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13.1: The Pacific Islands

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Outline the three main areas of the South Pacific: Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.
    2. Distinguish between low islands and high islands.
    3. Determine which islands remain under the auspices of France, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, or the United States.
    4. Describe the primary economic activities of the islands in the realm.
    5. Summarize the main environmental concerns of the islands in each region.

    Introducing the Realm

    The Pacific realm is home to many islands and island groups. The largest island is New Guinea, which is home to most of the realm’s population. Many of the Pacific islands have become independent countries, while others remain under the auspices of their colonial controllers. The Pacific Theater of World War II was a battleground between the Japanese and American forces and had a large impact on the current conditions of many of the islands. The United States has been a major player in the post–World War II domination and control of various island groups. The Hawaiian Islands became the fiftieth US state in 1959.

    The many islands can be divided into three main groups based on physical geography, local inhabitants, and location: Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Indigenous cultural heritage remains strong in the South Pacific, but Western culture has made deep inroads into people’s lives. The globalization process bears heavily on the economic conditions that influence the cultural dynamics of the Pacific. Islands or island groups that remain under outside political jurisdiction are the most influenced by European or American cultural forces. Western trends in fast food, pop music, clothing styles, and social customs often dominate television, radio, and the cinema. Invasive Western cultural forces take the focus away from the traditional indigenous culture and heritage of the people who inhabited these isolated islands for centuries.

    Traditionally, the islands were economically self-sufficient. Fishing and growing crops were the main economic activities, and nearby islands often established trade and exchanged natural resources. Fishing has been one of the most common ways of supporting the economy. There have been changes in the national boundaries to protect offshore fishing rights around each sovereign entity. Many waters have been overfished, consequently reducing the islands’ ability to provide food for their people or to gain national wealth. An increase in population and the introduction of modern technologies has brought about a dependency on the world’s core areas for economic support.

    The Pacific is an extreme peripheral realm with little to offer to the core areas for economic exploitation. In recent decades, some national wealth has been gained from the mining of substances such as phosphates on a few of the islands. The main resources available are a pleasant climate, beautiful beaches, and tropical island terrain, all of which can be attractive to tourists and people from other places. Tourism is a growing sector of the service industry and a major means of gaining wealth for various island groups. To attract tourism, the islands must invest in the necessary infrastructure, such as airports, hotels, and supporting services. Long distances between islands and remote locations make tourism transportation expensive. Not every island has the funding to support these expenditures to draw tourists to their location.


    The region of the Pacific north of Australia that borders Indonesia to the east is called Melanesia. The name originally referred to people with darker skin but does not adequately describe the region’s current ethnic diversity. The main island groups include Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. All are independent countries except New Caledonia, which is under the French government. The island of New Guinea is shared between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Many islands on the eastern side of Indonesia share similar characteristics but are not generally included in the region of Melanesia.

    Independent Countries of Melanesia

    • Fiji
    • Papua New Guinea
    • Solomon Islands
    • Vanuatu

    Other Island Groups

    • New Caledonia (France)

    Figure 13.2 The Region of Melanesia


    Papua New Guinea

    Papua New Guinea is the largest country in the Pacific realm and therefore the largest in Melanesia. It is diverse in both physical terrain and human geography. The high mountains of the interior reach 14,793 feet. Snow has been known to fall in the higher elevations even though they are located near the equator. Many local groups inhabit the island, and more than seven hundred separate languages are spoken, more than in any other country in the world. Indigenous traditions create strong centripetal forces. Many islands of Melanesia are recently independent of their European controllers; Papua New Guinea received independence in 1975 and is working toward fitting into the global community.

    Papua New Guinea is a diverse country that still has many mysteries to be revealed in its little-explored interior. The country’s large physical area provides greater opportunities for the exploitation of natural resources for economic gain. The interior of the island has large areas that have not been exploited by large-scale development projects. In the past few decades, oil was discovered and makes up its largest export item. Gold, copper, silver, and other minerals are being extracted in extensive mining operations, often by outside multinational corporations. Subsistence agriculture is the main economic activity of most of the people. Coffee and cocoa are examples of agricultural exports.

