Cook Islands - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Almost all Cook Islanders derive some sustenance from the land, lagoon, or ocean. But whereas these areas provided total sustenance in the past, they are now of relatively minor importance. Agriculture, formerly the main economic activity, now has a lesser role. Most households keep a few chickens, pigs, and/or goats for domestic consumption more than for sale. The main income today is from salaries, wages, or business profits. Government is the largest single employer, with about 21 percent of those aged 15-64 being its full-time salaried employees. If we add those in the casual employ of the central government and the permanent or casual employ of local government, and those who are still full-time students, more than one-third of working-age Cook Islanders are in government employ or education. The next-largest category is employed in the travel industry. Others work in the international finance center (now the largest in the Pacific islands), in clothing and shoe factories, for the churches, or in services. The highest incomes are those of the more successful business and professional people, of whom a considerable proportion are Europeans, but in comparison with most countries there are no major concentrations of wealth. A high proportion of assets is owned by the government (including the majority shareholding in the largest hotel). The small market and system of landholding facilitate distribution of assets and incomes.

Industrial Arts. Traditional arts are maintained mainly by women because fewer of them have salaried employment, the arts can be done at home, and there is both a domestic use for them and a commercial market (mainly to tourists or for export). These crafts are mainly items of fiber (mats, baskets, hats, etc.) or cloth (especially embroidered quilts). Traditional men's industrial arts are now confined mainly to factories making wooden or shell items of traditional design for the tourist market. In every village there are men who maintain vehicle and small boat engines or who specialize in building construction.

Trade. Small stores, mainly locally owned, are found in every village; bakeries are also common. There is a small Market for fresh produce in Rarotonga, but prices are high as turnover is small and most stores are overcapitalized (e.g., they own and operate their own vehicles despite low utilization). Most people produce some of their own food and both give and receive some from relatives and friends, as well as buying some privately. Small businesses are dominated by women. Medium-sized businesses are operated mainly by Cook Islanders or Europeans, though a number of them are run by Cook Islanders married to or in partnership with Europeans. The largest businesses, including the larger airlines, some of the larger hotels, and the banks, are generally owned overseas.

Division of Labor. The traditional division of labor is much modified, though deep-sea fishing and other marine employment is still almost exclusively male, as are construction and most forms of heavy labor. Senior management, both government and private, was exclusively male until Recent years.

Land Tenure, Land cannot be bought or sold, except to the government for public purposes, and even leases are generally restricted to indigenous Cook Islanders or the small percentage of nonindigenous permanent residents. Traditionally land was held for practical purposes by small, localized kin groups, with succession mainly in the male line Except in the event of no male issue, illegitimacy, uxorilocal Residence, or adoption. From 1902 the Land Court has registered most land in the name of its "traditional" holders at the time of the court investigation, and it has allowed bilateral inheritance thereafter. With minimal use of provisions for consolidation and exchange, the average of three or four landholders originally registered per unit of land has now become dozens and in many cases hundreds. For housing or other intensive usage it is now usual for individuals to obtain a lease or "occupation right" from their co-owners. Thus while every Cook Islander is a landowner, the fraction of right that many of them hold is insignificant. If most of them did not live in other countries, there would be major problems of shortage and allocation. Political parties promise to reform the system but do not do so, because the public supports land-rights reform in theory but opposes it in practice, as Individuals fear that they will be worse off after any change. Disputes within groups of owners in common are frequent.

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