Pitcairn looks to break out of its isolation

By Angela Gregory

Hit by sex scandals, the loss of its regular shipping service and slumping stamp profits, the embattled community of Pitcairn Island is slowly beginning to fight back for its long-term survival.

Under the guidance of Pitcairn's Auckland-based commissioner, Leslie Jaques, a number of projects are under way on the remote island group to try to improve its sustainability.

British-born Mr Jaques, who has lived in New Zealand for the past 25 years, was appointed to the operational role of commissioner by the Governor of Pitcairn (the British High Commissioner to New Zealand) in 2003, just months after sex charges were laid against Pitcairn island men that would divide the community.

In 2004, six of those men were found guilty of serious charges against minors, and a final appeal against the legal process is to be heard in July at the Privy Council in London.

But for Mr Jaques, whose background is in finance and banking, the focus is on the long-term future and moving the island towards a more secure and self-reliant economic footing.

He admits his first public meeting on Pitcairn was a "riot" as the islanders had not realised how badly they were losing money.

But he has revisited about half a dozen times since and says the locals' feelings towards him have warmed.

He acknowledges that Pitcairn had previously been badly run, and the islanders are now starting to accept they need to respond to change.

Mr Jaques told a recent breakfast business meeting in Auckland how he would never forget his first sight of Pitcairn Island - "its intimidating beauty, its volcanic cliffs rising from the South Pacific. A sense of history, a sense of apprehension".

He said it would not be an exaggeration to say that Pitcairn, one of the world's most isolated islands, was at a major crossroads. It has a population of about 55, most of whom are descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian consorts who arrived in 1790.

By the start of this century Pitcairn had faced major problems, including the serious charges of rape and sexual abuse against children, the drying up of its main income streams and accumulated reserves, and the loss of its only regular shipping route, Mr Jaques said.

For years Pitcairn's primary source of revenue was from philately (stamp collecting) which enabled substantial surpluses to be built up. But that has declined progressively in the last decade partly because the internet has significantly reduced the number of letters being written and stamp collectors are a dying breed.

"Pitcairn didn't see this coming, didn't adapt, didn't prepare, and its income was reduced by over 80 per cent in 10 years," Mr Jaques said.

The former administration responded by cutting essential repairs, maintenance and essential services, which proved costly to rectify. Accumulated surpluses had absorbed the losses until they too ran out in December 2004 and Pitcairn went into budgetary aid.

Mr Jaques said Pitcairn's overheads were significantly greater than its income. The British could either keep putting money into a bucket with a hole in the bottom or invest to create a more sustainable economy and the opportunity for self-sufficiency in the future.

Mr Jaques' role as a commissioner is to administer Pitcairn in conjunction with its elected island council and in tandem with the Governor's office in Wellington as the Queen's representative.

In restructuring Pitcairn's economy they had divided what needed to be done into three key areas - wealth creation, infrastructure and services.

The aim was to invest in Pitcairn's future and create a sustainable economy with full employment, higher standards of living, greater discretionary dollars, improved communications, both transport and technology, with improved access and affordable regular transport for Pitcairners.

"What will hopefully be achieved by all of this will be repopulation."

Mr Jaques said the initial aim was for a population of 120 people. Given it peaked in 1939 at 233 inhabitants, there should be sustainable resources to accommodate that growth.

Already significant steps had been undertaken to increase the island's income. The revamped stamp operation was outsourced to experts in Wellington, the website upgraded into an interactive shopping trolley, complimentary lines were introduced and the initiatives were starting to bear fruit.

Mr Jaques has been keen to see Pitcairn better milk the profits of its honey, one of the purest in the world and one of only two allowed into New Zealand.

"We have reformed a revamped co-operative, split hives and are looking to increase production from 6000 250gm units to 24,000 250gm units per annum."

The first commercial shipment to Japan was made last year.Mr Jaques, awarded an OBE for services to British-New Zealand trade in 1998, was also planning to meet Fortnum and Masons in London in late April to explore options for selling the honey in superior outlets.

A comprehensive report on tourism had also shown potential.

There were currently 40 cruise ships that travel the Easter Island to Tahiti route but only about 10 currently call at Pitcairn.

"Most say they would call if they were able to lower their own tenders and transport their passengers into a safe harbour."

