COOK ISLANDS GOVERNMENT WILL REGISTER ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand (May 24, 2000 – Cook Islands Star)---Non Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) with an environmental agenda are on the warpath in Cook Islands as it becomes clear that the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Prime Minister Norman George, is dead serious that all environmental groups will have to register with government to maintain their credibility. And this controversy is taking place alongside growing complaints by the same groups over the draft of a new Environmental Act. And if that were not enough, one high profile environmentalist has been told to catch the next plane out by a traditional Cook Islands leader. DPM George introduced the registration idea just a few weeks ago as a simple way of keeping tabs on what can be a confusing number of NGO’s that define themselves as primarily guardians of the environment. Taken as a whole, these NGO's will be drawing down and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each year funding their causes. Most of such money will be coming from offshore, some from local fund raising, some from government. Most of the overseas money will be coming from the plethora of regional and international aid agencies that pump millions into the third world. And a significant number of those agencies, before they cut a check, will ask the Cook Islands Government for assurance that the NGO with its hand out is legit and not just a couple people who have registered an association in hopes of some free computers and trips abroad.

DIRE WARNINGS

But the DPM's announcement was met with dire warnings that freedom itself was at stake if these NGO's had to register with anyone, much less government. They saw it, and continue to see it, as some sinister plot to control who can speak for the environment, alluding to some form of police state in which those NGO's who do not support government's own environmental view would be banned. Even when government made it clear that registration was a totally voluntary exercise, the NGO's were still not listening. For while no one would be forced to register, only those whose names appeared on the register would be recognized by government. And thus in most cases the registered NGO's would be the only ones who would pass the test of the donor agencies who automatically ask government before writing those checks. One outspoken NGO spokesperson told CIStar, "It's about as voluntary as blackmail. We either sign up or we lose our funding sources. Well, we won't be bullied. We believe that most, if not all, funding agencies will not want to be part of a (Ed: alleged) blackmail scheme and will simply ask someone other than government to verify an NGO's legitimacy. This could be a diplomatic post, a bank, an accountant or such."

UPDATING THE ACT

While this debate rages, our lawmakers back home are in the middle of updating the Environmental Act that everyone admits is full of loopholes. One loophole is so big, according to the same outspoken NGO, that, "not only could you drive a truck through it you could drive the outer islands through it." The person is of course speaking of the fact that the current Act applies only to Rarotonga. That fact has caused years of outrage and complaint by the environmental NGO's when islands such as Aitutaki engage in activities that would be illegal on Rarotonga. The NGO's are complaining that by the time they saw a draft of the new Act, it was so far down the road that it was clear that no one really wanted their input after all.

VOCAL NGO

The one group that makes the biggest splash in the environmental lake is two-year-old Rarotonga Environmental Awareness Program (REAP), fronted by American Bruce Gray, formerly of Honolulu. Gray, who will explain to listeners that he has been a spin-doctor for the likes of former California Governor Jerry Brown, is known to have a way with funding agencies such as Canada Fund. This and other overseas aid makes it possible for REAP to maintain a high profile in print media as well as radio and television. And it is this high profile that has over the last two years caused more than a few unhappy Cook Islanders to ask just who does Gray think he is. And of the people who recognize Gray's name, there are few neutral opinions. Supporters will tell you he is the watchdog keeping the Environmental Service from falling asleep at the wheel. Detractors will tell you he is an interfering colonialist who is a "know-it-all" and who, after two years in Cook Islands, still cannot pronounce the word 'Rarotonga' as well as most tourists. His twangy American accent just can't seem to get around the local language.

HISTORY OF BATTLES

While Gray has had his public battles with former Environmental Council Chairman Puai Wichman and Environment Service's Io Lindsay Tuakeu, his most recent skirmish has targeted not so much the environmental bureaucracy as the traditional leaders and Vaka Councils on Rarotonga. Recent foreshore construction projects on Rarotonga have seen Gray pushing his case with extraordinary in-your-face attacks on local leaders who believe they are acting in the best interest of their villages. The work involves the placing of large stones to protect banks that are in danger of undermining the main road on Rarotonga by wave action. While there are two sides to every issue, and how we manage our beaches back home is certainly up for hot discussion, traditional leaders appear to be upset not so much with the debate but with Gray's approach. Gray complained that the work being carried out was allegedly illegal, but this apparently fell on deaf ears. So Gray had his solicitor threaten legal action, not so smart a move it turns out. Last week a letter to the editor of the daily newspaper back home suggested that the Canada Fund was financing Gray's personal agenda, that he was in it, "for the money", and that he should be packing up to catch the next plane out of Cook Islands. While there have been gentler, mostly anonymous letters in past suggesting the same, this explicit letter came from a traditional leader who signed his name. Gray didn't answer the letter but a series of items in the local paper since then, touting REAP's achievements, suggest that someone has been busy writing press releases as a damage control measure. So, for the moment at least, the media wars back in the islands have been replaced with the NGO wars and show no early sign of ending.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands Star, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands Star.

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