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Ecosystem Profile: Polynesia-Micronesia

Socioeconomic Features

Human Demography
Key human demographic features of most countries in the hotspot are high natural population growth rates, young populations (on average, around 40 percent of the population is under 14 years), increasing urbanization, and high out-migration to developed countries of the region such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

At current natural population growth rates of between 1 and 3 percent per annum, the population of the Polynesia-Micronesia region would be expected to double in the next 30 years (Micronesia) to 58 years (Polynesia) (SPC 2003a). High natural population growth rates are a result of a relatively high fertility rate but a declining death rate. The highest fertility rates are in the Micronesian countries such the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, with the lowest rates in Niue and French Polynesia. However, Pacific people are in general highly migratory and with the exception of Hawaii and most U.S. and French territories, all countries and states in the hotspot have experienced negative net migration or extensive out migration over the past decade (SPC 2003a).

While much of the migration is to metropolitan Pacific rim countries, such as the United States, New Zealand and Australia, some of it is between Pacific countries, such as from Samoa to American Samoa, from Micronesian countries to Guam, and from Wallis and Futuna to New Caledonia. Migration has artificially reduced the population growth in real terms in most countries and even resulted in negative net growth rates in some countries. Negative population growth as a result of emigration to New Zealand is a particularly serious problem in Niue and Tokelau, which are struggling to maintain viable economies and infrastructures with a diminishing labour force.

While the majority of Pacific islanders still live in rural areas, urban settlements are growing rapidly throughout the hotspot. As elsewhere in the world, the greater development and infrastructure and services available in urban areas has encouraged internal migration from rural to urban areas and from outer islands to regional centers and national capitals. This is especially true in Micronesia, which is more urbanized than Polynesia and also has a higher urban growth rate (SPC 2003a). The population density in many townships in the Pacific, but especially on the atolls such as Majuro, Funafuti and Tarawa, is reaching high levels, and is associated with health, sanitation, housing, and infrastructural problems (UNDP 1994).

The high proportion of young people and adults in the Polynesia-Micronesia region has resulted in pressures on infrastructure and services. Unemployment and underemployment of young adults is a major development issue in many hotspot states. Most PICTs are diversifying their economies to meet demands for semi-formal and informal employment but this is compounded by the general lack of vocational and technical skills amongst the youth.


Pacific island economies are highly vulnerable to external economic fluctuations, changing trade policies, and environmental shocks. The susceptibility of economies stems from an interplay of factors such as remoteness from world markets, a high dependency on exports of agricultural commodities that have relatively low value on international markets, geographical dispersion of islands, vulnerability to natural disasters, small internal markets, and limited natural resource bases (UNDP 1999).

The ecological dependency of Pacific economies and societies is well recognized. Pacific island societies have traditionally depended on the environment and natural resources for food, shelter, water, and medicine. However, as aspirations and expectations of Pacific communities have changed, economies are becoming increasingly dualistic with the co-existence of monetary and subsistence economies. At the same time, lifestyles are increasingly materialistic and westernized.

Agriculture and fisheries remain the mainstay of the economies of most of the independent hotspot countries and are particularly important because they support both subsistence economies and export industries that contribute significantly to economic growth. Formerly, agricultural exports of copra, cocoa, and bananas were principal sources of foreign exchange for many PICTs, but their importance has declined as production has increased in other regions, especially South America. Sugar remains a major export from Fiji, but may decrease in importance as preferential access to the European market is phased out under World Trade Organization rules. Other extractive industries such as logging and mining are not significant industries in the independent countries of the hotspot, except in Fiji. Tourism is an important industry in some hotspot countries and territories, especially Fiji, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, CNMI, and Guam, and is becoming increasingly important to many other island economies. Given the large marine area included in the Exclusive Economic Zones of most PICTs, development of offshore fisheries is one of the few industries with significant future development potential. The fisheries industry contributes approximately 11 percent of the combined GDP of all PICTs and about half of the value of all exports from the region (Gillet et al 2001).

