One could characterize the Pacific Islands as the “canaries in the mine” of world climate change. The dual impacts of capitalism and climate change have taken these islands’ remote communities to a critical transition point, one at which traditional knowledge and skills no longer effectively address environmental changes. These communities are on the margins of both the local and the world economies. Their marginalization means that they are the last to receive resources and support from the developed world, but typically these regions are also often the greatest source of raw materials. Remote communities are in a very real sense, holding water catchment and mountain forests in trust for us!
Families live in traditional village settings in Fiji’s remote interior communities, but urban drift has still affected the landscape of these communities over the last few decades. As urban and peri-urban environments develop rapidly on the islands, remote interior mountain regions still experience very little development in their own infrastructure. More than a third of Fiji’s population lives below the poverty line, and close to 80% of the country’s total population lives in rural and remote areas. Education levels are low, yet these communities own the majority of the natural resources. Here we find Fiji’s major water catchment areas, as well as the only remaining unlogged mountain forests. Over half of Fiji’s forested regions are located in remote communities.
When compared with other countries around the world, Fiji’s poverty rate ranks 65th, with 31 percent of its population living below the poverty line. Fiji’s poverty rate surpasses India’s and is comparable to that of Cambodia. The poverty of other Pacific islands nations is overlooked on the world stage. Papua New Guinea, for example ranks 49th at 37 percent, a poverty rate higher than either El Salvador or Afghanistan.
Government ministries are sometimes too geographically distant to effectively track the needs remote communities. Limited access to higher education in these communities compounds the issue, because lacking the needed education; people have not been as effective in self-advocating.
Due to its natural resources and rising communications technology sector, Fiji is poised to become an economic leader within the region. While the future looks bright for certain industries, the current gaps in economic resources, educational access, and political power will likely prevent remote communities from taking part in a Fijian renaissance. If the gaps are not addressed, remote communities will have a little say over their own futures. Tragically, their traditional knowledge and culture, the biodiversity of their land, the natural resources they hold in trust, and the health and safety of their women and children, are especially at risk. These are great losses at the local level, but also tragic at Fiji’s national level and to the planet as a whole.
THE DATA BEHIND OUR MOVEMENT
Pacific Islands have a population of more than 4 million people, spread across hundreds of islands, and scattered over an area equal to about 15 percent of the globe’s surface. Fiji is the largest among these islands and has a population of approximately 850,000. Tuvalu, one of the smallest islands, has an estimated population of 10,500. Kiribati is one of the most remote and geographically dispersed with 33 islands spread over 3.5 million square kilometers of ocean, which is an area larger than India. The Solomon Islands has 1,000 small islands and atolls with a population of 500,000 spread throughout, 83 percent are in remote areas of 40 percent below the age of 14.
According to the World Bank, since independence, Pacific Island countries have achieved some significant gains. Infant mortality rates have lowered, life expectancy has increased and infectious disease has declined. But true economic growth has been slow and well below the global average for developing countries.
Pacific Island countries share similar economic challenges. Their small size, limited natural resources, limited local economic market and long distance to major markets affect growth and have led to a high degree of economic volatility. These countries are some of the most vulnerable in the world to the effects of climate change and natural disasters. Based on a World Bank report, of the 20 countries in the world with the highest average annual disaster losses scaled by gross domestic product, eight are Pacific island countries including: Vanuatu, Niue, Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Marshall Islands, and the Cook Islands.
Not only do the Pacific islands have vulnerable populations, the world stands to loose a critical habitat if growth in this region is not managed sustainably. Called the “epicenter of the current global extinction” by Conservation International, the Pacific region claims the largest number of documented extinctions. The plants and animals that inhabit Pacific islands are often found nowhere else on Earth and vulnerable to extinction from habitat destruction (for example by fire or deforestation), competition from introduced organisms, agricultural poisons, or harvesting.