The Pacific Region


Outline

  1. Regional Characteristics
  2. Melanesia
  3. Micronesia
  4. Polynesia
  5. References
  6. Review Questions

Regional Characteristics

The vast realm of the Pacific Islands is often called Oceania and includes approximately 30,000 islands. The islands comprise a mere 376,000 square miles, but they are spread throughout the largest ocean, the Pacific. This total geographical area, spreading over several million square miles, encompasses almost an entire hemisphere. The study of the Pacific Islands helps us to see the impact that isolation, scarcity of resources and land, small populations, limited economic opportunities, and social/ political dysfunction, and colonialism can have on a region.

The islands of the Pacific are formed in three basic ways. The first is when a volcanic eruption occurs and produces an island with an extremely rugged inner core. This type of island frequently has a higher altitude in the center, making it a "high" island. High islands have the benefit of orographic precipitation due to warm ocean air being forced up to higher altitudes due to the height of the mountainous interior of the island. At higher altitudes, the air cools and rain falls as a result. The islands can also form as flat atolls on top of a coral reef. This produces "low" islands, which have little to no precipitation. Instead, they exhibit desert-like conditions with very little water. Third, the islands can form as a combination of the volcanic and coral reef formation. This can occur where the volcanic island forms and a coral reef forms around it, but the volcanic island is below sea level and the coral reef forms a donut shaped island around it above water. Frequently, the volcanic activity produces a high island and the coral reef surrounds it, mostly under water, and serves to protect the island from erosion.

The islands were initially populated as people migrated from south and eastern Asia. The indigenous people of this region migrated in a sweeping motion from the area of Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, etc.) eastward to Melanesia, north to Micronesia, and even further east to Polynesia. These are the three main areas of the Pacific Islands. The physical geography of the islands made economic development difficult. The islands are frequently rugged due to volcanic origin or arid due to coral reef formation. They are, for the most part, relatively small and limited in their carrying capacity. Great distances often isolate individual islands, which makes communication difficult. Most peoples relied on subsistence farming and fishing to survive, with very little trade between islands.

Colonialization had severely disrupted traditional life on the islands by the late 19th century. The islands were mostly governed by artificial colonial administrative groupings that disregarded historical culture and resource utilization patterns. Plantation agriculture of sugar cane, coffee, tea and cacao was introduced, as well as mining of gold, copper, nickel, manganese, petroleum and natural gas. The lives of the natives was further disrupted by importation of alien laborers, which included Indians to Fiji, Chinese to French Polynesia, Koreans to Guam, Palau, and the Northern Mariana, Vietnamese to New Caledonia, and Japanese to Micronesia. Hawaii was an extreme case as the native Hawaiian population is now a tiny minority. Altogether today, there are 23 political entities. The 10 independent nations are Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Western Samoa, and Tonga. The 5 self-governing nations in free association with former colonial rulers are Solomon Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Tuvalu, Niue, and Cook Islands. The dependent nations are New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis & Futuna of France, Pitcairn of Britain, Guam and American Samoa of the U.S., as well as Hawaii being a U.S. state. This mosaic of political structures is a result of the region's complex colonial history and post-independence struggles. The colonizers, making the islanders dependent on imported food and goods, destroyed the subsistence economy. Also destroyed were the traditional diets, social patterns, and mores.

Even if the Pacific Islands had not been invaded and colonized, they would have faced challenges in the global economy. Traditional societies were typically hierarchical and community based, and they were dependent on fishing and subsistence farming of coconuts, taro, breadfruit, and other fruits and tubers. They had to deal with severe storms, famines, and other disasters. However, the people of the islands usually had a beautiful environment, temperate/tropical climate, and fairly stable populations and societies. Had the outside world remained outside, the people might have been able to maintain their traditional, isolated lifestyles without worry of the world around them.

The culture of the people often depends on if they are on a high island or a low island. The low coral islands outnumber the high volcanic islands. High islands tend to be well-watered and have good volcanic soil. As a result, agricultural products show some diversity and life is more secure. Populations tend to be larger on these islands. On the low islands, drought is the rule and fishing and the coconut palm are the mainstays of life. Small communities cluster on the low islands, and many of these have died out over time. Today, the people of the islands face serious socioeconomic and political problems. They are victims of high rates of morbidity and infant mortality, short life expectancy, imbalanced diets, obesity, health problems, alcoholism, drug violence, and gangs. They also are faced with the problem of how to deal with ineffective governments, uncertain national identities, decreasing agricultural opportunities, increasing urban migration, and very low literacy and education standards.

Table 1. The population and political structure of the three main regions of islands in the Pacific Region.

Regional Name

Island Name

Political Structure

Population

Melanesia

Total Population:

6,400,000

Papua New Guinea

Independent

4,800,000

Solomon Islands

Free Assoc.- U.K.

400,000

Vanuatu

Independent

200,000

New Caledonia

French Territory

200,000

Fiji

Independent

800,000

Micronesia

Total Population:

650,000

Palau

Independent

20,000

Fed. States-Micronesia

Independent

100,000

Guam

U.S. Territory

200,000

N. Mariana Islands

Free-Assoc.-U.S.