Economic growth of many hotspot countries has been very slow in recent years with per capita incomes stagnant in many countries (UNDP 1999). Hawaii, the U.S. territories, and French Polynesia are the wealthiest, most developed, and industrialized political entities in the hotspot, while the independent atoll states of Kiribati and Tuvalu and the French Territory of Wallis and Futuna have the lowest GDP per capita (Crocombe 2001). Economic development within the hotspot varies significantly from country to country depending on natural resource endowments and socio-political affiliations with metropolitan nations. Because of their small size and lack of terrestrial resources, most hotspot states have relatively limited opportunities for development and are highly dependent on aid and remittances. In general, the atoll states are the most economically vulnerable because of their small, dispersed land masses and limited terrestrial resource bases, while it is the larger, volcanic island countries such as Palau, FSM, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga that lead in terms of economic diversification and potential.

Aid and remittances are likely to remain an important feature of the economies of the independent states of the hotspot. The amount of aid received per person in the Pacific is the highest of any region in the world but is declining (Crocombe 2001). Overseas development assistance from bilateral donors particularly the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), the European Union, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, and the New Zealand Agency for International Development (NZAid) and multilateral donors and banks, continues to play an important role in most Pacific island economies struggling with high debt deficits and deteriorating terms of trade (UNDP 1999).

Institutional Framework
There are a large number and variety of institutions, at both the regional and national level, involved in various aspects of environmental management in the Pacific. However, in general, the countries and territories of the Polynesia-Micronesia Hotspot still lack efficient institutional and legal arrangements at the national level to protect the environment, as well as staff, expertise, and funding resources dedicated to environmental management. There has been relatively little improvement in national institutional capacity or environmental quality in recent years, despite significant external support. While a more solid institutional framework exists at the regional level, major challenges still exist in improving national actions within the regional framework (ADB 2003).

National Institutional Framework
National institutional frameworks vary greatly across the hotspot, largely reflecting the colonial histories of each PICT. Of all the countries and territories in the hotspot, only Tonga was never a colony. Some hotspot states became independent in the 1960s (e.g. Samoa and Nauru) or 1970s such as Fiji and Kiribati. Former territories of the U.S. Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands became freely associated independent states in the 1980s and 1990s (FSM, Palau and the Marshall Islands). The Cook Islands and Niue are self-governing in free association with New Zealand, while American Samoa, CNMI, Easter Island, French Polynesia, Guam, Pitcairn Island, Tokelau, and Wallis and Futuna are still formally attached to metropolitan countries.

While environmental planning and management functions are actually conducted by a range of government institutions including departments of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and health or economic affairs, environmental management is usually coordinated by a dedicated environmental unit, usually part of a larger resource management department. In current or former U.S. territories, environmental policy and management is usually coordinated by the local Environmental Protection Agency, while in former British colonies and current New Zealand dependencies, it is coordinated by a Department or Division of Environment in a Ministry of Natural Resources or Local Government. In most French Territories, it is coordinated by an Environment Delegation under a Ministry of the Environment.

Environmental departments and units have been strengthened in many countries in the hotspot in recent years, with increased staff levels (UNEP 1999). However, in general, most environment departments are still understaffed and under-resourced, but with a rapidly increasing workload. The thin institutional baseline remains a major constraint to the implementation of a wide range of environmental projects and programs in PICTs (ADB 2003). Capacity building such as human resource development, improving communications and information, policy, planning and institutional strengthening remain key national and regional priorities.

Despite the disappointing performance of many national institutions in improving the management of the environment, there have been some positive developments in recent years. The first relates to the increasing recognition of the close relationship between environment and development and the importance of “mainstreaming” environmental considerations into national development and financial planning. Mainstreaming has in fact become the leading theme for biodiversity conservation at both the national and regional level. Furthermore, there has been improved transparency and accountability of government bodies and the development of a more participatory and collaborative approach by government with local communities, NGOs, the private sector and academia (ADB 2003).

Paralleling and perhaps fuelling the increased recognition of NGOs and community-based organizations (CBOs), has been a rapid growth in the number and influence of such groups in the Pacific. There are now estimated to be more than 1,000 NGOs operating in the region, although most focus on human development issues such as education, health, and women’s affairs, rather than the environment (Crocombe 2001).

A robust national environmental NGO infrastructure only exists in a few countries in the hotspot. Prominent national environmental NGOs in the hotspot include the Conservation Society of Pohnpei and the Palau Conservation Society in Micronesia, O le Siosiomaga Society in Samoa and Societé d’Ornithologie de la Polynésie in French Polynesia. Most, if not all, of these environmental NGOs are still in need of significant additional support to achieve conservation objectives.

