The Cook Islands Herald

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Dec. 29) – With depopulation occurring at an alarming rate in the outer islands, have we reached the point of no return? That is, the point where no matter what initiatives, assistance, incentives or enterprise is applied, it is too late to stop the outward flow of people.

Most concerning and frightening is the situation in Penrhyn with the Grubnau pearl enterprise being slowly wound down after Lillian Grubnau had invested over $5 million in establishing her pearl business which employed not only locals but Fijians and others. Opposition from other locals in Penrhyn also presented her with some difficult moments. Penrhyn’s population was reported by the most recent Census (2006) to have dropped to 250 people. Since that announcement, anecdotal evidence is that the population is now down to about 200 people.

The latest pearl harvest in Manihiki was not as hoped and the pearl authority has a hard task ahead of it. Manihiki’s population like Penrhyn, has suffered greatly. It has now dropped to about 300 people.

Government for its part needs to demonstrate greater concern. The DPM has recently reaffirmed his support for outer islands development. Government’s approach appears to be fixed on securing a long term future through infrastructure upgrading but at the same time it is rather hopeful to expect people who have already waited a long time for such improvements, to sit tight for another five years. People on the outer islands have real and immediate concerns in respect of clean water, sanitation, costs of goods and transport. These are matters that can be fixed relatively quickly so why hasn’t that occurred? Government must address that question.

The DPM has indicated concern at the time it is taking aid funded projects to be initiated and completed. This concern over timing however, has been around for several years and it is a situation within government’s ability to address.

Can private industry based development halt depopulation of the outer islands? Atiu MP Norman George believes so. He has already indicated that a frequent shipping service managed by the private sector, coupled with a revival of agriculture and the temporary placement of foreign labour to kick start production would bring significant benefits and would help to re-establish the outer islands not only in terms of population but also as a major contributor to the economy.

Indeed, the Democratic Party Manifesto at the last election announced several initiatives for the outer islands in terms of establishing businesses in for example tourism (P 10) and agricultural production to supply the local and Rarotongan markets(P 12). However, it is not certain what involvement the private sector was to have in developments regarding agriculture.

The Manifesto (on P 13) also states government’s intention to encourage outer islanders to link with Rarotongan based businesses to start developments in the outer islands with tax related incentives provided. Extra incentives were also planned to encourage Rarotongan businesses to invest in the outer islands. However, since the election, there appears to have been little action in respect of the above.

So why are’nt we seeing more private sector enterprises lining up to establish businesses in the outer islands? Has government done enough to articulate its election promises and where is the investment policy and the specific detail of government’s planned incentives?

Despite this we note that some in the private sector are taking action. Mangaian MP and businessman Winton Pickering has already initiated a number of projects in Mangaia. The Pukapukan community group based in New Zealand under Nuku Rapana’s leadership is implementing some initiatives in Pukapuka. Developer Tim Tepaki has tourism related projects planned for several outer islands. A local man is planning to introduce a fast ferry service to Aitutaki and is now looking at including several other islands. There has been interest by private persons in setting up another airline.

Although government’s business agency the Development Trade and Industry Board (DTIB-formerly the DIB) is visible, is it as active and aggressive as it should be? Perhaps what is needed at this time, to build private sector confidence in government’s initiatives and incentives, is a demonstration of commitment by government perhaps in the form of a "Minister for Outer Islands Development" to work closely with the private sector.

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