Nobody Home: Tiny Island Emptying Fast

Fewer than 1.6K left on Niue as many leave for New Zealand
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 14, 2014 2:46 PM CDT
Nobody Home: Tiny Island Emptying Fast
In this Wednesday, June 4, 2014 photo, Niue Premier Toke Talagi and wife Fifitaloa Talagi in Tamakautoga, Niue. Severe population decline on the tiny Pacific atoll is threatening a culture that dates back more than 1,000 years.    (Nick Perry)

While much of the world worries about how it will accommodate rapidly growing populations, some islands in the Pacific face the opposite dilemma: how to stop everybody from leaving. The population decline on Niue, a lush coral atoll about the size of Baltimore, has been steady and relentless. In the 1960s, there were more than 5,000 people living here; today, there are fewer than 1,600. Fifteen times as many Niueans, some 24,000, now live across the ocean in New Zealand, 1,500 miles away. That puts the stories, songs, and language that developed into the Niuean culture over more than 1,000 years at risk of vanishing. "People wanted to go away to look for a better life," says one islander. "People are still searching."

Other Pacific islands face similar struggles. The CIA estimates the population of the Cook Islands is declining by 3% per year, a rate second only to war-torn Syria. The exodus from Niue has been particularly acute because of its connection with New Zealand. Niue is self-governing but in free association with its wealthier neighbor to the south, and Niueans are automatically New Zealand citizens. Yet on Niue there is a sense of optimism, a belief the exodus might finally be halting. That's thanks to an influx of tourism money—7,000 people visited last year, twice the number from six years prior—and a renewed sense of national pride. "We need to follow the skills of our forefathers," says one 26-year-old member of a group that makes canoes. "Our village was renowned for fishing and canoes." Says a South Pacific expert: "It's far too early to write off Niue. But it has to be at risk." (Niue last made headlines when it minted Star Wars currency.)

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