Another recent development in the hotspot has been the establishment of conservation trust funds at the national and sub-national level in some countries. For example, community-based trusts are being established in the districts of Aleipata and Safata in Samoa to fund resource management in marine protected areas. Another example is the Micronesia Conservation Trust (MCT) in the Federated States of Micronesia. The MCT was developed to mobilize funding from a variety of sources to build an endowment fund to provide long-term support for sustainable natural resource management in the country. An additional initiative coming out of Micronesia is the establishment of a pilot Micronesia Leaders in Island Conservation network. This peer-learning network, developed with the assistance of TNC, aims to strengthen the organizational and technical skills of leaders and their organizations so they can better protect important natural areas of Micronesia.

Regional Institutional Framework
There are a large number of regional intergovernmental organizations active in the Pacific dealing with a range of socioeconomic, political and environmental issues. SPREP is the lead regional intergovernmental organization dealing with the sustainable development and management of the biological environment. The work of SPREP is guided by its four-yearly Action Plan, which is agreed by SPREP members. The SPREP member countries include the governments and administrations of 21 PICTs and four developed countries with direct interests in the Pacific islands region. SPREP’s work falls under the following five key result areas: natural resource management (species protection, ecosystem management and development and management of conservation areas), pollution prevention (marine pollution, hazardous waste, and solid waste and sewage pollution), climate change and variability, economic development (integrating environment and development and trade, investment and environment) and processes (including legal, institutional capacity building, human resource development, and environmental information services) (SPREP 2003b).

The other three major regional agencies dealing with environmental issues in the Pacific are the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), and the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC). SPC is the premier technical and development organization in the region and was the first intergovernmental agency to be established in the Pacific in 1947. SPC is an intergovernmental organization with focal points in Living Aquatic Resources and Maritime Development, Agriculture, Quarantine and Plant Protection, Forestry, Public Health, Demography, Women, Media, Youth, Rural Technology, Statistics and Community Education. In terms of resource management, SPC has major regional programs in forest management and coastal and oceanic fisheries management. The SPC headquarters are in Noumea, New Caledonia and there is a regional office in Suva, Fiji.

FFA was established in 1979 to help members of the South Pacific Forum to get maximum benefit from the conservation and sustainable use of their fisheries resources. A major focus of the work of the FFA has been on assisting members to manage and develop their tuna resources, and in particular to negotiate and implement agreements among its members and with nations undertaking deep-sea pelagic fishing. The FFA is based in Honiara, Solomon Islands.

SOPAC was established in 1972 in Suva, Fiji to assist member states to sustainably develop their non-living resources. SOPAC’s work focuses on the development of mineral, water and energy resources, coastal management, hazard assessment and ocean development and on national capacity building in the geosciences (SOPAC 2001). An important recent SOPAC initiative has been the development of an Environmental Vulnerability Index (EVI) to measure the vulnerability of islands to a range of social, economic and environmental impacts (ibid). The EVI project aims to promote environmental vulnerability considerations into national development planning and management thereby encouraging sustainable development. A major SOPAC regional project is an European Union-funded project called “Reducing Vulnerability of Pacific ACP States” (SOPAC 2003). This project aims to introduce the concept of “Island Systems Management” to strengthen integrated development in three focal areas: hazard mitigation and risk assessment; aggregates for construction; and water resources supply and sanitation (ibid).

There are a now a large number of universities and other tertiary institutions in the hotspot. Foremost among these is the University of the South Pacific, which is headquartered in Suva, Fiji, but has campuses and extension centers in a number of other PICTs. Other important academic institutions include the University of Guam in Agana, the Université de la Polynesié Français in Papeete, the University of Hawaii, and Brigham Young University (BYU) in Hawaii, the National University of Samoa in Apia and Community Colleges in Micronesia and American Samoa. Some of these Universities have important research institutions specialising in the study of the culture, language and environment of Pacific islands, including the Institute of Pacific Studies at USP, the Institute for Polynesian Studies at BYU and the Center for Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawaii. Also in Honolulu, is the East-West Center that was established in 1960 to establish better relations and understanding between the United States and Asia and the Pacific islands through cooperative study, training, and research (Lal and Fortune 2000).

