Building a Sustainable Blue Pacific: Keynote Address by the Honourable Henry Tuakeu Puna, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands

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Building a Sustainable Blue Pacific

SPC 11th Conference Keynote Address by the

Honourable Henry Tuakeu Puna, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands


Before I became the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands I was a pearl farmer on Manihiki. I lived close to nature and relied on the generosity of the sea for my sustenance, just as my forefathers had done, and just as so many other Pacific islanders have continued to do for untold generations. 

The ocean has always been our provider, our life force, connecting, binding, shaping our lives and our futures. The ocean provides for us and nourishes us. It speaks to our identity as Cook Islanders and as Pacific peoples.

I have long held the view that the Cook Islands should be viewed, not as a small island, but as a large ocean state. A view reflected in our adoption and support of the Blue Pacific narrative. The Blue Pacific may be a new phrase for the region, but we have been practicing this approach as stewards of the Pacific Ocean Continent for generations.

The people of the Cook Islands, like Pacific people throughout our region, are born conservationists. Conservation is in our blood. By protecting our ecosystems we conserve our cultural heritage and ensure that we can pass that heritage to future generations.

As you all know, the Cook Islands have declared our entire EEZ - close to 2 million square kilometres - as the Marae Moana or ‘Sacred Ocean’. This marine protected area is just one example of how we in the Cook Islands are putting the Blue Pacific narrative into action.

Sustainable Development Goal 14.5 is to conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. And so with Marae Moana, we have exceeded the expectations of the SDGs.

Cook Islanders, like Pacific people everywhere, take our ocean stewardship role seriously by balancing commercial interests against our conservation ambitions.

The pearl farms of the Cook Islands are a great example of this dedication to balance. An enormous effort is made to conserving the natural environment, not only because it is part of our Blue Pacific identity, but because the farmers know that a healthy lagoon leads to a healthy harvest.

We monitor the health of the lagoon, collecting scientific data on the physical, chemical and microbiological properties of the water, as detailed in the The Manihiki Pearl Farming Management Plan, which the Manihiki community and Cook Islands Government developed with the assistance of SPC.

The Marae Moana takes this concept to the national scale. Marae Moana legislation provides the framework to make resourcing decisions on integrated management through adopting a precautionary approach to the marine environment in sustaining fishery stocks, and environmental impact assessments for seabed mining.

Forty years of ocean survey work suggests as much as 10 billion tonnes of mineral rich manganese nodules are spread over the Cook Islands Continental Shelf. This seabed mineral resource offers a significant opportunity for the long term sustainable economic and social development of the Cook Islands.

But any decisions on whether the recovery of seabed minerals will take place must start by gathering technical data, and using scientific analysis. This includes detailed mapping of the bathymetry of the seabed, mapping and evaluating the distribution of the nodules and their elements, a complete understanding of the ecology where the recovery of the nodules will take place, economic analyses and mining feasibility plans and the development of suitable recovery technology.

At the local scale, as a veteran pearl farmer, and at the national scale, as the Prime Minister, I rely on scientific and technical data to make evidence based decisions for the good of my community and our people today and long into the future.  And this is where SPC has proven invaluable in availing, over many years, scientific and technical data to all our members to ensure evidence based decisions.

Now, some of you may not know that I did not have a promising start as a pearl farmer. Just four days after I completed my very first pearl seeding, Cyclone Martin struck. Virtually the entire island population of Manihiki had to be evacuated and many people lost their lives. While this risk has always existed, the changes in global climate now occurring have dramatically increased that risk.

Manihiki today, as with all our atoll communities across the Pacific, remains highly vulnerable to the increased frequency and intensity of cyclones, sea surges, and coral degradation as a result of climate change. Many communities in the Cook Islands and across the region, remain one cyclone away from utter devastation.  

The failure of the developed world to adapt and adopt stronger mitigation measures, including reducing global carbon emissions, threatens the Blue Pacific’s very existence.

But we are not standing by idly waiting on others to offer solutions.  Our Blue Pacific future requires moving beyond an understanding of climate change as an existential threat, to understanding the extent, nature and severity of that threat through scientific and technical studies, data and interpretation. Empowering our people to formulate strategies, policies and actions to adapt and protect our way of life.

In the Pacific we have the tools we need to become leaders in developing cutting edge resilience and adaption measures, thanks to SPC and its sister CROP agencies. But just having the tools is not enough. An oyster shell on its own is worthless. Not until we take that shell, cut it, round it, polish it, and insert that little bead into an oyster, can we ever hope to grow a pearl. 

Just as the pearl farmers of Manihiki share knowledge on improved farming methods and help each other out whenever possible so we as Pacific Islanders need to harness our common history and connection to the region to champion collaboration.

Today I still consider myself a pearl farmer. And when I have finished serving as Prime Minister I hope I can return to the lagoons of my youth and watch future generations experience the wonders and riches of our shared oceans, as part of a sustainable Blue Pacific.

Thank you.


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