Agriculture employs about one third of the people. Fruits and vegetables are grown, and pigs and poultry are raised. Food processing, tourism, and fishing are the major industries. Black pearls, copra, papayas, citrus fruits and juices, coffee, fish, clothing, and handicrafts are the principal exports. Foodstuffs, textiles, fuels, timber, and capital goods are imported. Beginning in the 1980s the islands also became a popular tax haven and offshore banking center, but in 2003 the government moved to increase regulation of offshore banks as a result of international pressure. Large numbers of workers emigrate to New Zealand and their remittances are also an important source of income. Government spending is important to the economy, and more than 60% of the labor force work in the public sector. The Maoris generally work their own land.
The Cook Islands are governed under the constitution of 1965. The monarch of Great Britain and Northern Island is the head of state and appoints a British representative. The prime minister heads the government. There is a bicameral parliament. Members of the 25-seat Legislative Assembly are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. The 15-member House of Ariki (hereditary chiefs) is a purely consultative body that advises on traditional matters. New Zealand, represented by a high commissioner, is responsible for foreign affairs and defense in consultation with the Cook Islands government.
The southern islands were probably occupied by the Polynesians c.1,500 years ago. Spaniards visited the islands in the late 16th and early 17th cent. Capt. James Cook sighted some of the islands in 1773; others were not discovered until the 1820s. The London Missionary Society was a powerful influence in the southern islands during the 19th cent. The islands were proclaimed a British protectorate in 1888 and were annexed by New Zealand in 1901. The Cook Islands achieved internal self-government in 1965 and are free to unilaterally declare their complete independence. An economic crisis in the mid-1990s led to outmigration and a significant drop in the islands population.
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The Cook Islands (Cook Islands Māori: Kūki 'Āirani) are a self-governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand. The fifteen small islands in this South Pacific Ocean country have a total land area of 240 square kilometres (92.7 sq mi), but the Cook Islands Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covers 1.8 million square kilometres (0.7 million sq mi) of ocean.
The main population centres are on the island of Rarotonga (14,153 as of 2006), where there is an international airport. There is also a much larger population of Cook Islanders in New Zealand, particularly the North Island; in the 2006 census, 58,008 self-identified as being of ethnic Cook Island Māori descent.
With over 90,000 visitors travelling to the islands in 2006, tourism is the country's number one industry, and the leading element of the economy, far ahead of offshore banking, pearls, marine and fruit exports.
Defence is the responsibility of New Zealand, in consultation with the Cook Islands and at its request. In recent times, the Cook Islands have adopted an increasingly independent foreign policy.
The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.
1595 — Spaniard Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira is the first European to sight the islands.
1606 — Portuguese-born Spaniard Pedro Fernández de Quirós made the first recorded European landing in the islands when he set foot on Rakahanga.
1821 — English and Tahitian missionaries arrive, become the first non-native settlers.
1858 — The Cook Islands become united as a state, the Kingdom of Rarotonga.
1888 — Cook Islands are proclaimed a British protectorate and a single federal parliament is established.
1901 — The Cook Islands are annexed to New Zealand.
1924 — The All Blacks Invincibles stop in Rarotonga on their way to the United Kingdom and play a friendly match against a scratch Rarotongan team.
1946 — Legislative Council is established. For the first time since 1912, the territory has direct representation.
1965 — The Cook Islands become a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand. Albert Henry, leader of the Cook Islands Party, is elected as the territory's first prime minister.
1974 — Albert Henry is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II
1981 — Constitution is amended. Parliament grows from 22 to 24 seats and the parliamentary term is extended from four to five years. Tom Davis is knighted.
1985 — Rarotonga Treaty is open for signing in the Cook Islands creating a nuclear free zone in the South Pacific.
1986 — In January 1986, following the rift between New Zealand and the USA in respect of the ANZUS security arrangements Prime Minister Tom Davis declared the Cook Islands a neutral country, because he considered that New Zealand (which has control over the islands' defence and foreign policy) was no longer in a position to defend the islands. The proclamation of neutrality meant that the Cook Islands would not enter into a military relationship with any foreign power, and, in particular, would prohibit visits by US warships. Visits by US naval vessels were allowed to resume by Henry's Government.
