitigate climate change have been used in the Cook Islands. The Cook Islands had set a goal of achieving 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020. A large solar power farm, Te Mana o Te Ra, has been established near the airport in Rarotonga, as a joint project of Vector (NZ energy company), the Asian Development Bank, the Cook Islands government, and the Green Climate Fund of the United Nations.

Arorangi Jetty and the use of climate finance

Caritas noted its concern about New Zealand government climate finance being invested in a jetty at Arorangi on the western side of Rarotonga. It was built in 2012 as a ‘rough water’ alternative for cruise ships to the main Avarua Jetty. After the grounding in 2016 of a cruise ship’s support tender – ferrying passengers from the ship to the jetty – the local port authority wanted to improve the access channel. But the project has been delayed after an environmental impact assessment on the proposal in May 2019.

The future viability of the jetty remains uncertain. In its 2015 environment report, Caritas asked whether providing for commercial cruise-ship tourism was a valid allocation of climate finance. 

Labour shortages and Covid-19 impacts 

Although the Cook Islands have had no Covid-19 cases, the pandemic has heightened several challenges. Migration to New Zealand deprives the Cooks of many young and skilled workers. There are now approximately 90,000 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand and 30,000 in Australia but just 12,000 in the Cook Islands. When Covid-19 global impacts first hit [the tourist industry], the many hundreds of hospitality workers went home to the Philippines, Fiji and Indonesia, leaving resorts with insufficient staff when the bubble with New Zealand re-opened. 

Other challenges discussed during the Caritas visit included domestic violence, rehabilitation of prisoners, and disadvantages suffered by people with disabilities.