Small islands: awash in a sea of troubles.

Author:Acharya, Anjali

Despite their role as a setting for tourist idylls, many small islands are suffering from the same ills that plague continental states - but in more acute forms.

Some 1,600 years ago, when the Polynesians first stepped ashore on Easter Island, they found a version of paradise. Lying more than 3,200 kilometers off the coast of what is now Chile, the island boasted a mild climate, fertile soil, and dense sub-tropical forests supporting their own distinctive assemblage of animals and plants. But a few centuries later, the forests were gone, the animals had disappeared, and so had the people. Today, all that remains on this remote Pacific island is an impoverished and barren grassland. The island's gigantic, brooding stone statues stand in silent testimony to a culture that consumed the island's life - and then consumed itself.

The ghosts of Easter Island may be stepping ashore on many of the world's small island states today. It is true that the tragedy of Easter Island resulted in part from the islanders' isolation. Modern island communities depend on the world at large for many of their needs. But the external forces of trade and tourism are combining with internal pressures, like growing island populations, to brew a modern version of the Easter Island predicament.

The world's islands contain an enormous ecological variety. Volcanic islands like Hawaii (or Easter island) are among the most isolated places on earth. The relatively few plants and animals that arrived there were free to adapt to their surroundings with little competition or interference. The result is often a very high number of endemic species - species that occur nowhere else. On Hawaii, for instance, it is estimated that some 280 plant species found the islands before humans did; distinctively Hawaiian species evolved from some of these, eventually producing a total of 852 species, of which 89 percent are endemic. Even on continental islands - islands that sit on continental shelves - the number of endemics is sometimes very high, if the area has existed as an island for a long enough period. On Madagascar, 85 percent of the plants, 98 percent of the amphibians and 99 percent of the reptiles are endemic. Some islands, like portions of the Galapagos, off the coast of Ecuador, are still in a more or less natural state. But many, like those of the Caribbean islands, have been intensively settled for centuries.

Island cultures vary as greatly as island ecologies. In the south Pacific, Polynesian cultures are thousands of years old, while in the Caribbean, waves of colonization have obliterated the pre-Colombian past, to produce new ways of life that draw upon traditions from Europe, Africa, and the American mainland states. Despite their differences, nearly all of these cultures are facing a common set of growing constraints. On island after island, over-fishing, development, and pollution are taking an ever greater toll.

The problems are generally at their worst in "small island developing states". A useful if imprecise category, that term could apply to about 40 states and territories scattered around the world's oceans. Some of these are clusters of islands, such as the Maldives, a nation of 1,300 islands in the Indian Ocean; others, like Cyprus, are just a single piece of land. Either way, their small size, limited domestic markets, and narrow resource bases have pushed their economies in the direction of external trade. Most island states are extremely export-specialized and import-dependent - for consumer goods, for oil, even for food. Among the 32 or so island states with populations of less than 1 million, for instance, an average of 70 cents is spent on imports for every dollar of gross domestic product (GDP); that ratio is more than three times the average for non-oil producing developing countries in general. Some island states are also heavily dependent on foreign aid. The Pacific nation of Tuvalu, for example, received $7.8 million in aid in 1991, or about 80 percent of its GDP.

But despite the external inputs, it is the island's own resources - its waters, vegetation, soil, air, and wildlife - that will ultimately dictate its capacity to sustain development. In that respect, of course, an island is no different from a continent: the island dilemma is the global dilemma in microcosm. And while many continental limits are only beginning to be perceived, on small islands, the limits have very nearly been reached. That is why small islands present a test for all humanity. As Shridath Ramphal, former Secretary-General of the British Commonwealth Secretariat, recently put it, "Their fate may become a symbol of our failure to preserve this planet as a habitable place for all."


The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was adopted in 1982 and went into effect in 1994, recognized national Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) extending up to 200 miles from a nation's coastline (when not limited by EEZs of neighboring countries). For island nations, these EEZs represented vast extensions of their jurisdiction - often many thousands of times their land area. Kiribati, in the equatorial Pacific, for example, has a land surface area of only 726 square kilometers. But its EEZ covers some 3.5 million square kilometers, which is larger than the land area of India. (Huge EEZs are typical of the Pacific and Indian Ocean islands; in the Caribbean, where countries are closer together, EEZs are considerably smaller.) Some of the world's richest tuna fishing grounds fall within the EEZs of the Pacific's small island nations. Because the tuna grounds have enormous commercial potential, the EEZs are often seen as a basic tool for island development - but sadly, this is a tool that is often misused.

Traditionally, island societies fed themselves with their coastal fisheries. Not surprisingly, island states have the highest annual per capita fish consumption rates in the world - exceeding 50 kilograms per year - and these coastal fisheries still produce mainly for local markets. In the Solomon Islands, 83 percent of coastal households fish primarily for local consumption. Some island nations have also begun to export their catch - often with remarkable success. Between 1988 and 1993, for instance, the share of fish products in Micronesia's exports nearly doubled to 86 percent; in the Marshall Islands, it increased five-fold to over 80 percent.

But the real export potential lies farther off shore. The Pacific island region is the source for over half the world's canned tuna, and a good deal of...

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