1991 — The Cook Islands signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation with France, covering economic development, trade and surveillance of the islands' EEZ. The establishment of closer relations with France was widely regarded as an expression of the Cook Islands' Government's dissatisfaction with existing arrangements with New Zealand which was no longer in a position to defend the Cook Islands.
1995 — The French Government resumed its Programme of nuclear-weapons testing at Mururoa Atoll in September 1995 upsetting the Cook Islands. Henry was fiercely critical of the decision and dispatched a vaka (traditional voyaging canoe) with a crew of Cook Islands' traditional warriors to protest near the test site. The tests were concluded in January 1996 and a moratorium was placed on future testing by the French government.
1997 — Full diplomatic relations established with China.
1997 — In November, Cyclone Martin in Manihiki kills at least six people; 80% of buildings are damaged and the black pearl industry suffered severe losses.
2000 — Full diplomatic relations concluded with France.
2002 — Prime Minister Terepai Maoate is ousted from government following second vote of no-confidence in his leadership.
2004 — Prime Minister Robert Woonton visits China; Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao grants $16 m in development aid.
2006 — Parliamentary elections held. The Democratic Party keeps majority of seats in parliament, but parliament is unable to meet due to petitions filed by the Cook Islands Party over alleged voting irregularities.
The fifteen islands and two reefs are grouped as follows:
The ten Outer Islands councils are:
The three Vaka councils on the main island Rarotonga were:
On the lowest level, there are village committees. Nassau, which is governed by Pukapuka, has an island committee (Nassau Island Committee), which advises the Pukapuka Island Council on matters concerning its own island.
Spanish ships visited the islands in the late sixteenth century; the first written record of contact with the Islands came with the sighting of Pukapuka by Spanish sailor Álvaro de Mendaña in 1595 who called it San Bernardo ("Saint Bernard"). Portuguese-Spaniard Pedro Fernández de Quirós, made the first recorded European landing in the islands when he set foot on Rakahanga in 1606, calling it Gente Hermosa ("Beautiful People").
British navigator Captain James Cook arrived in 1773 and 1779 and named the islands the Hervey Islands; the name "Cook Islands", in honour of Cook, appeared on a Russian naval chart published in the 1820s.
In 1813, John Williams, a missionary on the Endeavour (not the same ship as that of Cook), made the first official sighting of the island of Rarotonga.
The first recorded landing on Rarotonga by Europeans was in 1814 by the Cumberland; trouble broke out between the sailors and the Islanders and many were killed on both sides.
The islands saw no more Europeans until missionaries arrived from England in 1821. Christianity quickly took hold in the culture and many islanders continue to be Christian believers today.
The Cook Islands became a British protectorate at their own request in 1888, mainly to thwart French expansionism. They were transferred to New Zealand in 1901. They remained a New Zealand protectorate until 1965, at which point they became a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand. In that year, Albert Henry of the Cook Islands Party was elected as the first Prime Minister. Sir Albert Henry led the country until he was accused of vote-rigging. He was succeeded in 1978 by Tom Davis of the Democratic Party.
Today, the Cook Islands are essentially independent ("self-governing in free association with New Zealand") but New Zealand is tasked with overseeing the country's defence.
On June 11, 1980, the United States signed a treaty with New Zealand specifying the maritime border between the Cook Islands and American Samoa and also relinquishing its claim to the islands of Penrhyn Island, Pukapuka (Danger), Manihiki, and Rakahanga.
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Weaving - The outer islands produce traditional weaving of mats, basketware and hats. Particularly fine examples of rito hats are worn by women to church on Sundays. They are made from the uncurled fibre of the coconut palm and are of very high quality. The Polynesian equivalent of Panama hats, they are highly valued and are keenly sought by Polynesian visitors from Tahiti. Often, they are decorated with hatbands made of minuscule pupu shells which are painted and stitched on by hand. Although pupu are found on other islands the collection and use of them in decorative work has become a speciality of Mangaia.
Tivaevae - A major art form in the Cook Islands is tivaevae. This is, in essence, the art of making handmade patchwork quilts. Introduced by the wives of missionaries in the 19th century, the craft grew into a communal activity and is probably one of the main reasons for its popularity.