There are a number of research institutions in the hotspot, especially in Hawaii and in French Polynesia. One of the oldest and most important research institutions is the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu which was established in 1889. The museum has a vast and comprehensive Pacific natural history collection and continues to take the lead in conducting biological and cultural research in Hawaii and across the Pacific region. Important research institutions in French Polynesia include the University of California at Berkeley’s Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station on Moorea, the Institut Malardé, the Institut de recherche pour le développement, based in Tahiti, and the Centre de recherche et observatoire de l’environnement on Moorea.

The major scientific academic society in the region is the Pacific Science Association (PSA), set up in 1920 to promote cooperation and communication in science and technology among Pacific communities. It is hosted by the Bishop Museum and produces a quarterly journal called Pacific Science. Scientific networks related to the PSA include Diversitas International of the Western Pacific Area - a program to study the biodiversity in the Western Pacific Area, and the Pacific Asia Biodiversity Transect Network (PABITRA), a collaborative program for investigating the function of biodiversity and the health of ecosystems in the tropical Pacific Islands. PABITRA has already conducted workshops and training for Pacific island professionals in biodiversity assessment in Fiji and Samoa and developed standardised methodologies for the assessment of vegetation, fauna, climate and hydrology, stream and saltwater ecosystems, invasive species and other parameters (PABITRA 2004).

The U.N. system is well represented in the hotspot. UNDP has offices in Fiji (covering most of the Melanesian and Micronesian countries) and Samoa (covering Samoa, Niue, the Cook Islands and Tokelau). Much of UNDP’s effort in the region is focussed on environmental issues such as biodiversity conservation, waste management and adaptation to climate change. UNESCO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have subregional offices for the whole Pacific based in Apia, Samoa. Together these U.N. agencies have a comprehensive assistance program covering a wide range of scientific, socioeconomic, and environmental issues.

Complementing the work of regional intergovernmental organizations are a growing number of international and regional NGOs which are active in the environmental sphere. The most prominent international environmental NGOs in the region include Greenpeace, Conservation International, the World Wide Fund for Nature South Pacific Program (WWF-SPP), BirdLife International, TNC’s Pacific Program, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Most of these international NGOs are based, and most active, in Melanesia and to a lesser extent Micronesia, rather than Polynesia. Conservation effort has generally focused on capacity building at the community level to improve resource management and conservation.

Important regional NGO networks include the Pacific Concerns Resource Center, which is based in Fiji and represents more than 100 affiliated Pacific NGOs and CBOs, and the Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific International (FSPI). FSPI has been active in environmental management projects such as in coral reef conservation, sustainable management of the aquarium reef trade, rainforest conservation and ecoforestry. Other regional NGOs include the Pacific Youth Caucus for the Environment, and the Pacific Island Association of NGOs. Once again, most of these regional NGOs tend to be most active in Melanesia, and to a lesser degree Micronesia, rather than Polynesia, where national NGOs tend to predominate.

There are a number of donors active in the hotspot region, many of them supporting environmental management projects and activities. Major multilateral assistance agencies supporting environmental management include the Asian Development Bank, the European Union, and the World Bank. Major bilateral donors include the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Canada, and Japan. Important foundations actively supporting environmental management in the region include the MacArthur Foundation and the Packard Foundation. The Global Environment Facility has been a key source of funds for many large regional programs, especially those related to the implementation of global environmental conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. GEF has committed more than $60 million in the past decade to the Pacific region.

There has traditionally been poor coordination and information sharing between international and regional NGOs and development organizations in the Pacific. This has been an impediment to effective conservation effort. Recognition of this has led to the development of the Pacific Islands Roundtable for Nature Conservation in 1998. The Roundtable is the only forum where major international and regional environmental NGOs and donors meet to exchange information on projects, identify gaps and develop new ideas and methods to address the major regional conservation issues. It meets once or twice per year.

At the regional intergovernmental level, coordination between organizations has improved in recent years with the development of a formal coordination mechanism, now called the Council of the Regional Organizations of the Pacific (CROP). CROP, with the support of the Forum Secretariat, provides an important framework to ensure that regional institutions are focused on common regional goals and that environmental considerations are mainstreamed into regional policy and programs. The 10 members of the CROP include SPREP, SPC, USP and SOPAC, FFA, the Forum Secretariat, the Tourism Council of the South Pacific, the Pacific Islands Development Program, the Fiji Islands School of Medicine, and the South Pacific Board of Education.

