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The Pacific Islands

Environment and Society, Revised Edition

Moshe Rapaport

Publication Year: 2013

The Pacific is the last major world region to be discovered by humans. Although small in total land area, its numerous islands and archipelagoes with their startlingly diverse habitats and biotas, extend across a third of the globe. This revised edition of a popular text explores the diverse landforms, climates, and ecosystems of the Pacific island region. Multiple chapters, written by leading specialists, cover the environment, history, culture, population, and economy. The work includes new or completely revised chapters on gender, music, logging, development, education, urbanization, health, ocean resources, and tourism. Throughout two key issues are addressed: the exceptional environmental challenges and the demographic/economic/political challenges facing the region. Although modern technology and media and waves of continental tourists are fast eroding island cultures, the continuing resilience of Pacific island populations is apparent.

This is the only contemporary text on the Pacific Islands that covers both environment and sociocultural issues and will thus be indispensable for any serious student of the region. Unlike other reviews, it treats the entirety of Oceania (with the exception of Australia) and is well illustrated with numerous photos and maps, including a regional atlas.

262 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

List of Tables

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

The study of regions is one of the oldest and most fundamental themes of scholarly inquiry and has long engaged academic interest alongside systematic approaches to scientific understanding. While populations and land areas of the Pacific Islands are relatively small, ...

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The Physical Environment

The Pacific Islands were created through the cumulative action of volcanism, tectonism, and reef growth over millions of years. At the same time, many of the dramatic landscapes visible today—steep cliffs, deeply dissected valleys, sprawling coastal plains, and even reef motu—owe their existence in large extent to erosion induced by climatic and oceanographic forces. ...

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1. Climate

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pp. 1-18

The islands of the Pacific Ocean experience a diverse variety of weather and climate (aggregate weather) due to their wide-ranging geographic locations, which encompass midlatitude to equatorial settings. Because Pacific islands are surrounded by vast areas of ocean, their climates are strongly influenced by maritime processes. ...

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2. Oceanography

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pp. 19-33

This is a brief introduction to the physical oceanography of the Pacific Islands region, the circulation, tsunamis, waves, sea level, temperature and salinity distributions, and the forces that create these. Since the tropical Pacific contains most of the island groups, and since the dynamics and properties of the tropical oceans differ from those at higher latitudes, ...

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3. Geology

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pp. 34-44

The geological evolution of the Pacific Basin is founded in the processes that drive plate tectonics. Almost the entire ocean is floored by the Pacific Plate, which is in constant northwestward motion, driven by plumes deep within the Earth’s mantle. At its northern, northeastern, and western boundaries the plate is subducted into the mantle, ...

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4. Geomorphology

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pp. 45-58

The Pacific Islands region extends over 130° of longitude and 70° of latitude. Some islands are more than 100,000 km2 in size; others are miniscule. Some islands are pieces of ancient continent, hundreds of millions of years old; other islands are still growing, and periodic volcanic eruptions give subaerial landforms little chance to develop. ...

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5. Soils

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pp. 59-69

Soils are one of the major resources of Pacific Islanders. Despite the islanders’ dependence on the marine environment, soils are the source of a major proportion of the food, building materials, clothing, and medicines. The islands vary enormously in size, geomorphology, and geology, with a resultant diversity in soils. ...

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6. Water

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pp. 70-80

A supply of fresh water is a prerequisite to any settlement. The needs of the people who first came to the Pacific were met by pre-existing supplies, which they either could see or knew where to find. The technology was simple and adequate, perhaps using lengths of bamboo or locally made clay pots as containers for collection and storage. ...

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The Living Environment

The Pacific Islands are home to diverse ecosystems—strand communities on shoreline plains and atolls, montane forests cloaking the interior of high islands, and marine ecosystems extending offshore. Island flora and fauna are distinctive, with high rates of endemism, taxonomic disharmony, and vulnerability to invasion and extinction. ...

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7. Biogeography

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pp. 83-94

Biogeography is the scientific discipline that seeks to understand the distribution of animal and plant life on earth. As a fundamentally integrative, multidisciplinary field, biogeography has both historical and predictive powers. Such varied fields as climatology, ecology, geology, phylogenetics, and physiology ...

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8. Terrestrial Ecosystems

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pp. 95-108

Prior to European contact, virtually all Pacific Islanders lived in rural locations, dependent on the natural environment for basic subsistence needs. This dependence inevitably resulted in largescale ecosystem conversion. Today, the pace and intensity of exploitation have accelerated. ...

