Islands’ Dilemma: Develop but Retain Lifestyle : Micronesia: Environmental threats from outside, social problems at home raise major questions.


Island nations across the Pacific face environmental threats from outside and social problems at home as they try to meet the future without losing their identity.

To the eye, not much has changed in recent decades. Tourists come to escape the rat race. The diving, swimming and sailing are as good as ever in still pristine waters. The landscape is lush, the pace slow and idyllic.

But island leaders, working to overcome the traditional “no worry” attitude, tell people paradise may be gone tomorrow unless they act today.

Animosity toward the outside is growing because of problems the islands had little or no part in creating: nuclear testing, chemical weapons, the greenhouse effect and toxic-waste dumping.


Health problems like diabetes abound. Educational efforts are under way to prevent an outbreak of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases among people who generally take an open view toward casual sex.

Years of “benign neglect” by former colonial powers left infrastructure problems ranging from teacher shortages and poor communications to inadequate airstrips and unpaved roads--and a reliance on foreign aid and imports.

The worldwide recession has hit hard. Tourists put off expensive trips far from home. Governments face tight budgets in their aid programs. Private investment dries up.

Officials worry about how to improve productivity without quickening the easy pace that attracts vacationers.


Andon Amaraich, a former foreign secretary of the Federated States of Micronesia, said of the general attitude toward work:

“Put it this way: Nobody’s starving. So why should we work hard? The clan and traditional system here help those who don’t have enough. Through the extended family, they get what they need.”

Only 20% of the 100,000 people in the Federated States are formally employed. The rest survive on subsistence farming and fishing or rely on their families.

Aware that their remoteness and small size work against them, Pacific nations band together to make their collective voice heard on major issues.


The 15-nation South Pacific Forum, formed in 1971, has become the primary platform, although many members also have joined the 34-country Assn. of Small Island States.

A successful tactic of the Forum has been to abandon the non-confrontational attitude prevalent in the islands and concentrate on one issue at a time.

Two years ago it was foreign factory ships fishing with miles-long drift nets, called “walls of death,” that trap anything and threatened to wipe out entire species. An international convention has banned the practice, although a few ships continue it.

Concern about the incineration of chemical weapons at a high-tech U.S. facility on Johnston Atoll dominated the Forum’s 1990 meeting. Island leaders said they had not been consulted and criticized Washington for shipping weapons there from Germany.


President Bush met with 11 island leaders in Hawaii to tell them the plant was safe and would close when stocks already there were destroyed, along with any mustard gas shells from World War II found in the Pacific in the meantime.

This year, the Forum’s agenda focused on the greenhouse effect, probably the region’s greatest long-term threat. Members urged industrialized countries to reduce emissions and pursue alternative energy technologies.

Many scientists predict that higher temperatures caused by industrial emissions into the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide, will melt the polar icecaps and raise ocean levels.

That would mean extinction for low-lying Pacific islands such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and some of the Marshalls. Even if they weren’t completely swamped, rising levels of ocean saltwater would pollute fresh ground water, leaving residents with nothing to drink.


The greenhouse effect is far from the only threat to the generally pristine environment.

France claims that nuclear testing in French Polynesia poses no danger, but fears were heightened in August by a report from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. It said radiation from atmospheric tests in the Pacific and elsewhere could kill millions of people in coming centuries.

Some islands also are taking steps to make sure that Western nations, plagued by toxic-waste problems, do not look to the Pacific as a dumping ground.

In addition to the common problems, many islands have troubles at home.


Crime is so bad in Papua New Guinea that urban areas are under curfew and the prime minister has suggested tattooing the foreheads of convicted criminals. A 2-year-old secessionist rebellion on Bougainville Island has created political turmoil and hurt the country financially.

Fiji’s year-old, racially weighted constitution has been criticized internationally. Union strife has threatened the sugar harvest for two years and created a protracted gold-mine strike.

Public employees have been striking in the Solomon Islands, and in Vanuatu, efforts began months ago to unseat Prime Minister Walter Lini.

Australia and New Zealand, the regional powers, have severe economic problems.


Also, New Zealand’s refusal to admit U.S. warships because they would not confirm or deny carrying nuclear weapons made it a leader in the anti-nuclear movement, but led to isolation from the United States. The government is reviewing the position.