Policy and Legislation
Environmental policies and legislation, like institutional frameworks, vary widely across the region. Current policies have evolved from a complex mix of often relatively recent colonial administrations and strong social and cultural values and mores (UNEP 1999). However, regardless of their particular history and form of government, Pacific countries share a common tradition of consultation at the local, national, and regional levels and a strong foundation of governance rooted in traditional political systems (ibid).

Environmental management in many PICTs has been guided by the development of National Environmental Management Strategies in the early 1990s, and more recently by National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans and National Sustainable Development Strategies. These strategies have set out the national blueprint for the development of environmental policies and plans. While the NEMS set out strategies to improve environmental management by strengthening environmental institutions, supporting environmental legislation and policy, and raising environmental awareness, amongst others, little progress has been made in implementation. Part of the problem may have been a failure to set priorities based on links to economically or socially based criteria (ADB 2003).

At the regional level, conservation effort is guided by the five yearly Action Strategy for Nature Conservation. As noted already, the current strategy (2003-2007) reflects the approach of mainstreaming conservation into development planning. The strategy provides a broad framework involving partnerships between conservationists, and governments, the private sector and civil society to promote the mainstreaming of conservation into all development sectors.

Legislation dealing with environmental management and nature conservation has been drafted and enacted in many countries and territories in the hotspot. In most countries there is legislation incorporating environmental impact assessment and regulating natural resource extraction activities such as forestry, fisheries and agricultural development, establishing and managing protected areas, protecting endangered species and controlling disposal of solid waste and other pollutants, amongst others. However, many PICTs still lack legal frameworks covering major aspects of environmental protection and natural resource management (ADB 2003).

The deficiency in environmental legislation frameworks may stem from conflicts between the Pacific tradition of local management authority and attempts by government to impose contemporary western-style legal frameworks. One result of this conflict is that even where national laws governing natural resource management do exist on paper, their enforcement at the local level remains weak to non-existent. Another factor contributing to the lack of enforcement of environmental laws is the slender technical and administrative resources of enforcement agencies. Fortunately, there is renewed appreciation of the need to consult with stakeholders and to take into account customary practise and tenure in regulatory frameworks. For example a national law was passed in Samoa in 1990 (the Village Fono Act) which legalises the traditional right of village councils to pass their own rules in a number of areas including the management and use of natural resources (Peteru 1993).

Hotspot states have signed up to most global and regional multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). For example, most independent states have signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the UNFCCC, the CBD, the U.N. Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD) and the Kyoto Protocol to name a few. PICTs are active participants in conferences linked to these MEAs and to the related forums including the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Barbados Program of Action for Small Island Developing States, and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (ADB 2003). A notable exception however, is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which has only been signed by Fiji, Palau, and Samoa (although it is applicable to all U.S., French and New Zealand territories).

Two regional MEAs form a particularly strong legal foundation on which further regional cooperation on environmental matters can be built. The first is the Convention on the Conservation of Nature in the South Pacific (the Apia Convention), while the second is the Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region (the SPREP Convention). The former seeks to encourage the creation of protected areas, including national parks and reserves, while the latter provides a broad framework for cooperation in preventing pollution of the marine and coastal environment and with the basic structure and mandate of SPREP.

A major catch of MEAs is that ratification of these agreements is required before financial resources can be obtained, but that the MEAs require a high level of engagement in dialogue and negotiations at international meetings, and place heavy reporting burdens on small environmental agencies and units. This puts a severe strain on limited resources of environment units and can divert attention away from pressing domestic environmental issues (ADB 2003). A recent GEF–supported initiative called the National Capacity Self Assessment (NCSA) aims to enable countries to assess the progress and barriers to the national implementation of the three major global MEAs (the CBD, UNFCCC and the UNCCD). The NCSA will allow countries to identify capacity development needs and efforts required to expedite the achievement of MEA objectives. The ultimate intention if the NCSA and other capacity assessments is to advocate for the use of National Sustainable Development Strategies which are required to be completed by 2005 under the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, as the primary vehicles for coordinated implementation and achievements of the objectives of MEAs (McIntyre pers. comm. 2004).

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