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9. Aquatic Ecosystems

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pp. 109-122

The vast area of the Pacific Islands region is largely underwater and is blessed with a diverse array of interesting and valuable aquatic ecosystems, including those of inland fresh waters, mangroves, seagrass meadows, coral reefs, kelp beds, continental shelves, seafloor slopes, the open ocean, and the deep sea. ...

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Pacific Islanders have had varying experiences under colonialism. The impact was especially profound in land-rich islands amenable to agricultural settlement. In the worst situations, islanders have become outnumbered, deprived of their land, marginalized, or assimilated into the dominant society. ...

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10. The Precontact Period

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pp. 125-137

As the pace of European exploration of the Pacific quickened in the second half of the eighteenth century, an increasing number of insular societies were drawn into the various processes of culture contact, often with disastrous consequences. Thus ended what may be considered the prehistory of an area, archipelago, or specific island ...

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11. The Postcontact Period

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pp. 138-146

This chapter traces historical changes in Oceania from early Euroamerican contacts through colonial rule into the post-1945 era of decolonization. The reader should be aware, however, that history is never separate from the present, because each generation reinterprets the past in light of its own priorities. ...

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12. Changing Patterns of Power

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pp. 147-156

Some commentators had already condemned the region to a dismal future when Pacific Island leaders crafted their optimistic prologue to the Pacific Plan for Strengthening Regional Cooperation and Integration in mid-2004. Citing tense civil-military relations in some island states, ethnic conflicts associated with natural resource exploitation, ...

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Pacific Island cultures are rich and diverse, ranging from the numerous ethnolinguistic groupings of Melanesia, to the spatially extended cultures of Micronesia, to the remarkably homogenous cultures characteristic of Polynesia. Traditional cultures have altered significantly following external contact, but they have remained resilient. ...

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13. Language

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pp. 159-171

The Pacific Islands constitute, by two different measures, the most linguistically diverse region in the world. One measure is language density.1 Roughly 20 percent of the world’s six to seven thousand languages are packed into this region, which contains less than 1 percent of the world’s land mass and population. ...

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14. Social Relations

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pp. 172-181

Alexander Selkirk, marooned in the Juan Fernandez Islands of the southeastern Pacific between 1704 and 1709, inspired one of literature’s most enduring sociological horror stories. In Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe retold Selkirk’s castaway experience to explore the individual’s relations with society. ...

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15. Gender

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pp. 182-191

If one were to examine the indices of ethnographies written before 1970 or so, there would probably be no entry for “gender.” There might be one for “women” or “the sexes,” but these entries would almost certainly not encompass what is meant today by “gender.” ...

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16. Tenure

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pp. 192-201

Land and water tenures are shaped by the environment, by past experiences and present circumstances of the people who live by them, and by external forces. Tenure systems also influence ecology, society, and economy in a continuing process of interaction. ...

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17. Law

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pp. 202-213

One of the most striking characteristics of “law” in most contemporary Pacific Island nations is what legal scholars call “legal pluralism.” Legal pluralism is the simultaneous existence of different types of legal systems within a single setting. In the contemporary Pacific, legal pluralism most often derives from legal heritages ...

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18. Religion

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pp. 214-224

What is “Oceanic religion”? Until recently many scholars restricted the term to the religions of Pacific Islanders as they existed before extensive European contact. They wrote of mission Christianity as an intrusive force and sought to explain a variety of postcontact religious movements as indigenous responses to colonialism. ...

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19. Literature

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pp. 225-235

This chapter examines the terrain of Pacific literature published in English by its indigenous peoples. With a few outliers, like Cook Islander Florence Johnny Frisbie’s Miss Ulysses of Pukapuka (1948), this is a “land” barely four decades old, with its genesis occurring in the late 1960s. ...

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20. Art

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pp. 236-247

Pacific art practice encompasses a rich and varied body of objects, dance forms, song, performance, adornment both permanent and temporary, and oral histories. Distinctive yet diverse, it emerges as a vital and important expression and vessel of cultural knowledge, memory, emotion, and experience. ...

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21. Music and Dance Performance

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pp. 248-260

Music and dance performance have come to be understood as key components of Pacific identity and fundamental elements of Pacific life and culture. Oceanic performance contexts vary widely. They include ritual undertakings, political and religious processes, and occasions of informal celebration. ...

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Population growth—rapid in independent countries, slow or even negative in dependent entities and urbanized societies—is a critical concern in the contemporary Pacific. Burgeoning towns and cities are dealing with unemployment, housing shortages, and social malaise. ...

