Pacific paradise left behind to the swimming pigs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2005, 12:00am

Their turquoise bays, white sand beaches and palm trees may present a vision of paradise, but the future of three of the Pacific's smallest countries is under threat as their inhabitants seek new lives elsewhere.

The tiny nations of Niue and Tokelau are losing people at such a rate that their continued viability has been cast into serious doubt. The neighbouring Cook Islands, although larger, have also been drastically depleted by migration.

All three are former British colonies but also have close historical links with New Zealand. Their their inhabitants are automatically granted New Zealand passports, with the right to live there.

Although their homelands are regarded by the rest of the world as enviable tropical idylls, a dire lack of job opportunities has propelled thousands of islanders to opt for a better life abroad.

The population of Niue, which means 'Behold the Coconut', is now just 1,200, down from 4,000 when the island was granted self-government 30 years ago. In contrast, 18,000 Niueans live in New Zealand, 2,400km to the southwest. Tokelau is in a similarly precarious position - just 1,500 people now call the archipelago home, while 6,000 of their compatriots have moved to New Zealand.

In the neighbouring Cook Islands, named after the British explorer Captain James Cook, the population stands at around 15,000, but nearly four times that many have migrated to New Zealand and Australia.

A study released this month by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, a regional development body, shows that the population of Niue and the Cooks is continuing to decline, while that of Tokelau is stagnant.

Tucked up beside the International Date Line, all three are suffering from critical shortages of people aged between 15 and 24, the age group that normally propels economic growth, the secretariat reported. 'Not only are they the future labour force, they are the people who will produce the next generation,' said Arthur Jorari, a population expert from the secretariat.

'Once people have left and tasted life in a place like New Zealand, it's very hard to attract them back.'

Ghost towns and empty houses litter Niue, known to locals simply as 'the Rock', with one guidebook commenting that 'the villages on the east coast give an idea of how Europe must have looked after a plague in the Middle Ages'.

'There's no doubt that the viability of Niue and Tokelau is in doubt,' said Ian Pool, a demographer from Waikato University in New Zealand. 'They are extremely fragile places, and need to start developing their economies if they are to survive.'

The challenges, however, are formidable. Tokelau, which is a dependent territory of New Zealand, consists of three tiny atolls spread out over a vast area of ocean. Each atoll consists of a string of islets, some of which are only 200m wide.

The islands have a total surface area of just 12 sq km and are so crowded that domestic pigs have to be kept on outlying reefs, foraging for shellfish in rock pools and renowned as the Pacific's only swimming swine.

The nation's only access to the outside world depends on a fortnightly boat from Apia, the capital of Samoa.

Niue is similarly minute, one of the smallest states in the world. The first European to see Niue was Captain Cook, who in 1774 named it Savage Island because warriors with red-painted teeth tossed spears at his sailors.

Britain took control of the island in 1900 but a year later handed it over to New Zealand.

An official headcount of islanders last year was hushed up, reportedly because it showed the population had dipped as low as 1,000 -barely more than the 840 inhabitants of the Vatican, the world's smallest state by population.

Recently there has been talk of trying to attract Chinese and Indian immigrants, but Niue's leaders are wary of changing the island's ethnic homogeneity.

Despite the fact that his entire nation could comfortably fit inside a Hong Kong community hall, Niue's Prime Minister, Young Vivian, is upbeat about the future.

The island's tiny 20-member legislative council is about to embark on a concerted effort to lure Niueans back from New Zealand by boosting farming and fisheries.

'Creating jobs is the key,' Mr Vivian said. 'People don't want to come back and just twiddle their thumbs. They want a comfortable living.' Tourism also has potential but remains in its infancy, partly because Niue is surrounded by high limestone cliffs and has few beaches.

'We have wonderful little coves and caves, niches between the rocks,' the prime minister said. 'We are an exotic little place. You haven't seen the world until you've seen Niue.'

Experts point out that while the populations of Niue and Tokelau approach critically low levels, other islands in the Pacific have survived with even fewer people.

The British colony of Pitcairn Island, settled by the HMS Bounty mutineers in the 18th century and recently embroiled in an under-age sex scandal, is a case in point.

'Pitcairn's down to about 50 people but it's still managing to keep going,' Professor Pool said. 'There's no definitive rule on what is viable. One can't write off these little places just yet.'