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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

The demographic context

page 286

The demographic context

The population of the Cook group as at 31.3.1960 was 18,041. According to recent population projections it will reach 22,700 in 1966, 26,750 in 1971 and 31,650 in 1976.1 Assuming that the group contains a total area of 9,000 acres of available agricultural land and a further 20,000 acres of land suitable for tree crops but not for agriculture,2 there will by 1976 be a crude average of just under one acre of land per head which is potentially productive with existing techniques, less than a third of an acre per head of which will be suitable for agriculture. The decline in per capita real income from primary production over the past half century can be expected to continue unless a higher percentage of the work force is employed outside agriculture, the surplus population is resettled outside the group, or increased productivity per acre is attained from existing land (and waters).

The first alternative lies outside the scope of this study, but it is of interest to note that the percentage

1 The above projections were kindly supplied by Dr Norma McArthur on the basis of census data up to 1956. Dr McArthur points out that in view of the markedly reduced infant mortality rates and the improved life expectancy since 1956, the above figures are to that extent underestimated; on the other hand, they make only nominal allowance for emigration and are to that extent overestimated.

2 Based on data in Fox and Grange, Soils…, but making allowance for lands already occupied by villages and public utilities.

page 287 of adult males employed outside agriculture (or fisheries) has risen from an estimated two per cent at the beginning of the century to thirty-two per cent in 1956.1 The proportion continues to increase, largely as a result of increases in central and local government services, but also through expansion in industry and commerce.

The second alternative is already taking place at a fast rate, since net emigration from the Cook Islands over the five-year period 1955–9 inclusive averaged 204 persons per year,2 and additional shipping facilities since mid-1960 have resulted in a five-fold increase in the rate of departure. Assuming the continuing differential between Cook Islands and mainland levels of income and social services and the continuing availability of transport facilities, there is every indication of migration continuing at a high level.3 In addition to this migration away from the group as a whole, there is also migration away from the island on which people hold their land rights and, among those who remain on their home islands, away from primary production into government employment and other tertiary services.

In addition to the more direct consequences of migration, the ever-present alternative thus offered to the Cook Islander has had the effect of causing him to aspire to the levels of income and social services obtaining in

1 Based on census of the Cook Islands 1956. Many of these persons are nevertheless partially dependent on agriculture for supplementary subsistence or cash cropping, but even if they were excluded in determining per capita income from agriculture, a marked decline is still apparent. By adult males is meant males sixteen years of age and over, but excluding those still attending school.

2 Being the net emigration of Cook Islanders only - based on NZPP A3 1955–9.

3 Cook Islanders are British subjects and New Zealand citizens, thus their entry into New Zealand is not restricted. In June 1961 an officially sponsored plan for further migration to the mainland was announced.

page 288 New Zealand, not those found in other Pacific territories, nor those related to the local economic potential. This results in increased demands and expectations, even though the physical resources within the group remain the same.

Even if employment opportunities increase and migration rates continue at their present level, the per capita income of the man on the land will not be automatically improved, and attention must be directed to the third alternative, that of increasing the productivity of the land per acre. While it has been shown that tenure changes cannot of themselves be expected to result in major increases in output, it has also been indicated that the existing ‘freehold’ system actually inhibits maximum productivity and that schemes for agricultural development must be preceded by or associated with modifications to the tenure system. It is with these modifications that this chapter is concerned.