50,000

Marshall Islands

Independent

100,000

Nauru

Independent

10,000

Kiribati

Independent

100,000

Polynesia

Total Population:

1,800,000

Hawaiian Islands

U.S. State

1,200,000

Tuvalu

Free-Assoc.- U.K.

10,000

Wallis and Futuna

French Territory

15,000

Tokelau Islands

New Zealand Territory

10,000

Western Samoa

Independent

200,000

American Samoa

U.S. Territory

60,000

Tonga

Independent

100,000

Niue

Free-Assoc.- New Zealand

10,000

Cook Islands

Free-Assoc.- New Zealand

20,000

French Polynesia

French Territory

200,000

Pitcairn

U.K. Territory

> 100

The population of the islands is diverse, and the highest concentration is in Melanesia, with no island having a population less than 200,000. Papua New Guinea has the highest population with 4.8 million, and Hawaii is a distant second with 1.2 million. Polynesia, aside from Hawaii, clearly has the most island with small populations, but Micronesia has the smallest total population overall. The total population for the Pacific Islands is about 8.85 million. These islands do not have high a high GNP per capita, which further confirms their low status on the world's economic stage.

Melanesia

Melanesia consists of a group of islands stretching along the northern perimeter of Australia from New Guinea east to Fiji. Its major island groups include the nations of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia. The name is derived from the word melanin, which is the pigment in the skin and refers to the dark skin and hair of the native Papuan-speaking people that dominate this area.

The Melanesian islands are the most populous of the Pacific island regions with a total population of approximately 6.4 million, 4.8 million of which live on Papua New Guinea. Subsistence farming has long since been a way of life for the people of Melanesia. Except for Papua New Guinea, which has copper, gold and oil, and New Caledonia, with nickel, most islands still rely on coconut and copra for their export income. The islands tend to remain poor because of their limited resources. Tourism has had little impact on the peoples or the economies of Melanesia.

Papua New Guinea became a sovereign state in 1975 after almost a century of rule by the British and Australians. In Papua New Guinea, English is the official language and is spoken by an educated minority, but there are over 700 languages spoken throughout. The majority of the people of this region are Papuans, and the rest are mostly Melanesians. East of New Guinea lies the Solomon Islands that also shows the diversity of the region as its people speak about 120 languages. Vanuatu neighbors the Solomon Islands and has fewer languages, but has 80 islands. The French colony of New Caledonia is heavily subsidized and has above average income. Almost half of the people of New Caledonia are Melanesian with a remaining third being of French descent. On the eastern margin of Melanesia lies Fiji. Half the Fijians are Melanesian, the other half is mostly comprised of South Asians from India that were brought by the British during colonial times to work on the sugar plantations.

No two countries present the same form of multiculturalism. Each has its own challenges to confront. Some of these challenges tend to spill over into neighboring islands as well as more distant foreign lands.

Micronesia

Micronesia is the group of islands located to the North of Melanesia from Guam and the Marianas on the west to Kiribati on the east. It includes the islands of Guam, Kiribati, Nauru, the Marshall and Northern Mariana Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. The region's name derives from micro, which means small, referring to the small islands that dominate here. The area consists of more than 2000 islands, many no larger than 1 square mile in size. There are some volcanic islands (high islands) but they are outnumbered by the coral islands (low islands). Guam is the largest island at 210 square miles in size and no island are over 3300 feet above sea level.

The population of Micronesia is about 650,000, not nearly as populous as Melanesia. The Micronesian communities have developed a large number of spoken languages and are fairly isolated from each other in distance, but not in ties to each other. There is a good relationship between high island farmers and low island fishermen. The Micronesians, especially the low-islanders, are excellent seafarers. The trade for food and other basic needs encourages circulation among the islanders. Sometimes the threat of a typhoon makes the low-islanders seek safety on higher islands.

Until 1986 the region was largely a U.S. Trust Territory. Today, all but Guam and the Marianas Islands are independent of any official foreign control. Guam holds the strongest ties with the United States as a U.S. territory. In effect, the United States provided billions of dollars in assistance to these countries in exchange for a commitment from the islands to avoid foreign policy actions that are contrary to U.S. interests. There are generally other costs of independence as well. For example, Palau granted the U.S. rights to existing military bases for 50 years following its independence.

Most of the people of Micronesia exist on subsistence farming or fishing. Virtually all of the countries rely on infusions of foreign aid to survive. The natural economic complimentary between the high-island farming cultures and the low island fishing communities all too often is negated by a cultural and spatial distance. Life for the Micronesians is a daily challenge.

