COOK ISLANDS

THE ECONOMICS OF CULTURE

           

 

The words Akono'anga Maori translates as "the Maori way". Its precise meaning may vary from one group of people to another but in general it refers to respect for the way we do things. It encompasses the basic principles of respect for family members, others and elders.

 

Economists focus on the factors of production of a nation, especially land, human resources and capital, and now also information, innovation, and adaptability. These same factors are important variables in the cultural perspective of life. Land is seen as the binding force and stability of ngai, and kinship bonds are reinforced by land and lagoon rights. People are the fountains maintaining and upholding core cultural practices and patterns.

Capital has a more subtle meaning in the cultural context. For economists. It means cash or property or ideas that can translate into a value. For cultural cohorts, it includes ownership of things that have spiritual, religious or emotive affection, and that cannot be replaced or traded for money because of the mana.

This chapter looks at the different emphases of economic and cultural perspectives of the above variables in order to highlight common gro0unds and discuss differences. Given the small size of our economy, it is important to look from a global perspective, including the impact of communications and the corporate world on our culture. We need to understand the economic value of culture and the extent to which it is influenced by economic factors.

Culture is the way we live, look, interact and communicate. It is how we want to portray ourselves as individuals, as groups, or as a nation, locally and internationally. Cook Islands culture has evolved by following selected themes from the past as modified by current trends and popular tastes. One aspect of this is the debate on the 'authenticity' of Cook Islands performances and criticism that today's 'culture' is merely traces of the past rehashed in brilliant colours and forms of modern living.

Others view culture as a living dynamic that breathes its surroundings as much today as ever it did. 'Authentic' culture tends to be our current perception of that period in the past to which we look for legitimation and identity. Selectively, it has a place in every heart, but it is particularly emphasized by those elites who benefit from such carefully crafted interpretations. In appropriate contests, it is well worth our respect. But it is current popular culture that gets talked about by day, performed at night, and printed on T-shirts.

This paper takes culture as the ways of life that Cook Islanders lived in the past, live now, and are likely to live in the future.

Land/lagoon rights

Land and lagoon rights feature an endless bond of ngati-ship signifying the strong blood and kinship links between families, islands and regions. To maintain these strong ties means meeting unspoken and spoken obligations to extended family and community functions and activities.

Key economic consideration in land/lagoon rights include the multiple nature of ownership and its effect on leasing and extending leases on land, absentee land ownership and rights of access. A lot of land has been leased and subleased by enterprising individuals and groups to business initiatives. Many large businesses in Avarua town hold leases from landowning families, who are paid lump sums, annual rentals, and/or shares of turnover. Another issue refers to the alternation of this land from the original owners as a result of the powers of the landowners being dissipated by partitioning to individuals or small groups within the family.

Around Rarotonga, and increasingly in Aitutaki, the newspaper advertises tenders of land and property as a result of a couple of family not being able to repay their bank loan. Where land was once a traditional ornament of one's rights to a place of lagoon, increasingly this is undermined by mismanaged spending. This results in the tendering of leases to individuals or companies keen to recoup the cost of the tender and eager to profit in the process. The implication for cultural practises is that losses do not observe customs relating to owning land in a ngati, because lessees are not from that nagati. Having acquired the land for a commercial value they expect to recover it and more before the lease years run out.

Absentee ownership is an uneconomical consideration in ngati structures, with a lot of the vacant land belonging to such family members either being used by resident family members or in most cases left in bush when the family member returns to New Zealand or Australia. Lagoon rights in the northern atolls have changed, especially following the advent of black pearl culture which is a major industry in Manihiki and Penrhyn. Traditionally such rights were held by patrilineal clans who assigned lagoon rights in line with family ownership of the surrounding motu in the lagoon. Today national government has an overriding right to the ecological management of the lagoons, and the elected local island governments have management rights to ensure the ecological safety of the lagoons.

Both Island Councils approve hundreds of pearling permits to both resident and non-resident Penrhyn Islanders and Manihikians. However paper pearling permits outnumber the physical count of pearl farms in each lagoon by about 3 to 1. The use of land in the Cook Islands may be efficient in terms of leases being purchased by investors aiming to profit or develop beautiful property on that land. But what is the cost of the alienation of customary landowners from their land. No long-term mechanisms are in place to ensure that future generation can effectively develop such alienated land when it returns to be family after lease expires.

People (human resources)

Leaders in the public and private sector harp on about people being the most important economic resource. For all sectors, it is important for this human capital to be healthy, happy, and positively attuned to making things happen. Migration trends show how some of the best and brightest of populations migrate to metropolitan centres to challenge or be challenged. It is the same with Cook Islanders. This is not to say that we are left with the dregs, but there is a significant gap in skills available for growing expectations from the key industries of tourism and black pearls.

