top of page

Nia Tero's 

Transformative Leadership Programme


Cook Islanders Tamaiva Mateariki (back left), Liam Kokaua (back right), Joshua Jim (front) with their guide "Uncle Tyson" (back center) in Ecuador on a night 'creepy-crawly' discovery trip.  The three were participants in Nia Tero's ( Transformative Leadership Programme, which saw the group travel to Ecuador, Mexico, and Kyrgyzstan and share local and traditional knowledge with the indigenous people of each location visited.

ECUADOR - February 2019

For the start of Nia Tero's Transformative Leadership Programme, Kōrero o te 'Ōrau member Liam Kokaua with Cook Islanders Tamaiva Mateariki and Joshua Jim spent three days boarding with a beautiful family in an indigenous community in San Clemente in the highlands of Ecuador. Life at 2800 metres above sea level was actually really good. They ate the most incredible, tasty and healthy food (which they assisted in preparing) and enjoyed the company of the most kind and loving people who respect themselves and their culture. There were many similarities to our own indigenous traditions in the Pacific despite the huge geographic and climatic differences.

Some highlights from San Clemente: the Pacific boys found their traditional and modern agriculture practices and crops very interesting.  The learned about the four main festivals in Quechua culture, including the most important festival of Inti Raymi and the Aya Huma character and his costume. Joshua shared some knowledge in return through showing locals how to prune mandarin trees and how to make air layers of fruit trees


Joshua Jim in traditional wear of the Quechua culture.  Photo credit: Margarita Mora (Nia Tero).

The boys had the opportunity to visit the Amazon!  After attempting two times to land at Coca Airport, they had to turn back because the heavy rain had flooded the runway.  After returning to Quito, they refuelled and waited for the rain to clear, and flew for the second time the 45 mins to Coca.  From Coca, it was a bus trip to the river port, then a two-hour boat ride down the Napo River to Ayunga community.   

They had some amazing natural experiences in the Yasuni National Park, seeing a huge range of biodiversity.  Also, they visited clay licks to see scarlet macaws and parrots in their natural habitat.  The macaws eat the clay to neutralise the toxins in their bodies from eating too many fruit seeds.


There was a brief stay at the Añangu cultural center, which embraced traditional style architecture made of local materials.  There were also art pieces such as a traditional instrument made of turtle shell, a presentation on the experiences of community tourism by the President of Añangu community, a recycling station, and wooden (traditional?) canoes,  In the afternoon, the group paddled up a black water creek.  There were no anacondas, but a caiman (an animal similar to a crocodile) was spotted.

"Only Team Cook Islands were brave enough to go on the NIGHT TOUR in the Amazon with uncle Tyson. One of the scariest and funnest nights ever!  The best thing about our brief stay was the people who were a part of it: those from our Nia Tero Transformative Leadership Programme as well as our awesome indigenous Kichwa guides, Tyson and Ben, who work for the Napo Cultural Centre.  Also, more animals which we saw including red howler monkeys, crested owls, scarlet macaws in flight (slow motion), frogs, and other interesting insects," reflected Liam Kokaua.

MEXICO - May 2019

Kōrero o te 'Ōrau member Liam Kokaua with Cook Islanders Tamaiva Mateariki and Joshua Jim attended a three-day leadership training in Mexico in May. The training was run by The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, Boston.   Their first day in Mexico found the boys exploring some of the similarities in environment and food compared to back home in the Cook Islands with fresh fish including tilapia and mangoes sighted.  Kota'a (frigatebirds) were flying low on the day of their arrival. 

While touring the town, KO member Liam noticed an issue of sargassum seaweed blooms at Puerto Morelos and the wider Cancún area. Similar to algal blooms in Muri Lagoon, these are natural cycles which may be becoming more intense due to climate change and other human impacts on the marine environment.  The local community's response to sargassum seaweed washing up on their coastline, in an area dependent on tourism for local people's livelihoods, is everyone lends a hand raking, carting wheelbarrows or using a bulldozer to get the seaweed off the beach.  This happens daily every morning when the seaweed is in bloom.

