The untold story of the Pacific Islands


Solomon-Islands-008A dead pig lolls among the flotsam on South Tarawa beach. No children play in the water – unusual in the Pacific islands, where a childhood spent splashing in the ocean is an age-old rite. In Kiribati’s capital, years of poor waste disposal coupled with overpopulation and a limited supply of water have polluted the lagoon, making it too dirty to swim in. Over 50,000 people crowd into 2,500 acres, a population density twice as high as that of New York.

Although the Pacific islands are well-known as the first casualties of climate change, a tale less often told is of the environmental and energy crisis at home.

Years of mismanagement and poor policy have led to ecological and energy calamities across the region. Until this year no Pacific island country had an official trade policy. Few have national energy strategies. In many countries a lack of planning meant that the default policy was to exploit natural resources at an unsustainable rate. In the Solomon Islands, natural forests have been logged so uncontrollably that exports are expected to cease by around 2015. Local communities have long relied on logging as their only source of income and it has been one of only a handful of viable exports since independence.

Mining has a particularly bad record in the Pacific. A watershed moment came in 1999 when BHP, the former owner of the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine in Papua New Guinea, admitted that the mine caused “major environmental damage”. Up to 80m tonnes of contaminated waste were discharged into the river each year, displacing 50,000 people downstream and killing or poisoning fish as well as damaging staple crops. In September, the government said it would nationalise Ok Tedi to force BHP to pay more compensation. Read more.