    A number of islands off Papua New Guinea’s eastern coast—including Bougainville—have valuable mineral deposits. Bougainville and the islands under its jurisdiction are physically a part of the Solomon Island archipelago but are politically an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. Volcanic vents deep under the sea continue to bring hot magma and minerals to the surface of the ocean floor, creating valuable exploitable resources. Papua New Guinea has laid claim to these islands and the underwater resources within their maritime boundaries. Rebel movements have pushed for the independence of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville but have been unsuccessful. The islands remain under the government of Papua New Guinea.

    Solomon Islands

    To the east of the island of Guinea are the Solomon Islands, a group of more than one thousand islands. About eighty of them hold most of the population of more than a half a million. The island of Guadalcanal was the site of some of the fiercest fighting in World War II between Japan and the United States. Honiara, the capital city, is on Guadalcanal. The Solomon Islands were a colony of Great Britain but gained independence in 1978. Colonialism, World War II, and ethnic conflict on the islands created serious centrifugal cultural forces, divisions, and political tensions over the past few decades. In 2003, military and police troops from other islands and Australia intervened to restore order after ethnic tension erupted into civil unrest.

    Figure 13.3 Malaitan Chief on the Solomon Islands


    The heritage and history of these islands includes local cultures complete with isolated traditions and ethnic organization.

    Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

    Shifting tectonic plates are the source of environmental problems. Active seismic activity has created earthquakes and tsunami conditions that have brought devastation to the region. An earthquake of 8.1 magnitude hit the Solomon Islands in 2007, bringing high waves and many aftershocks. The tsunami killed at least fifty-two people, and as many as one thousand homes were destroyed. The islands contain several active and dormant volcanoes. Tropical rain forests cover a number of the islands and are home to rare orchids and other organisms. There is concern that these resources might be harmed by deforestation and the exploitation of resources for economic gain.


    Figure 13.4 Saint Joseph’s Bay on the Isles of Pines, New Caledonia


    These remote islands have moderate climates and beautiful coastal settings. Many have been unduly romanticized by works of fiction. These islands are isolated and can lack resources; life can be more difficult than it is often portrayed.

    Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

    The country of Vanuatu was inhabited by a large number of South Pacific groups; as a result, many languages are spoken within a relatively small population. The French and the British both colonized the island archipelago. It was called the New Hebrides before independence in 1980, when the name was changed to Vanuatu. These small volcanic islands have an active volcano and have experienced earthquakes in recent years. One of Vanuatu’s means of bringing in business has been to establish offshore banking and financial services, similar to what is found in the Caribbean. Many shipping firms register their ships there because of the advantages of lower taxes and flexible labor laws.

    New Caledonia

    New Caledonia is still a colony of France and was once a French prison colony. Under a current agreement, sovereignty is slowly being turned over to the local island government. Periodic reevaluations of the local government will be conducted to see if independence can be granted.

    New Caledonia has historically relied on subsistence agriculture and fishing for its livelihood. About 25 percent of the world’s known nickel resources are located here. Nickel resources will substantially affect the economy, bring in foreign investments, and raise the standard of living.


    Fiji is located in the eastern sector of Melanesia and has almost one million people. The country includes more than one hundred inhabitable islands, but two are home to most of the population. Colonialism heavily impacted the population’s ethnic makeup. During British colonial rule, thousands of workers from South Asia were brought in by the British to work on the sugar plantations. After a century of British rule, Fiji became independent in 1970. The people of South Asian descent remained in Fiji and now make up more than one-third of the population. Ethnic conflicts erupted on the political scene between the Melanesian majority and the South Asian minority. Political coups and coalition governments have attempted to work out political solutions with limited success. Fiji is quite well developed and has a substantial tourism industry that augments the other agricultural and mining activities.