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Va'a athlete talks climate change

The Cook Islands, or Kuki Airani is fighting the effects of the climate crisis with the world’s largest marine protected area.

Local va’a athlete, Teuru Tiraa-Passfield, said the Marae Moana Marine Park, opened in 2017, shows government is taking seriously human impact on the environment. 

Marae Moana is 50 nautical miles, or two million square kilometres around each of the 15 islands where no commercial fishing or mining is permitted. 

It hopes to conserve the ecology and biodiversity of the Cook Islands marine environment, in the race against overfishing, pollution and climate change.

Ms Tiraa-Passfield is the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Program (GEF-SGP) coordinator in the Cook Islands, and said M.P.A is a big step towards climate crisis action.

“We don’t have maybe the immediate visual effects that you can see in places like Kiribati and Tuvalu, but we are being affected in other ways,” she said.

 The people of the Cook Islands are living their lives without urgent fear, but soon enough issues will become more pressing.

“People who are working in the field have an urgent fear because they know more, people who go away to climate change meetings and negotiations.

“I have travelled a lot and I am fortunate to have spent time in the Northern Group which a lot of people in the Cooks don’t get to do because it’s so hard to get to,” Ms Tiraa-Passfield said.

The Northern Group of the Cook Islands are atolls, whereas the Southern Group are mountainous. So the issues are much more visual.

Coral is bleaching and giant clams are dying. It is affecting food security and income for families who rely on the ocean for their daily bread and livelihood. 

“In the future the rising sea levels might be an issue for them,” she said.

“I spent some time in the Northern Group and it has affected things like pearl farming. 

“I worked in Manihiki for a while, and during El Nino in 2016 I think, the lagoon temperature was 31 degrees for over six months.”

But there are no immediate fears yet, she believes.

“People are worried, they know it’s a genuine concern but there is no urgency among most people at the moment. 

“I think that will change. Part of it is awareness and part of it is that we are not seeing these immediate effects on a dangerous level.”

The GEF-SGP program attempts to help local communities become more resilient to the climate crisis on their own. And international funding makes all the difference, the paddler said.

“There is a lot of money coming in to help, it’s just a matter of building capacity of people to be able to apply for that sort of funding. 

“It’s fortunate that we have help, we have funding, and we also have mountains in the Southern Group,” she said.

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