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The Pacific Islanders (or Oceanic people or Oceanians) are the indigenous inhabitants of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. The Oceanic people arrived on the islands thousands of years ago. By the time the first Europeans arrived on the islands, the Pacific Islanders had their own culture, traditions, and forms of organization. The European settlement entirely changed the region. Now, most of the Pacific Islands represent a combination of Oceanic people traditions as well as European style and culture. In the early 19th century, the French navigator Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville classified the indigenous inhabitants of the Pacific islands into three main categories considering their ethnic background: Melanesians, Micronesians, and Polynesians.
Polynesians inhabit the triangle of islands of the eastern Pacific. The region is bordered by the Hawaii Islands in the north, New Zealand in the east, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the far west. Polynesians also live on Tuvalu, Wallis and Futuna, Tokelau, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Cook Islands, and French Polynesia (including Society, Tuamotu, and Marquesas islands). Melanesians inhabit Papua New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu (New Hebrides), New Caledonia, and Fiji. Micronesia is the region situated north of the equator and east of the Philippines. The islands of Palau, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federal States of Micronesia (the Caroline Islands), Nauru, the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati are inhabited by Micronesians.
The distance between the islands, as well as the dense forests and high mountains, represented a barrier for the development of the Pacific people. Therefore, Oceanic people were not able to develop the same language, traditions, or industry. Sometimes, there are significant differences between tribes living on the same island. The most eloquent example is Papua New Guinea, where the tribes living on the coast were influenced by the European settlers and have a different level of development. In isolated regions inside the island, people still live like thousands of years ago, because their interaction with the modern society is nearly inexistent. The small volcanic islands of Polynesia have a higher degree of development and homogeneity because they had greater social and political unity. Another reason is that natural resources could be easily exploited as compared with Papua New Guinea. The traditional activities of Oceanic people are fishing, farming, and handicrafts. Polynesians were great navigators, as they managed to settle in the remote islands of the Pacific. They traveled thousands of miles on open sea guided by the motion of the stars, weather, the direction and speed of ocean waves, as well as the fauna and flora found on discovered islands. Certain theories stipulate that the Polynesian navigators reached South America, and even Antarctica.
The total gross domestic product (GDP) of the Pacific Islands (except New Zealand) amounted to $8.2 billion in 2014, increasing by 3.3 percent as compared with the previous year according to the World Bank. The highest values for GDP per capita are registered in New Zealand ($40,600), Cook Islands ($9,300), and Palau ($8,100).
New Zealand is the largest economy in the region, with an estimated GDP for 2015 of $192 billion. New Zealand is a modern market economy, its main trading partners being Australia, the European Union, the United States, Japan, China, and South Korea. Agricultural products represent two-thirds of New Zealand’s exports. Dairy products (milk powder, cheese, casein, and butter) account for one-sixth of the country’s total exports. New Zealand is also known for its large-scale sheep farming, being an important producer of wool. The significant decline of the price of wool after mid-1960s prompted local farmers to focus on the production of meat instead of wool. Meat accounts for 1/10th of New Zealand’s exports. The gradual reduction of subsidies and tax concessions for the agricultural sector in the 1980s made local farmers extremely vulnerable to the international shocks on commodity prices. The country has a developed manufacturing industry, including food processing, forestry, and aluminum production. Real GDP increased by 3.5 percent in 2014, and it is expected to grow by 3 percent in 2015, according to the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. The robust growth is driven by the positive evolution of trading sector, increased net immigration, as well as the rebuilding of Canterbury after 2010 earthquake.
The economic success of Cook Islands and Palau is due to their healthy tourist industries, large government staff, and low unemployment. Cook Islands and Palau are small economies (around 20,000 people each). Tourism accounts for 59 percent of GDP in Palau and 49 percent in Cook Islands. Pacific islands are well-known for their exotic beaches and balmy weather. The most popular tourist destinations are Fiji, Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, and Palau. The development of tourism in the above-mentioned countries owes much to their “paradise” beaches, good climate, frequent flights, good shopping, and security. Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, the Federal States of Micronesia, and Tonga have not succeeded in building strong tourism despite their efforts. The East-West Center does not anticipate a significant development of tourism in the low-lying atolls like Tuvalu, Nauru, Marshalls, and Kiribati. The lowest tourism receipts as a percentage of GDP were registered in Kiribati (2 percent), Papua New Guinea (3 percent), Solomon Islands (3 percent), and Marshall Islands (4 percent). According to the World Bank data, the highest number of tourists arrived in Fiji (543,000), Vanuatu (197,000), and Samoa (116,000).
It is considered that increasing exports generate future growth and prosperity. The highest exports are registered in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Solomon Islands. The main exported natural resources of Papua are gold, copper, phosphorus, natural gas, and timber. Papua’s exports represent 80 percent of the GDP. Despite the high exports, Papua remains one of the poorest countries in the region, as the GDP per capita represents only $1,200. The mining and natural gas activities provide jobs for only a small percentage of the population. The remaining population still live in the dense forests in the center of the island as they did thousands of years ago. Papua’s GDP slumped from $17 billion to $4 billion between 1994 and 2002 because of the civil war in Bougainville, which interrupted the mining activities. The logging industry brings two-thirds of the total exports of the Solomon Islands. Fiji islands have a more diversified range of products for export, including gold, fish, marine products, machinery, and agricultural products. After a peak registered in the 1980s because of the prosperous phosphate exports, the economy of Nauru registered a downward trend because of the slump of phosphate production as well as the poor financial management of the trust created from export activity.
Although fish is one of the main resources of the region, its contribution to the Pacific economy GDP does not surpass 13 percent. There have been considerable efforts to develop the agricultural activities. Commercial crops were introduced in different islands, considering the demand from the foreign markets. Cacao, oil palm, ramie, and pepper were brought to the islands. Sugar production was one of the main activities in Fiji, but the recent unfavorable trade agreements prompted the local producers to focus on other agricultural products. Services represents another important source of revenue for the economies in the region. The local authorities charge rental fees for using islands, harbors, airfields, and for authorizing the setup of military bases. Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Palau, and Nauru also provide financial services, especially the registration of foreign banks. Financial aid from developed countries represents another source of revenue for the small poor islands. According to Professor Biman Prasad, the main challenges for the future development of the Pacific islands are poor infrastructure, frequent natural disasters, land lease problems, monopolistic market structures, as well as political and security instability in certain regions. The continuous rising sea level is another major concern for the low-lying Pacific islands.
- Hezel, Francis X. Pacific Island Nations. How Viable Are Their Economies? Honolulu, HI: East-West Center, 2012.
- Statistics New Zealand. http://www.stats.govt.nz (Accessed December 2014).
- S. Census. “The Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Population” (2010). http://www.census.gov/ prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-12.pdf (Accessed December 2014).
- World “Pacific Islands.” http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/pacificislands (Accessed December 2014).