History: Pacific Today

The South Pacific Today

The modern world has transformed the Pacific. Outboards have replaced outriggers and Coca-Cola has been substituted for coconuts. Consumerism has caught on in the towns. As money becomes more important, the islanders learn the full meaning of urban unemployment, poverty, homelessness, inequality, and acculturation. Television is spreading, and attitudes are molded by rental DVDs available at hundreds of corner stores. Villagers are trapped by material desires.

The diet is changing as imported processed foods take the place of fiber-rich fresh foods such as breadfruit, taro, and plantain. The ocean would seem a bountiful resource, but on many islands the reef waters are already overharvested, and the inhabitants often lack the ability to fish the open sea. Thus the bitter irony of Japanese canned mackerel.

Noncommunicable nutrition-related ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer now account for three-quarters of all deaths in urban Polynesia, but less than a quarter in predominantly rural Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, where infectious and parasitic diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, pneumonia, diarrhea, hepatitis, and tuberculosis prevail. Cigarette smoking is a major health problem; more than 50 percent of Pacific men are habitual smokers. Rural islanders tend to smoke more than those in the towns, and 88 percent of rural indigenous Fijian men are smokers.

Salaried employment leads inevitably to the replacement of the extended family by the nuclear family, and in Melanesia there's a growing gap between new middle classes with government jobs and the village-based populace. Western education has aroused expectations that the island economies are unable to fulfill, and the influx to the capitals has strained social services to the breaking point, creating serious housing and employment problems, especially among the young. Populations are growing faster than the local economies—leading to declining living standards—and oversized bureaucracies stifle development. Melanesian women are victimized by domestic violence, economic burdens, and cultural change.

Subsistence agriculture continues to play an important role in the South Pacific, and most land is still held communally by extended families or clans; however, pressure is mounting from outside agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to convert communal land into individual ownership under the guise of "economic development." Western economic models give importance only to commodity crops useful to industrialized countries as raw materials, discounting the stabilizing effect of subsistence. When the tiller of the soil is no longer able to eat his own produce, he becomes a consumer of processed foods marketed by food-exporting countries such as Australia and New Zealand, and the country loses a measure of its independence.

Individually registered land can be taxed and sold on the open market, and throughout the third world the privatization of land has inevitably led to control of the best tracts passing into the hands of transnational corporations, banks, and the government. Pressure from agencies such as the IMF to force local governments to register land and allow it to be used as loan collateral is part of a stratagem to dispossess the islanders of their land. Once their communal land is gone, people are no longer able to fall back on their own produce when economies deteriorate, and they find themselves forced to take any job they can find. Acutely aware of the fate of the Hawaiians and the New Zealand Maoris, the islanders are highly sensitive about land rights, yet these instincts are coming under increasing pressure as local governments have "land mobilizations" forced upon them by foreign capital.

All across the South Pacific, regional stability is eroded by class differences, government corruption, uneven development, industrial exploitation, militarism, and the declining terms of trade. By making the economies dependent on external markets, much current "economic development" destabilizes societies once secure in "primitive affluence," and virtually every Pacific entity is now subservient to some degree of neocolonial control. Local interests are sacrificed for the benefit of transnational corporations and industrialized states far across the sea.