Aside from managing the seaweed to keep beaches "pristine" at Puerto Morelos. Our boys noticed another unfortunate environmental impact of catering to tourism- a demand for souvenirs such as shark jaws, dried starfish and seashells exists and must be devastating for local marine life.

They also visited Nuevo Durango - a place for breeding rare native species before they are returned into the wild...including species of deer, marsupials, and birds. The group visited a greenhouse which uses limestone rock and what little soil is available to grow vegetables. The landscape here is raised coral limestone, very similar to the Makatea islands in the Cook Islands. Maiva and Josh also showed locals how they climb the tumu vi, settling into their accomodation (are kikau) for the next three nights.  The boys enjoyed Mexican village life, local food, and even helping paraku tita at their accommodation.  


The boys had the opportunity to learn about beekeeping in Nuevo Durango. This Mayan community have focussed on preserving 17 bee species which have important food and medicinal value, with some now close to extinction. All these innovative methods have been devised by this man without any outside help.  The best thing about these 17 bee species is none of them are able to sting!

While in Mexico, Josh was able to use his indigenous knowledge and skills learnt from his upbringing in Atiu to hold a special weaving workshop for some of the Mayan women in Nuevo Durango.  During their stay, the Cook Islanders and Mayan community members had many conversations about important plant species. Often the "tree of life" or coconut tree was discussed, however the coconut tree is not used anywhere near as much there as it is in the Pacific. For example, umbrella palms are used instead for thatching.  The locals were especially interested in a pare ukarau (coconut leaf hat) which Josh had made. This led him to offer to organise the training. Upon leaving, Josh also weaved and gifted a 'apuka taporo' basket to the community, thanking them for their hospitality.

On their final full day in Mexico, the Nia Tero group travelled to the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve. Here they learnt about how this large (1.3 million acres) terrestrial and marine reserve was established, and how the Mayan community has been an integral part of its development.  The biosphere reserve includes numerous wildlife such as manatees, caimans, and crocodiles. There are also a huge number of Mayan archaeological sites. After visiting the ruins of an old Mayan city, the group travelled by boat across a freshwater lagoon, before ending with a floating tour down a limestone river current, which they shared with a baby caiman.

This 2nd module focused on being a "gym" for the group to "train" in order to understand and harness the power of their emotions.   A number of activities required the participants to listen to their inner voice in challenging times. These included diving into a Cenote (limestone cave pool) and climbing a steep 42 metre high Mayan temple. Being aware of our own needs and those of others in these challenging situations was a key concept. 


Left: Tamaiva Mateariki learning how to weave from the Mayan women of Puerto Morelos. 

Right: Joshua Jim teaching the Mayan women how to weave a 'pare ukarau'.  Photo credits: Liam Kokaua.


Kōrero o te 'Ōrau member Liam Kokaua was in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan for the third and final module of a transformational leadership programme in July, which is being run by the Dalai Lama center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During this final training, the attendees were given the opportunity to create a project which will be presented to Nia Tero (the conservation organisation which supports this programme). Each project focuses on benefitting their respective communities in some way, and if suitable Nia Tero will provide funding to make it successful.

The leadership training includes 11 young leaders from the 4 indigenous communities who are currently represented within Nia Tero's Young Fellows programme -The Cook Islands, Suriname, The Federated States of Micronesia, and an indigenous community from Canada.  In the past, two other Cook Islands boys (Tamaiva Mateariki and Joshua Jim) also attended trainings with Liam. However as both were unable to make this final training, they will be updated at a later date.

The Nia Tero group were able to meet with other young indigenous leaders from Kyrgyzstan, and learn about projects they have been working on, which include: bringing back the use of traditional musical instruments, teaching youth about indigenous botanical knowledge, reviving traditional local varieties of crops and animal breeds, and displaying ancient oral traditions through new digital platforms. The Nia Tero group were also able to spend time with distinguished elders and knowledge-holders from Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, who left a huge impact on the young group.

Meitaki Ma'ata to Nia Tero and the Dalai Lama Center for this opportunity for our boys! And we wish Liam luck in securing a project which can be implemented here in the Cook Islands.


Liam Kokaua with a Kyrgyzstan elder in the 3rd and final module for Nia Tero's Transformative Leadership Programme.

For more information on the NGO and to support their work, please email

bottom of page