Funding was being sought for a $13.5 million breakwater to allow the tenders to come in. Mr Jaques hoped the project could be put out to international tender by mid-year, with construction beginning in early 2007 and completed by early 2008.

The breakwater project will also provide opportunities for Pitcairners based in New Zealand, where most go, to return to work on the island.

Mr Jaques said more able bodied men were needed and he was pleased some families were already committed to returning to help with various projects.

He said eco-tourism was another avenue to be developed. An eco-trail was due to open this year capitalising on Pitcairn's unique flora and fauna. Pitcairn has 11 endemic plant species, some so rare they have not yet been named.

Henderson Island, one of the four islands comprising the Pitcairn group, was already a world heritage site with its own endemic plants and three of the world's rarest birds.

He also saw potential in whale watching as they come in close to the islands at certain times of the year to feed.

"So we have history, heritage, culture, eco-adventure to attract cruise ship day-trippers and much more to attract longer-stay, higher-value, high-intelligence visitors like archaeologists, anthropologists, botanists and ornithologists."

Mr Jaques was also investigating fishing opportunities within Pitcairn's 800,000 sq km exclusive economic zone and was considering short-term leasing of the marine-rich waters.

Meanwhile, infrastructure is being developed, like the rebuilding of the slipway and jetty and the building of a cement road up the aptly named Hill of Difficulty. The $5 million projects, paid for by Britain, were completed on time and inside budget in September.

Recommendations from a comprehensive communications review were due to be implemented in the coming financial year. They included video conferencing facilities which would be used for medical consultations and education. For the first time each home would have a private telephone linked to the New Zealand system. Previously communications were made through shipping radio frequencies where everyone could listen in.

There would be increased internet bandwidth and, in another first, television broadcasts via satellite have been approved by the island council.

In the 2006/07 budget, wind generators were planned to provide 24-hour power. They would supplement two diesel generators which currently provide power for 10 hours a day from 8am to 1pm and from 5pm to 10pm.

A memorandum of understanding between Pitcairn and its closest neighbour, French Polynesia, was signed in February this year, the first that Pitcairn had negotiated in its own right. It is intended to open up trade, tourism and immigration routes, and provides the ability to source supplies from French Polynesia as well as New Zealand. It also allows for six regular shipping services to Pitcairn each year, carrying passengers and freight.

Mr Jaques said there was full employment on Pitcairn. Job descriptions have been written and performance appraisals introduced for government jobs

"A CV has been written for every islander and we are moving towards a more egalitarian society."

Pensions for senior citizens were increased by 14 per cent this financial year and islanders had taken advantage of a scheme to upgrade their properties to accommodate home-stay tourists.

Mr Jaques said education was a key to strengthening and sustaining the community.

"In May, we rebuild the school, sending a powerful message about the future."

It would have a sixth form common room for adult education to encourage adults to prepare for new industries and take a more responsible role within the community.

A museum to house a collection of Polynesian pre-history and Bounty and post-Bounty artefacts including the Bounty Bible was opened in August 2005.

"We are actively seeking the return of Pitcairn artefacts from museums and collections around the world."

Mr Jaques said if a remote community like Pitcairn was to survive, it must change its mindset and be attractive to new generations.

Access, communication, full employment, a fairer society and the rule of law would encourage Pitcairners to return home and new people to settle.

"We are looking at ways to help with financial packages to encourage repopulation of those with particular skills."

The British Government, working with the European Union, still had a firm commitment to Pitcairn. Its white paper, Partnership to Peace and Prosperity, recognised Pitcairners' rights to self-determination and for them to remain with Britain as long as they wanted.

But Mr Jaques said they wanted to remain with Britain but they also needed to be empowered to take control of their destiny and that was a challenge.

"They need to take leading roles and express themselves, have confidence ... we are all working together to build a better tomorrow."

Isle of history

* Pitcairn is a United Kingdom overseas territory, of which there are 14 scattered around the world including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat, Cayman Islands and St Helena.

* It is 4.7 sq km and situated about 5500km northeast of New Zealand, roughly halfway between New Zealand and Peru.

* Its nearest landfall is 550km away in Mangareva, one of the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia.

* Pitcairn was originally occupied by Polynesians from about AD800 to AD1400 but was uninhabited when the Bounty mutineers arrived in 1790 seeking a refuge.

* Pitcairn was the name of the midshipman who was the first European to sight the Island, in July, 1767 aboard HMS Swallow.

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