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The natural resources of the Pacific region

Pacific island countries exhibit a unique combination of geographical, biological, sociological and economic characteristics that can be found nowhere else in the world. The 22 countries and territories occupy a vast area of the Pacific. They consist of 550 000 km² of land with nearly 8.5 million inhabitants spread across 29 million km² of the Pacific Ocean. Their Exclusive Economic Zones occupy 15 million km2.

Geography

There is great geographic, demographic and developmental diversity in the region. Some "groups" or countries like Guam, Kosrae, Nauru and Niue, consist of one single small island. Some like Fiji, Tonga and French Polynesia are comprised of many large and small highly dispersed islands. Others like Papua New Guinea and Solomons consist of parts of very large, high continental islands, plus countless offshore large and small islands. The total land areas vary from 12 to 26 km2 for groups of low-lying coral-limestone islands like Tokelau and Tuvalu to over 400,000 km2 for the continental island area of Papua New Guinea. Great differences in climate, geological resources, topographical features, soil types, mineral and water availability, extent of coral reefs and diversity of terrestrial, freshwater and marine flora and fauna are also found in the area.

Species

The Pacific islands region has more rare, endangered and threatened species per capita than anywhere else in the world. Up to 50% of the region’s total biodiversity is at risk. The islands support large tracts of intact forests including many unique species and communities of plants and animals. For some islands 80% or more of the species are endemic, with some species only found in micro-ecosystems within a single island.

Population

Population densities for entire groups range from just over 1 person per km2 for Pitcairn Island to almost 300 or more for Nauru, Chuuk and Tuvalu. If the "most populous islands" are considered, the figures rise to over 100 per km2 for four islands, over 200 for 3 islands, and 421 for Koror in Palau, 757 for Funafuti in Tuvalu, 1179 for Majuro in the Marshall Islands, and 2190 for Tarawa in Kiribati. The estimated population for Betio Islet of Tarawa atoll was 40,000 in the year 2000, which will give it a population density rivaling the population densities of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Economic development

Although some of the larger island groups with significant mineral, forestry, fisheries and agricultural land resources have potential for development, most Pacific Island states and territories and smaller outer islands and isolated rural communities do not. Because of small size, geographic isolation and extremely limited natural resources the options for modern economic development are extremely limited. Consequently, most island countries, territories and local communities will, for the foreseeable future, have to depend on the sustainable use of their local resources as a basis for their survival and development. In this respect, the Pacific region is unique in that most of the islands of the region are inhabited by indigenous peoples that have close links with, and great cultural, economic and spiritual dependence on, their island terrestrial and marine environment. In most cases, these indigenous people are the owners and users of these resources and ultimately control decisions related to their conservation and sustainable use.

Small island ecosystems are by nature, highly fragile and vulnerable to external disturbances. Add to this the increasing human consumption on limited natural resources, impacts of human induced activities and resulting alien invasive species – the result are severely degraded island ecosystems bordering on the margins of ecological collapse.

In the last 20 years, many coastal areas have been heavily modified and intensively developed, significantly increasing their vulnerability to natural climatic variability and extreme events and to global environmental changes such as climate change. Efforts in environmental monitoring, provision of data, environmental assessment and decision making therefore need to concentrate on the pressures on the coastal systems and communities.

The inevitable pressures on resources and the natural systems from increasing populations and their uncoordinated concentrations on many PICs give urgency to considerations to sustainable natural resource management. Pressures for global market economies have seen significant commercial harvesting of natural resources as well as subsistence harvesting.

Ecosystems and culture

With the exception of mainland PNG all the islands are coastal in nature and the populations are mostly located in the coastal areas. All parts of the islands [and communities] influence or are influenced by the character, the processes and activities occurring in coastal catchments, coastal lands and in coastal waters. The importance of coastal and marine areas to Pacific people, cultures and economies cannot be overstated. It is the focus of social and customary systems, and subsistence and cash economies. The coastal areas are also the most highly diverse of the ecosystems, but are extremely fragile and vulnerable to change. It is these areas that are also the recipient of most foreign and local physical development causing change to natural systems. This combination of factors is resulting in increasing degradation of habitats, soils, forests, coastal and inland waters, reefs, overexploitation of resources and growing conflicts in resource use and access.

Marine resources

The diversity of coral reef and marine resources is extremely high. The marine environments contain an enormous and largely unexplored resource, including the most extensive and diverse reef systems in the world, the largest tuna fishery, the deepest oceanic trenches and the healthiest remaining populations of threatened species of whales, sea turtles, dugongs and saltwater crocodiles. In many cases the potential of marine resources to contribute to economic growth has yet to be fully explored. The importance of coral reefs is paramount. Coral reef systems play a central role in maintaining precious beach and coastal land levels against the eroding forces of storms and rising seas, and they provide essential resources in terms of construction materials and habitat for marine species. Through their natural beauty and species diversity, they also provide a central attraction for the tourist industry.

Natural resources at SPREP

Go to SPREP Islands ecosystems.

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