Is there a country where the government truly makes the natural environment and its people a priority? Where every citizen is aware of their environmental footprint and is active in reducing it? Where the integration of environmental standards in enterprise is ubiquitous? If that country could be anywhere - where would it be? 

My government and our traditional leaders believe it can be in the Cook Islands. We think we could become the cleanest and greenest nation on earth. We have a lot going for us. Our 15 islands in the South Pacific – located between Samoa and Tahiti – are near pristine. Our meagre 92 square miles of land and simple geology mean we don’t have the environmental threats of logging or land mining. Our people have a passion for nature and conservation and are almost obsessive about maintaining their gardens and keeping litter off the streets. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Cook Islands

Our entire marine space was declared a whale sanctuary in 2001 and designated a shark sanctuary in 2012. We are a self-governing country with only 17,000 people, but if we adopt a good strategy we could draw upon the skills of over 100,000 Cook Islanders living overseas. Our main industry is tourism and if done right, could sustain livelihoods for years to come.  

On the other hand, there is a lot we’re up against. Communities are unaware of the long-term impacts of modern conveniences like single-use plastics. Over-development of tourist accommodation on the beachfront of Rarotonga is impacting the fringing coral reef. Our forests are under the constant threat of new and existing invasive alien species such as balloon vine and mile-a-minute. And our vast ocean not only attracts foreign longline and purse seine tuna fishing vessels, but is the site of the largest deposit of seabed minerals in a single country on earth. All of these challenges are exacerbated by the effects of climate change, such as coral bleaching, sea level rise and more frequent and severe tropical cyclones.  

The current government, elected in 2010, has an environmental agenda. In 2012, Prime Minister Henry Puna, pledged to establish a large-scale multiple-use marine park. Following this announcement – and together with the House of Ariki – the government held 34 community consultation meetings throughout the islands where the public provided their support. After negotiations amongst key groups to refine the details of a 20-year policy, the Marae Moana Act 2017 was passed in Parliament, with the full support of opposition members.  

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Cook Islands

The legislation established the marine park over our entire marine space of almost 730,000 square miles, about the same size as Mexico. Simultaneously, marine protected areas were designated, extending 50 nautical miles around each of the 15 islands where no large-scale commercial fishing or seabed minerals activities are permitted. Named Marae Moana the marine park provides the impetus for the integrated management of our marine space from mountain ridge to reef and from reef to ocean.  

We need widespread education about the environmental footprint an individual leaves on Earth and the reasons our traditional lifestyle is far more sustainable than the modern, materialistic lifestyle we’ve been aspiring to. 

In a country where no building may be built higher than the tallest coconut tree, Marae Moana is already off to a good start. The government is driving a renewable energy project with the national target of 100 per cent renewable energy generation by 2020. They’re also backing improvements in waste-water management to protect the coral lagoon on Rarotonga.

The House of Ariki are collating traditional knowledge with the aim of reviving traditional marine protected areas throughout the Islands. The national environmental non-profit Te Ipukarea Society are implementing projects in the areas of waste management, biodiversity conservation, climate change, youth environmental awareness and ecologically sustainable development.      

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Cook Islands

The Cook Islands Voyaging Society will use our traditional ocean voyaging canoe, the Marumaru Atua, as an environmental and cultural education platform in communities throughout the islands. Built by local boat builders with funding support from the Okeanos of the Sea Foundation, the Marumaru Atua will also offer tours to raise funds to pay for the operational costs of the vessel. The Marae Moana vision recognises that the ocean is our greatest asset and encourages communities to look to the ocean for ecologically sustainable enterprise.

Flagship examples are the Manureva Aquafest, where the Cook Islands Kitesurfing Association invites international kite-surfers to compete against the growing local talent. There’s also the Vaka Eiva, an annual festival of outrigger canoe racing draws paddlers from around the world to participate in a sports event where taking care of the environment is a central ethos.  

While Cook Islanders have the will to protect the ocean, much training is needed in areas such as change management and ecologically sustainable enterprise. We need widespread education about the environmental footprint an individual leaves on Earth and the reasons our traditional lifestyle is far more sustainable than the modern, materialistic lifestyle we’ve been aspiring to. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Cook Islands

At the same time we need to draw upon innovative and environmentally friendly ways that will earn government revenue to serve our collective needs. With the right formula we could achieve our vision of the most environmentally friendly nation on Earth.   

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This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.