Polynesia

Polynesia is east of Micronesia and Melanesia and lies in a triangle formed by Hawaii, Pitcairn and New Zealand. The name Polynesia is derived from the word poly, which means many, and it is the largest of the 3 subregions of the Pacific Islands. The water area of Polynesia is about 15,000,000 square miles, while the land area of Polynesia is only 114,000 square miles. Polynesia is made up of the following island groups: Hawaii, Tuvula, Wallis & Futuna, Tokleau Islands, Western Samoa, American Samoa, Niue, Cook Islands, Pitcairn, Tonga, and French Polynesia. The islands of Polynesia are also both volcanic high islands and coral low islands.

The population of Polynesia is only 1.9 million people. Hawaii has the largest population of any Polynesian island group with 1.2 million people. Polynesians have lighter-colored skin and wavier hair than other peoples of the Pacific region, and are known for their beautiful physiques. Anthropologists differentiate between these original Polynesians and a second group, the Neo-Hawaiians, who are a blend of Polynesian, European and Asian ancestries. Polynesian culture, though spread over a large geographic area, is remarkably similar from one island to the next and from one end to the other. Polynesians are well adapted to their maritime environment. Long before the Europeans arrived, the Polynesians were navigating their wide expanses of water using huge double canoes, following maps constructed from bamboo sticks and cowries shells, and navigating by the stars.

The foreign influence over the region was large at one time. The islands of Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States in 1959. Tonga became an independent country in 1970 after 70 years of British association. The Ellice Islands (renamed Tuvalu) received independence from Britain in 1978, but exist in free-association with Britain to this day. French Polynesia and Wallis & Futuna continue under French control, and New Zealand still controls the Tokelau Islands. Pitcairn is a British territory. The Polynesian islands are best known by Westerners who associate romance and tropical beauty with the region, especially with Hawaii and Tahiti. Those two island groups receive the greatest number of tourists.

Hawaii is an archipelago of more than 130 islands. The seven largest islands of Hawaii are: Oahu, Niihau, Lanai, Kauai, Molokai, Maui and Hawaii. Oahu is the most developed of the islands and has 80% of the population, or about 1 million people. Waikiki beach on Oahu is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The descendants of Elizabeth Sinclair privately own Niihau and they encourage the preservation of traditional Hawaiian culture. Kauai is called the garden island because of the lush green growth all over the island. Molokai is considered the most Hawaiian of all the islands and is known as the friendly island. The north side of Molokai was at one time home of a leprosy colony. Neighboring Lanai is privately owned and most all the cultivatable land is used to grow pineapples. Maui is known for the large number of tourists. Hawaii is the biggest island and is also the tallest island in Polynesia. Most of the population in Hawaii is of Asian ancestry because their ancestors were brought to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations. Most of the tourists that visit Hawaii come from Japan and the mainland United States.

Overall, in the process of politico-geographical fragmentation, Polynesia has suffered some severe blows. The region has lost much of its ancient culture and consistency. Today, the region is a patchwork of the new and the old, and the two are not harmonious. Often the new is bleak and barren and the old intensifies pressure on the people to try to regain some remnant of who they used to be.

References

Clawson, David L. World Regional Geography: A Developmental Approach, 7th Ed. Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ. (2001)

DeBlij, H.J. and Muller, Peter O. Regions and Concepts: 2000. John Wiley and Sons. New York, NY. (2000)

Haub, Carl and Cornelius, Diana. 2000 World Population Data Sheet. Population Reference Bureau. Washington, DC. (2000)

Review Questions

1. In terms of population, the smallest region in the Pacific World is: A. Melanesia; B. Micronesia; C. Polynesia; D. none of the above.

2. Of the following regions, which still has a colonial relationship with the United States: A. Melanesia; B. Micronesia; C. Polynesia; D. none of the above.

3. A common problem that plagues many of the islands in the Pacific World is: A. pollution; B. atomic fallout; C. declining fish populations; D. a lack of fresh water; E. none of the above.

4. The most populated islands in Polynesia are: A. Hawaii; B. Fiji; C. Samoa; D. Guam; E. Tahiti.

5. A distinction is made between so-called 'high island cultures' and 'low island cultures' in the Pacific Realm. 'High island cultures' refer to the: A. better-watered volcanic islands where agriculture is the mainstay; B. resource rich islands that depend on tourism; C. drought-plagued coral islands where fishing is the chief mode of subsistence; D. islands that have greater western influence; E. none of the above.

6. The most populated part of Melanesia is: A. Hawaii; B. Fiji; C. Tonga; D. Papua New Guinea; E. Guam.

7. Which Hawaiian Island is the most populated? A. Lanai; B. Kauai; C. Maui; D. Oahu; E. Niihau.

8. Micronesia has a population of: A. 2 million; B. 500,000; C. 1.8 million; D. 400,000; E. None of the above.

9. The official language of Papua New Guinea is A. French: B. English; C. Japanese; D Melanesian

10. Polynesia is a name that means A. small islands; B. few islands; C. large islands; D. many islands

11.Which two islands receive the most tourists each year? A. Fiji And Hawaii; B. Tahiti and Fiji; C. Hawaii and French Polynesia; D. Hawaii and Tahiti


Submitted by Sara Cederstrand on 5/23/01.