RAROTONGA, Cook Islands — On March 1, 2000, traditional Māori elders gathered with family, community members and government officials on the white-sand shore of Aro’a Lagoon to pray, make speeches, and formally place the water body under the protection of a ra’ui mutu kore — a permanent ban on fishing. Just as they were declaring the ra’ui, a pair of snow-white kākāia, or love terns (Gygis alba) flew close overhead: a sign, according to local lore, that the ceremony was blessed from above.
It was certainly timely from a conservation perspective. Overfishing had seriously depleted Aro’a’s marine life, said Liz Raizis, a keen snorkeller and co-owner of the Rarotongan Beach Resort and Lagoonarium that backs onto the lagoon, located on the western side of Rarotonga, the largest and most populated of the Cook Islands. Once the ra’ui was established, populations grew rapidly: Raizis estimates that the number of fish doubled after just one year. Now, nearly 20 years later, she guesses there’s around 100 times more fish life, with new species appearing every year. The coral is regenerating too, bucking the trend of coral retreat around the island and across the globe.
Ra’ui is an ancient Polynesian form of resource management. In the Cook Islands, the ui ariki (paramount chiefs) and aronga mana (other traditional leaders) hold inherited rights to manage defined areas of land and sea, with the mandate to ensure the ongoing well-being of their people and the health of the place they call home.
These leaders traditionally impose ra’ui on defined areas to ensure the health of key populations, such as coconut crabs (Birgus latro), parrotfish (Chlorurus frontalis) and giant clams (Tridacna gigas), all popular foods among locals. A ra’ui might ban the harvest of all species or just some of them, and it can be temporary or permanent — sometimes ra’ui are lifted just for one day, then reimposed. When a resource is placed under ra’ui, it becomes tapu (sacred, prohibited). In ancient times, breaking a ra’ui was punishable by death or banishment.
“You put it in place, you impose the tapu on it, and then that area doesn’t belong to you anymore,” said Puna Rakanui, spokesperson for the House of Ariki, the Cook Islands’ parliamentary body of paramount chiefs. “It goes back to the deities. Give it to them, let them do what they want with it. Give time. And then they will return it to us, so we can reclaim it.”
While death sentences are no longer an option, Rakanui said that “the mana [authority, spiritual power] of the ra’ui is still very very strong” on the more isolated of the country’s 13 inhabited islands. “Because they see the value in it.”
He recalled a recent visit to Pukapuka, an atoll that sits about 1,140 kilometers (708 miles) northwest of Rarotonga and has just 444 inhabitants. There, he had the opportunity to camp out on an islet that was under a strictly observed ra’ui. “That night I went out for a walk with one of the island dignitaries,” he said. “And in this plantation of puraka [swamp taro, Cyrtosperma merkusii], we shine the torch underneath and we see coconut crabs — in their hundreds! You never see that scene today in the rest of the Cook Islands.”
Traditional ra’ui are not written down, Rakanui said, though sometimes a visual symbol, such as a coconut leaf tied around a tree, demarcates the protected area. “It’s just word, from the aronga mana to the people: there’s a ra’ui over here, nobody is to touch anything. And nobody does!” In Pukapuka, Rakanui stayed right on the boundary of a ra’ui. “If you see a coconut crab crawling [into the ra’ui area], you don’t go and collect it,” he said.
Ra’ui are often imposed for short periods, for example as a way to build up stocks for a big event. On Rakanui’s home island of Atiu, the community is currently planning for a big gathering in October, when almost 1,000 guests will congregate. “For occasions like that, they will put a ra’ui,” he said. “Then during the time of that event they will lift it, and people will go and harvest, to support the event.”
The method is also commonly used in the aftermath of natural disasters like cyclones. “The aronga mana will quickly move in and say, ‘OK, these are the things that we must put ra’ui on,’” Rakanui said. “This part of the island you can harvest; anything on the ground, you can collect. The rest of it you leave, because we need something to support us all later.”
While the power of ra’ui remains strong in the outer Cook Islands, where local tradition often trumps national decree, the system fell into disuse on Rarotonga half a century ago, as colonial structures and mind-sets took hold. In 1888, Britain claimed the Cook Islands as a protectorate, and in 1901 annexed them to New Zealand, its colony at the time. Under the Cook Islands Act of 1915, the colonial government claimed ownership of the lagoon waters that encircle each island from the high-tide mark outward to the protective ring of coral reef, thus formally erasing indigenous rights to manage them. But in practice the ui ariki maintained much of their power over the following decades.
The Cook Islands gained self-governance in 1965, and the following year the prime minister, Albert Henry, created the House of Ariki. In 1972, his party also created the Koutu Nui, a similar statutory body to represent the aronga mana. The intention of integrating these traditional structures into the government was to lend legitimacy to the new nation, but it was also widely criticized for disempowering the ariki and aronga mana: corralling them into a colonial structure where they enjoyed plenty of dignity, but no authority. The dominance of Western-style governance grew, and by the 1970s, the ra’ui system was defunct on Rarotonga.
However, in the late 1980s, both the Koutu Nui and the government’s tourism planners became interested in bringing back the practice of ra’ui, both to protect marine life and to attract tourists. In 1998, the Koutu Nui formally revived the pratice, giving local chiefs the power to impose and lift ra’ui in areas within their traditional jurisdictions. The chiefs established four no-take areas around Rarotonga, to which they added Aro’a Lagoon two years later.