People and cultural practices of a place are intertwined. In the contemporary Cook Islands environment we have been able to mix and match our customary practices to living, land, and interaction with others into the present lifestyle. In a nutshell, observers would say that 'Cook Islanders are generally sociable beings, with a gutsy approach to life, not two careful about the future, mindful of the past, and not too shy to mix in aspects of living from the outside that support the above observations'. 

Time management is problematic. Some of our people in paid employment still apply the relaxed attitude to attendance and performance that becomes embedded in our culture from subsistence living in a lush environment. Our culture also expect a lot of time to be devoted to family and community affairs, including funeral and other life crises. The high value on saving face can lead to avoidance of crucial issues and the flexible cultural arrangements about property can lead to unusually high levels of theft. Some cultural critics say that our cultural performances for visitors today are superficial and all just show. With a burgeoning visitor industry, and a growing foreign investor presence, the romanticism of island lifestyles based on what is romantic in our song and dance, and what is relaxing in our way of life, become prominent cultural trails that we portray and perform in front of investors and visitors.

The reality however is far from this. Social problems such as increases in non-communicable diseases as a result of diet and way of life changes; increasing burglary and theft as the have-nots take from the haves (and sometimes from each other); a growing problem with alcohol and drug abuse. Women are participating ever more in commercial enterprise - an area that had been overwhelmingly male. Although the largest businesses are still owned and managed predominantly by men, the opposite is becoming the case with the smaller enterprises. And the scale of women's business grows all the time. This has significant cultural consequences, but adaptation to them progressed considerably in the 1900s.

Capital

Culturally most of us say that we are not rich in money term. This can be a fallacy when you look at it from the perspective of an extended family grouping when a massing fund for village infrastructure or family functions. Socially capital in this setting can be significant and include pigs and kits of taro as well as money costs of a feast, function or project. In the world of business, our capital is transferred from land and heritage rights to collateral in developing modern business initiatives. Capital in the form of land or other natural resource rights can now be alienated and often is.

Communicating Culture

Despite the rapid advances in information technology, the introduction of this technology depends upon the existence of basic infrastructure like electrical energy and water before computers can be introduced. In this respect in the Cook Islands computers and information technology can readily be purchased, however, if the more remote atolls such as Nassau and Penrhyn do not have good electricity supply, this technology is of little value. Or the equipment and the technology would only be utilized by the elite on the centralized and more sophisticated location of Rarotonga and some of the southern groups of islands.

Certainly, the cultural impact of television should be questioned. In many cases, its main function when owned by the government was to support the people in power. The programming was intended to induce people to spend more on consumption, especially of products that can be detrimental to people's health. These products include alcoholic, carbonated and other drinks, sugar and salt laden foods and other foreign products and services. This results in a reduction of local saving and investment in conjunction to the deterioration in the health of the people.

Corporatizing Culture

Throughout the Cook Islands, people have become accustomed to corporate big business sponsoring prizes in cash or kind to support those cultural activities which are consistent with their own business enterprise. Such corporations provide all the prizes for winning teams at annual cultural festivals and competitions.

Until the 1970s, the emphasis was on island pride as in those days government gave support and cash prizes for all teams joining from the islands. As the public office dried up, so did the island pride and will to compete and participate at the annual ultimate dance festival of the country. In most cases, this manifested itself in the team having no money to travel to the competition and to accommodate themselves for the period that they were away. During the 2000 constitution celebrations, the practice of bringing in teams from each of the islands was reverted to by the coalition government.

Expert observers are of the view that the quality of choreography, creativity, and authenticity has eroded during the time that the government was unable to provide for all teams to come to Rarotonga. This problem has been highlighted by a considerable level of compromise in the preparation experienced today for cultural events. What may have taken dance troops months of preparation in the past, may now tale less than a month to prepare before going on stage. Indeed, this is the trait that we can expect in the globalization of the Cook Island economy where technology short cuts substitute for authenticity and cultural values.

Cook Islands and in particular the expressive arts, has contributed positively to economic growth. The country has been able to tailor marketing appeal to play on the romanticism and beauty of the island in spite of the stark reality of globalization bringing with it growing social problems environmental degradation and high level of foreign investment.

While it is apparent however is the need for the cultural backbones to endure and be passed down from generation to generation to the respective individuals in the Cook Islands society who get called upon to preside over land disputes or family quarrels. In this respect, the words Akono'anga Maori translates as "the Maori way". Its precise meaning may vary from one group of people to another but in general it refers to respect for the way we do things. It encompasses the basic principles of respect for family members, others and elders.

The reality is that Akono'anga Maori has been modified in some places to suit the financial rather than the economic interests of the family or individual. In some cases, the sale of leases has amassed sizeable funds for the detriment of existing and future generations. The statistics now show that more Cook Islanders prefer to live abroad than at home and for most Cook Islanders, overseas had been their home at some time in their lives.

There is certainly a very strong and clear need for Akono'anga Maori to be reviewed and clearly defined. The changing environment has resulted in the traditional interpretations having only limited relevance today.

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 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com  -- Rev. 12th November 2008)