Pukapuka – living with nature

Traditional conservation practices on Pukapuka

Pukapuka is well known in the Cook Islands for having an intact traditional conservation system. We were fortunate to see examples of this during our recent voyage to the northern Cook Islands on the Marumaru Atua, as a part of the Tāua e Moana journey.
We asked Levi Walewaoa, Mayor of Pukapuka, about some of the traditional conservation practices in Pukapuka to find out more about how the ra’ui (lauwi in Pukapukan) system works.
Pukapuka consists of 3 motu, Wale, Ko and Kotawa. Everybody lives on Wale, but depending on which village they live in, they also have access to either one of these other 2 Motu, or a reserved part of Wale, referred to as Motu Uta.
The people have lived a lifestyle based on strict conservation practices since ancient times, based on closing and opening access to these motu, as well as restricting the harvest of key resources.
The three motu are closed for about half of the year. They are usually opened after the cyclone season and closed again when the cyclone season begins. In some ways they act as holiday destinations for the people of Pukapuka. The exact dates for opening and closing are decided by the traditional leaders for each of the 3 motu.
These motu are rich in resources and contain many large, very old trees. People are not permitted to just harvest anything they like when the motu are open to the respective villages. There are strict lauwi on some of these resources, to help maintain them for future. One prime example is coconut crab (kaveu). Usually there is only one open day for harvesting in a year. However sometimes it may be only open for one day in a 3 year period. Even then, only larger males are allowed to be harvested. No female crabs are permitted in the harvest. The decision to open a lauwi or not rests with the traditional leaders of each of the motu. It is not unusual for around 700 crabs to be harvested on the single open day, and these are shared out among the community. There is nothing wasted.
Pukapukans also love to eat seabirds, but the harvest of these is also strictly controlled, with most species only open for harvest for one day per year. There are some birds however that are allowed to be harvested at any time. These include the more common species such as ngongo (brown noddy), kaka (white tern) and kotawa (frigate bird). Again, the harvest of birds when the lauwi is open is shared among the people.
The above deals mainly with resources on land. In the lagoon, there is a permanent marine lauwi in certain areas around Motu Ko and Motu Kotawa. In addition, there is a permanent ban on taking pa’ua (clams).
The conservation practices on Pukapuka are generally very well respected by everyone. If anyone is caught breaking the rules, they may be fined $50 for a first offence. Repeat offenders will be not allowed any share of the harvest, and not be allowed on the Motu. In these rare cases, offenders are usually those that have recently returned to Pukapuka from Rarotonga or further overseas, and have not yet learned how strictly these rules are enforced.
Pukapuka has been managing their resources successfully for many generations. One question however is whether this is sufficient to conserve resources into the future, in the face of additional pressure from climate change. In our recent visit to Pukapuka, Dr Teina Rongo suggested that there maybe be some benefit in closing some additional area of the reef to fishing, to help compensate for the accumulated pressures of climate change and fishing.
Pukapukans can feel proud of the way they look after their home. They live with nature, and not against it. It is certainly one of the islands that has maintained respect for the traditional ra’ui system. They have a lot to teach the rest of the world.
As published in the Cook Islands News 14 August 2021