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22. Demography

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pp. 263-274

Unlike Asia, where population aging is the dominant population issue, population growth and issues related to a large youthful population remain a major concern in Pacific Island countries (PICs). The experience of PICs seems to indicate that rapid growth in some countries and mass emigration in others, ...

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23. Mobility to Migration

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pp. 275-286

Since the earliest settlement of the Pacific Islands, mobility has been associated with both challenges and opportunities, as islanders have sought new homes or been displaced from older ones. This chapter provides a broad overview of mobility, beginning from oral traditions, ...

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24. Health

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pp. 287-298

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO 1948). While broadening the definition beyond a biomedical construct to include psychological and social dimensions was considered an advance, ...

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25. Education

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pp. 299-309

Education had much in common throughout the Pacific when humans lived in small self-defending societies. It was largely learning by doing: an informal apprenticeship with parents or other relatives, supplemented by observing and imbibing the beliefs, values, traditions, and practices of the community. ...

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26. Urban Challenges

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pp. 310-322

In almost all Pacific Island countries a significant demographic, economic, and cultural transformation is taking place as urban populations are growing faster than total populations. Indeed, if Papua New Guinea is excluded, more than half of all Pacific Islanders live in urban areas, reflecting a global watershed heralded by the United Nations in 2007. ...

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Pacific Island economies are constrained by factors of scale, distance, limited resources, and the vicissitudes of global political economy. Substantive development has occurred in New Zealand, Hawai‘i, and, to a lesser extent, the large, resource-rich islands in Melanesia. Most island economies remain partially dependent on external aid and/or remittances. ...

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27. Pacific Island Economies

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pp. 325-340

Pacific Island economies are small and isolated, but for the most part they are not poor by the usual standards of world poverty. Environmentally deprived areas of Papua New Guinea are a partial exception (Booth 1995: 208; World Bank 1999; Allen, Bourke, and Gibson 2005). ...

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28. Agriculture

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pp. 341-354

The environments where agriculture is practiced in the Pacific Islands range from frost-prone but gardened mountain slopes at 2,600 m in Papua New Guinea through temperate-latitude New Zealand to tiny atoll islets lying scarcely above the reach of the waves in the always warm equatorial ocean. ...

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29. Logging

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pp. 355-363

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “logging” is “the work of cutting and preparing forest timber.” In current political debate, however, “logging” sounds like an activity that causes lots of unnecessary environmental damage, whereas “forestry” lacks these negative connotations, and “forest management” sounds quite benign. ...

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30. Ocean Resources

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pp. 364-378

The twenty-two developing states and territories of the Pacific Islands region consist of only about 551,390 km2 of land with about 9.5 million people spread across 30 million km2 of ocean (as shown in Figure 30.1). The region therefore comprises mainly ocean, which accounts for 98 percent of the total area ...

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31. Mining

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pp. 379-391

This chapter addresses the exploitation of minerals and petroleum hydrocarbons in the island Pacific, extending from Papua Province in Indonesia to New Zealand. The discussion tends to focus on mining because in terms of investment, economic contribution, areal extent, and particularly social and environmental change ...

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32. Tourism

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pp. 392-400

Any attempt to understand the economic, cultural, and environmental dynamics of the Pacific region must take into account the role of tourism (ADB 1996, 2006; AusAID 2006). Governments throughout the Pacific have, almost without exception, turned to the industry as a source of potentially sustainable economic development ...

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33. Communications

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pp. 401-416

Despite the incredible diversity among Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs), most gained their political independence, or right to self-governance, prior to the development of modern telecommunication satellites, fiber-optic cables, cellular telephony, or Internet-based information and communication technologies (ICTs). ...

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34. Development Prospects

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pp. 417-422

Since the first edition of The Pacific Islands: Environment & Society, much of the region has undergone profound political, economic, and social change. There have been political crises in Solomon Islands and Fiji and even social discord evidenced in Tonga. In Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and the Marshall Islands, governments have been under increasing pressure ...


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pp. 423-430

Island Gazetteer

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pp. 431-438

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List of Contributors

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pp. 439-442

David Abbott is a Pacific development consultant and was until recently the regional macroeconomic and poverty-reduction advisor with UNDP’s Pacific Centre based in Fiji, providing policy analysis and advisory support to all fifteen PICs. David has more than thirty years of experience in development economics in the Pacific Islands ...


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pp. 443-457

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865849
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835866

Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Environmental protection -- Islands of the Pacific.
  • Human geography -- Islands of the Pacific.
  • Human ecology -- Islands of the Pacific.
  • Islands of the Pacific -- History.
  • Islands of the Pacific -- Social life and customs.
  • Islands of the Pacific -- Geography.
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