Technically, the government still owns these areas. “But they’re very sympathetic to the way that [the traditional bodies] are doing our work now,” Rakanui said. “So they’ve been willing to work together with us.” Local and central government representatives hoped to enact the ra’ui system into law. However, the members of the Koutu Nui felt people were more likely to honor the protections if they remained under traditional mandates, so ra’ui stayed under their auspices and as such are not legally binding.
Backed by powerful traditional leadership and a strong program educating locals about each ra’ui, the protections proved extremely successful — at least initially. When various ra’ui were lifted for defined periods after several years, the boost to local marine life was obvious, Rakanui said. “The mullets that used to come in!” he exclaimed. “They were breeding all over the place, in their hundreds and thousands; the parrotfish were breeding all over!”
Marine scientist Jacqueline Evans agreed. “It was really successful in terms of the marine resources,” she said. “We noticed the invertebrates, all the shellfish and everything had increased significantly after a couple of years. So it was working!”
Inspired by this success, other communities around the island established more ra’ui, building the total number to 12 in the early 2000s. But since the enthusiastic implementation two decades ago, “most of the ra’ui in Rarotonga have collapsed,” Rakanui said. “It’s been really sad.”
He said the pressure to make an income in an increasingly money-driven economy has contributed to the change. “People are wanting to get out there, get what they want, and sell it.”
If a ra’ui is breached and there are no visible consequences, people begin to lose faith in the system, Evans said. “As soon as they see someone fishing there, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s not working. I might as well fish there too.’”
Changes in leadership and a lapse in the education program also contributed to the demise of some ra’ui. “There are ra’ui on Rarotonga where a single community leader has passed away and the ra’ui has been plundered within weeks,” Raizis said.
“The traditional leaders do still have a bit of pull,” said Maria Tuoro, project coordinator for Ridge2Reef, an international conservation program that operates out of the environment ministry, “but over the years I’ve seen that power less and less. Everyone knows the benefits of [ra’ui], but often people are so busy that no one cares [if a ra’ui is broken] — and there’s no enforcement, either.”
“Now everybody’s doing everything that they want,” Rakanui said. “We’ve been encouraging them not to harvest, but there’s no law to stop them.” In 2015, locals and tourists were outraged when a group of young locals spearfished and killed an ancient, tame and much-beloved moray eel (Gymnothorax javanicus) affectionately known as Roger, within a ra’ui area of Muri Lagoon. “But they couldn’t do anything,” Rakanui said, “because [from a legal standpoint] the water is free for all!”
Concerned about the ra’ui collapses, the Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR) drafted a regulation for ra’ui in 2011, but the House of Ariki refused it. While there are obvious benefits to regulation in the current context, many ui ariki are concerned about ceding too much power to the government. The draft regulations, for example, would have required the MMR’s permission to put a ra’ui in place — a move they saw as undermining the authority of local chiefs to make those decisions independently. What’s more, many ui ariki are reluctant to punish their people in courts of law, preferring practices such as making the infractions public and temporarily confiscating people’s fishing gear.
The Aro’a Lagoon ra’ui has made it through the past 20 years relatively unscathed; it’s considered the best-respected on the island. Why is it working so well where others have failed?
Raizis said the time spent on building broad-based consensus with a wide range of people in the community has been crucial to the ra’ui’s success. The landowners are strong and proactive managers; the Rarotongan Beach Resort, which fronts the entire ra’ui area, actively supports protection efforts; and local schools are heavily involved.
“Education is key for the long-term sustainability of any community-based marine sanctuary,” Raizis said. Many fisherpeople were not initially supportive of the ra’ui, but “they’ve become among the strongest supporters,” she said. “Fish breed and grow and then move into other parts of the lagoon where fishing is allowed, thus improving the odds of a catch in the surrounding lagoons.”
It’s uncommon these days for people to break the ra’ui: those who do are usually overseas workers and tourists who are unaware of it, or visiting Cook Islanders who live elsewhere. Because the resort has watchpeople employed throughout the day and night, the area is well-monitored, which likely puts off many would-be fishers.
“There was one occasion where Cook Islanders returning for Christmas holidays pressured the local chiefs to open the ra’ui for one day,” Raizis said. “It was a complete disaster for Aro’a Lagoon, with large numbers of people from all over the island — locals and tourists — descending on the reserve with spear guns, nets and so on, trampling all over the coral and taking away fish and other marine life by the sack and truckload,” she said. “It was sobering just how much damage could be done in just one day: it took years for the ra’ui to recover. Thankfully, it has never happened again.”
In 2017, the government passed the historic Marae Moana Act designating the country’s entire exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as a mixed-use marine protected area — currently the largest in the world. Traditional leaders were involved in the project’s development from the outset, and the legislation was intended to provide support for local ra’ui, within a broader context of marine management across the EEZ. The extensive consultation process has already raised the public’s level of awareness of marine conservation issues, and boosted the Cook Islands’ “green” reputation among many tourists.
Travel Tou Ariki, president of the House of Ariki, is cautiously optimistic that the growth in awareness will help reinvigorate ra’ui across Rarotonga. “We are now at the moment waiting to reap the benefits” of helping to create Marae Moana, he said. “Our ancestors, they always say ‘you protect, and then you harvest.’ Just two words, but there’s a lot of meaning in it. If you don’t protect, then you can’t harvest. You got nothing!”
Monica Evans is a freelance writer based in Aotearoa New Zealand who specializes in environmental and community development issues. She has a master’s degree in development studies from Victoria University of Wellington. Find her at www.monicaevans.org.
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