The island’s tiny jail remains empty most of the time, except when people get wasted.
By Elena Gooray
Coconut Crab Crossing. (Photo: sandwichgirl/Flickr)
The jailhouse on the island of Niue has a steady average population: zero. The South Pacific nation — pronounced somewhere between “NEW-way” and “ni-YOO-way” — claimed its independence from New Zealand in 1974 and has never had many more than 5,000 inhabitants at a time. With a current population of only 1,900 and a land mass about one-and-a-half times the size of Washington, D.C., Niue’s small communities don’t commit much crime. The police there contend instead with a different problem — high rates of alcohol consumption. Niue men over the age of 14 each drank an average of 24.3 liters of pure alcohol in 2010, compared to the 18.1 liters consumed by American men, according to the World Health Organization.
When islanders do land in the jailhouse, built next to a golf course in the capital of Alofi, it’s usually for alcohol-fueled disruptive behavior.
The numbers show that the island’s men drink far more than its women, and it causes the most problems among young people, according to Niue’s police chief, Tony Edwards. Born in Auckland, New Zealand, but raised in Niue — which has one general hospital — Edwards has commanded the island’s 14-man police force for three years. Day to day, his primary concerns are traffic offenses, like drunk driving and driving without a proper license. Conflicts rarely make it to Niue’s court.
But Edwards sees more action as a chair of the Pacific Island Chiefs of Police, an umbrella law enforcement organization with 21 member countries. They deal with more colorful transnational crimes, Edwards says — the trafficking of drugs and firearms across the Pacific, and (occasional) gang activity. In 2014, Niue fielded a major international crime on its own: the kidnapping of an American boy by his father, who sailed the pair away from Seattle and was arrested by the island’s police force.
Niue was further linked to international crime through its connections to a Panamanian law firm, exposed just last week for creating hard-to-trace offshore companies. The firm locked down the rights to register offshore companies in Niue, until the deals drew suspicion from the United States Department of State and Niue cut the relationship in 2003.
It’s much more unusual to hear of actual Niueans committing crime. When they do land in the jailhouse, built next to a golf course in the capital of Alofi, it’s usually for alcohol-fueled disruptive behavior, according to Edwards. In those cases, he says, “Social behavior does seem to became a problem, and we put [those people] away for the night to calm them down.” Niue’s coast offers some bars, mostly operating out of restaurants, and beer is one of its top-five food and drink imports (it also imports wine and hard liquor, though in lower dollar amounts). But the drinking culture extends to people’s homes and private events.
Niueans, in fact, recognize the scream men let out once sufficiently drunk as a distinct event: a kalaga.
Across the Asian Pacific region, one 2015 study found, Niue ranks in the top five countries both for alcohol consumption per capita and binge drinking. In 2004, it ranked as one of the top 10 countries in the world for drinking, though its overall rates have declined slightly since then. The World Health Organization found that, in 2010, 38.2 percent of Niue’s over-14 male population had recently engaged in binge drinking, compared to 23.2 percent in the U.S.
Although it is not clear what drives this trend, alcohol is an important component in Niue’s communal culture. The amount of food and alcohol served at an event is taken to reflect the host’s status, sense of social responsibility in providing for guests, and, perhaps most importantly, his or her generosity. An important Niuean concept is fakaalofa, or gifting. Used in greetings, fakaalofa also refers to gifts — often alcohol — that strengthen bonds by signifying shared values, generosity in particular. Niueans exchange alcohol as fakaalofa not only at weddings, funerals, and other large gatherings, but also at haircuts and ear piercings. Niueans, in fact, recognize the scream men let out once sufficiently drunk as a distinct event: a kalaga.
Islanders have brought some of these traditions to New Zealand, which is now home to more than 12 times as many Niue natives than the island itself. Niue continues to depend largely on financial aid from its former parent nation, which draws islanders with its broader range of educational and employment opportunities. The emigration rates have prompted concern that Niue will lose most of its population.
But Police Chief Edwards has no plans to head back to Auckland or any other New Zealand city. His police force is working on legislation to create more tools for reducing alcohol-related crime and disruption, and he says he will stick around as the country leans increasingly on tourism to survive. “We need to continue to do as much as we can for those who visit our tiny island,” Edwards says. “Leaving has never crossed my mind.”