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  • Cook Islands
  • Jon Tikivanotau M. Jonassen (bio)

The 2008-2009 year began with fallout from a major challenge to the legitimacy of the government from ariki (traditional chiefs). Acting on the advice of Bruce Mita, an Australian-based businessman of New Zealand Māori descent, some ariki openly challenged the country's elected government. The ariki proclamation was read by Vakatini Ariki and Vaeruarangi Ariki and asserted that, as of 12 June 2008, the traditional chiefs would no longer recognize the government (CIN, 13 June 2008), nor would they acknowledge the queen of England as head of state. Reaction to the decree was swift and mostly negative. Rongomatane Ada Ariki, the president of the House of Ariki (HOA), retracted her initial support for the decree, and various other objectors spoke out against it (CIN, 19 June, 13 June 2008). Prime Minister Jim Marurai described the edict by a small minority of Ui Ariki as nonsensical and lacking credibility (CIN, 14 June 2008). One HOA member, Pa Ariki, also expressed disdain at the actions of her contemporaries and challenged government to abolish the House of Ariki (CIN, 14 June 2008). Deputy Prime Minister Terepai Maoate described the proclamation as misguided and wrong (CIN, 17 June 2008), but promoted restraint among his parliamentary colleagues.

Maoate tabled the HOA Amendment Bill, calling for an apology from ariki who had declared that they did not recognize Queen Elizabeth as the country's head of state (CIN, 3 Dec 2008). Queen's Representative Sir Frederick Goodwin summoned eleven ariki in the aftermath of their proclamation, and there was some hope that those ariki who had proclaimed their independence would recant and rejoin the fold (CIN, 13 Dec 2008). Notably, a few ariki boycotted the government meeting (CIN, 19 June 2008), and long-term repercussions are possible.

Political activism by traditional chiefs was not restricted to the national level. Tuki Tepano, Ariki Nui of Rapanui, visited Rarotonga and expressed interest in contributing to an Are Vananga (house of learning), which is being proposed as part of a new center for the University of the South Pacific in Rarotonga. Tepano also spoke of the Te Puna Ariki Tere Moana Nui O Hiva, a concept aimed at strengthening links bounded by the Polynesian triangle of Hawai'i, Aotearoa, and Rapanui (CIN, 22 May 2008). Meanwhile, the assembly of lesser chiefs, known as Koutu Nui, worked closely with the government, anticipating an enhanced role in national customary issues (CIN, 30 June 2008). A cultural milestone was reached as the double-hulled Cook Islands traditional voyaging canoe [End Page 163] Te-Au-O-Tonga set sail from Rarotonga for American Sāmoa to participate in the Festival of Pacific Arts (CIN, 17 July 2008).

Observers suggest that a prime motivation for the sudden challenge to national governance on the part of some traditional leaders emanated from the expected seabed mineral wealth of the country. Parliament has always acknowledged the seabed resource, and this year, the government lodged a claim with the United Nations, delineating the boundaries of its extended continental shelf (CIN, 18 April 2009). The Cook Islands is claiming 400,000 square kilometers but awaits more rigorous submissions to the United Nations and a four-year waiting period (CIN, 17 April 2009). The Commonwealth Secretariat praised the Cook Islands shelf claim, describing it as a major achievement (CIN, 27 April 2009). Several overseas-based concerns have expressed interest in the seabed resources of Cook Islands waters, with the most recent involving the Canadian merchant bankers Endeavour Mining Capital, which offered the government NZ$10 million for a retention license for manganese nodule mining (CIN, 22 Aug 2008). (NZ$1.00 equals approximately US$0.70.) The proposition was not accepted by the government.

Infrastructural development added to the nation's financial credit liability. For the 2009 financial year, the total government debt is estimated to be NZ$65.6 million, or 19.7 percent of gross domestic product (CIN, 7 Jan 2009). The four prioritized infrastructure projects for 2009 include the restructuring of the Mangaia harbor (NZ$1.83 million); the upgrading of the Rarotonga water supply network, involving fifty-two kilometers of pipeline; the upgrading of the Tereora...