Island nation shrinking to nothing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2001, 12:00am

A century after the Pacific island of Niue was unceremoniously given to New Zealand by Britain for the Kiwis' contribution to the Boer War, the tiny nation is struggling to survive.

Niue became, in effect, a colony of a colony in 1901 when King Edward VII handed it over to New Zealand, which at the time had ambitions for a South Pacific mini-empire of its own.

The 100th anniversary of the change in sovereignty was commemorated at the weekend, with a visit by New Zealand's Governor-General, Dame Silvia Cartwright.

Although Niue became officially independent in 1974, it remained in 'free association' with New Zealand, giving its inhabitants the right to New Zealand citizenship, an opportunity grasped by thousands of islanders in recent years.

More than 18,000 Niueans now live in New Zealand, while the population of the island-state has fallen to just 1,800.

If the current trend continues, say the island's leaders, Niue - meaning place of the coconut - will be no more.

Niue's recently appointed High Commissioner to New Zealand, Hima Takelesi, said: 'The fear is that we'll wake up one day and say, 'This place is not viable any more - what are we going to do with it?' '

Niue's ever-shrinking population means it has the world's highest concentration of politicians: a ratio of one MP for every 40 to 50 voters.

Its economic prospects remain far from bright - its only significant revenue comes from renting out phone numbers to sex chat operators and selling its internet suffix - .nu.

Aside from that, it farms a few cash crops for export, such as papaya and coconuts, but relies on foreign aid for nearly three-quarters of its income.

Now Mr Takelesi, 56, wants to stop the rot, and encourage Niueans living in New Zealand to return home. The Government aims to push the population up to its 1974 level of 4,000.

But Niueans in New Zealand say there is little chance of that.

Many are well established in their adopted country, where job opportunities easily outstrip anything back at home.