The Facts

Click here to subscribe to the print edition. [image, unknown] new internationalist 101[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] July 1981[image, unknown] Click here to search the mega index.

PACIFIC ISLANDS [image, unknown] The Facts

[image, unknown]



The 20,000-plus islands of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia (excluding Hawaii and New Zealand) are scattered over 29 million square kilometres of the world's largest ocean which, at 166 million square kilometres, occupies a third of the surface of Earth.

The islands were discovered over a period extending from about 20,000 BP (before present) until today, mostly by people who were in the process of becoming Micronesians, Melanesians and Polynesians.

Latecomers to the Pacific Islands were adventurers and traders such as Ferdinand Magellan (1520), Alvaro de Mendana, Abel Tasman and James Cook (1769) who assumed they were 'discovering' the region.

'Civilisation' was received with mixed feelings by colonised Islanders everywhere and became even more confusing for them between 1941 and 1945 when Japanese and Europeans wreaked havoc throughout the Western Pacific.

Most islands are now independent, Britain, Australia and New Zealand having withdrawn. France, directly, and the US, indirectly, doggedly hang on to their possessions.


[image, unknown]


Of the five million Pacific Islanders, Melanesians number about four million, Polynesians 450,000 and Micronesians just under 300,000. Fiji has a majority Indian population resulting from immigrant plantation labour (1879-1916); French Europeans nearly outnumber Melanesians in New Caledonia; and there has been heavy French and Asian immigration into French Polynesia. Other non-Pacific peoples in the Islands include a variety of Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Koreans.

More than 700 languages are spoken on the island of New Guinea alone and more than 1000 throughout the Islands. English, pidgin and French are the lingua franca of the Pacific.



[image, unknown]



[image, unknown]

Traditionally the Islands have exported coconut products and minerals. Fish exports have increased with establishment of marine limits. Seabed minerals and new land-based mineral finds will benefit only a handful of islands. Tourism is increasingly questioned as a revenue earner.

Fuel bills, predictably, are rising all across the Pacific and food imports continue to grow as a percentage of total even though most Island groups have the potential for self-sufficiency.


Major theatre in Pacific War. Independence ex-Australia 1975. Parliamentary democracy, weak non-ideological parties. Decentralised provincial government. Reducing dependence Australian aid. Pro-West, China. Anti-nuclear testing/dumping. Aspires ASEAN membership. Small army, blooded in defence of Vanuatu independence 1980.

Population: 3m (11% urban)
Land area: 462,243 sq km
Sea area: 3.1m sq km
GDP per capita: $586
Income: Minerals, coffee, cocoa
Infant mortality (per 1000): 125
Life expectancy: 49
Aid per capita: $98


Much blackbirding (illegal labour recruiting) late 1850s. Bitter fighting Guadalcanal Pacific War. Independence ex-UK 1978. Parliamentary democracy. Weak parties but friction between central government and western islands. Pro-West. Japanese fisheries base. Possible copper deposits. Discourages tourism. Near self-sufficiency rice. Heavy Unilever presence.

Population: 221,200 (9% urban)
Land area: 28,530 sq km
Sea area: 1.3m sq km
GDP per capita: $431
Income: Copra, fish, timber
Infant mortality (per 1000): 46
Life expectancy: 54
Aid per capita: $122


Anglo-French condominium of New Hebrides until troubled independence 1980. French withdrew reluctantly, Britain abjectly. Santo Island secessionists, encouraged by American land speculators, quelled with help PNG military immediately post-independence. Government by Anglo-orientated Christian socialist Vanuaaku Party.

Population: 114,500 (18% urban)
Land area: 11,880 sq km
Sea area: 680,000 sq km
GDP per capita: $510
Income: Copra, fish
Aid per capita: $182


French colony (Paris regards it as sovereign territory). Nuclear testing base with large presence French military. Population mainly Polynesian and Polynesian-mix. Strong support for self-government, growing support for complete independence. French intransigence may change with election of socialist President Francois Mitterand.

Population: 144,600
Land area: 3265 sq km
Sea area: 5.03m sq km
GDP per capita: $5400
Income: Coconut oil, tourism
Infant mortality (per 1000): 68
Life expectancy: 61
Aid per capita: $630


Poor, but independent neighbour of col¬onial American Samoa. Independence in 1962 from New Zealand. Parliamentary system but voting only by 20,000-plus heads of extended families (matai). First Island state to allow Chinese embassy, 1976. Fierce retention of Samoan culture despite heavy foreign influence.

Population: 155,000 (21% urban)
Land area: 2935 sq km
Sea area: 120,000 sq km
GDP per capita: $343
Income: Copra, cocoa
Infant mortality (per 1000) : 36
Life expectancy: 62
Aid per capita: $126


Ceded to Britain in 1874. Indian labour introduced for sugar plantations led to Indians outnumbering Fijians by 1950s. Political parties split on racial lines by independence in 1970 with Fijians holding power. Indians gained slim majority 1977 but unable to form government. Only Fijians entitled to own land.

Population: 619,000 (37% urban)
Land area: 18,272 sq km
Sea area: 1.29m sq km
GDP per capita: $1595
Income: Sugar, fish, coconut oil, tourism
Infant mortality (per 1000): 46
Life expectancy: 62
Aid per capita: $42


French colony since 1853 (Paris regards it as sovereign territory). Long history Kanak (Melanesian) resistance. France determined to guard large nickel deposits. independence movement heartened by Mitterand victory although Melanesian population now outnumbered by immigrant European and other races.

Population: 139,000 (61% urban)
Land area., 19,103 sq km
Sea area: 1.7m sq km
GDP per capita: $6370
Income: Nickel
Infant mortality (per 1000): 25
Life expectancy: 64
Aid per capita: $823


[image, unknown]

*New Internationalist assessment: C=colony; D=dependency; I=independent; SG=self-governing.
**The US-controlled Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) are in the process of splitting into self-governing groupings 'in free association' with the US. They are the Northern Marianas, the Federated States of Micronesia (formerly Yap, Truk, Ponape and Kosrae In the Caroline Islands), the Marshall Islands and Belau (the Palau group in the Carolines). The US, irres¬pective of Micronesian wishes, clearly intends to utilise the islands for mili¬tary purposes as it chooses.

Source: All figures from the South Pacific Commission's South Pacific Economies 1978: Statistical Summary published October 1980.

Previous page.
Choose another issue of NI.
Go to the contents page.
Go to the NI home page.
Next page.

New Internationalist issue 101 magazine cover This article is from the July 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop