Pasific Island Agriculture

Pasific Island Agriculture
Pasific Island Agriculture

Agricultural practices in the Pacific Islands have an unsettled history. Typhoons, storms, drought, and volcanic activity can cause havoc to these islands’ agriculture. For some, the rise of sea level can be devastating.

Throughout history, attempts by foreigners to encourage commercial agriculture in the Pacific Islands through monoculture (single cropping) have threatened fragile island environments.

Large scale land clearing and the use of fertilizers and pesticides have caused erosion, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and depletion of precious soils. Introducing new crops to these communities has resulted in the loss of native crops, harm to native species, and the elimination of traditional mixed farming methods.

The Pacific Islands have unique and fragile ecosystems, many of which are endangered by modern agricultural practices. The islands can be divided into two main types: the high islands, which are generally volcanic islands, and the atolls, or low islands.

Volcanic lava wears down rapidly and provides fertile soil for cultivation. Atolls are low-lying coral reefs, which generally have an inadequate supply of fresh water and poor soils.

Coconuts, which can grow in poor soil and ripen throughout the year, are one of the few crops that thrive on the low islands. Coconuts are an important source of nutritious food and are easy to store. The meat of the coconut can be dried into a product called copra, which is pressed to make multipurpose oils.

Islands vary greatly in the amounts of rainfall they receive, the steepness of their slopes, and their varieties of plant life. Differences in rainfall and vegetation also exist on different parts of the same island.

For example, one side of the island of Hawaii has one of the driest deserts on earth, whereas a few miles away on the other side of the island is a tropical rain forest.

Melanesian Islands

Coconuts plantation, Melanesian islands
Coconuts plantation, Melanesian islands

These fairly large islands are located to the northeast of Australia. They are quite damp, have a hot climate, and display a mountainous terrain covered with dense vegetation. Papua New Guinea is the largest island in Melanesia, slightly larger in size than California.

It has a mountainous interior with rolling foothills that are surrounded by lowlands along the coastal areas. Its highest point is Mount Wilhelm, which rises to 14,795 feet (4,509 meters).

Permanent crops occupy only 1 percent of the land. Crops are terraced in areas having steep slopes and extreme vegetation. Irrigation water is often brought to the crops through bamboo pipes. Approximately 64 percent of the labor force is involved in subsistence agriculture.

Products grown include coffee, cocoa, coconuts, palm kernels, tea, rubber, fruit, sweet potatoes, vegetables, poultry, and pork. Palm oil, coffee, and cocoa are exported. In 1997 droughts brought on by the El NiƱo weather cycle caused extreme damage to coffee, cocoa, and coconut production.

Vanuatu, which includes eighty islands in the South Pacific due east of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, covers a total area a bit larger than the state of Connecticut. Its mostly mountainous terrain provides minimal arable land. Approximately 2 percent of the land is arable, and another 2 percent is used for pasture.

About two-thirds of the population is involved in subsistence or small-scale agriculture. The main agricultural products are coconuts, cocoa, yams, coffee, fruits, vegetables, fish, and beef. Copra, beef, cocoa, and coffee are exported.

New Caledonia, located east of Australia in the South Pacific, is almost the size of New Jersey. It consists of coastal plains with interior mountains that range up to 5,340 feet (1,628 meters) in height.

New Caledonia, which is known for its nickel resources, imports much of its food supply. A few vegetables are grown, but raising livestock is more common Of New Caledonia’s land, 12 percent is in permanent pasture, used for raising beef cattle.

The Fiji Islands include 332 islands, 110 of which are inhabited, located east of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. These islands are volcanic in origin. Approximately 10 percent of the land is arable, and 10 percent is in permanent pasture.

About 67 percent of the labor force is involved in subsistence agriculture. Sugarcane is an important crop in Fiji and constitutes 32 percent of Fiji’s exports. Other products grown in Fiji are coconuts, cassava, rice, sweet potatoes, cattle, pigs, and goats.

The Solomon Islands are a cluster of small islands that collectively cover an area almost the size of Maryland. They are located in the Solomon Sea between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Some of the islands have rugged mountainous terrain; others are low coral atolls.Only 1 percent of the land is arable and 1 percent devoted to pastures.

Approximately 24 percent of the working population is involved in agriculture, forestry, or fishing. Beans, cocoa, coconuts, palm kernels, rice, potatoes, fruit, and vegetables are grown on the islands. Cattle and pigs are the primary livestock raised there. Palm oil, cocoa, copra, and tuna are exported.

Micronesian Islands

Pineapple farm, Micronesian islands
Pineapple farm, Micronesian islands

Micronesia comprises thousands of relatively small islands located along the equator in the central Pacific Ocean and up to 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) north of the equator in the western Pacific Ocean.

The region covers 1.54 million square miles (4million square kilometers) and is subdivided into four areas: the Kiribati group, which lies around the intersection of the equator (0 degrees latitude) and the international date line (longitude 180 degrees); the Marshall Islands, which are about 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) to the northwest of Kiribati; the Federated States of Micronesia, which extend westward from the Marshall Islands for another 900miles; and Guam, a U.S. territory located within the western cluster of islands of the Federated States of Micronesia.

The Kiribati group includes the Gilbert, Line, and Phoenix Islands, which are primarily low-lying atolls encircled by extensive living reefs. Of the thirty-three islands in the group, twenty are inhabited.

Agriculture is mainly subsistence, with copra being one of Kiribati’s few exports. Grown on the island for local consumption are taro, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, vegetables, and coconuts.

Taro is one of the oldest cultivated plants in Pacific Island history and was once a staple food of the island people. This starchy, edible tuber can be cultivated by clearing or partially clearing a patch in the tropical rain forest and planting the taro in the moist ground.

The Marshall Islands contain two island chains of 30 atolls and 1,152 islands. Agriculture exists as small farms that provide commercial crops of tomatoes, melons, coconuts, and breadfruit. Coconuts, cacao, taro, breadfruit, pigs, and chickens are produced for local consumption.

The Federated States of Micronesia include Pohnpei, the Truk Islands, the Yap Islands, and Kosrae. There are a total of 607 diverse islands, some high and mountainous, others low-lying atolls. Volcanic outcroppings are found on Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Truk.

Agriculture on the islands is mainly subsistence farming. Products grown include black pepper, coconuts, tropical fruits and vegetables, cassava, and sweet potatoes. Pigs and chickens are the main livestock raised. Bananas and black pepper are exported.

Guam, the largest island in the Mariana archipelago, is of volcanic origin and surrounded by coral reefs. It has a flat coral limestone plateau that serves as a source of fresh water for the islands.

In Guam, 15 percent of the land is used as permanent pasture. and another 11 percent is arable. Although fruits, vegetable, copra, eggs, poultry, pork, and beef are raised on the island, much of its food is imported because the economy relies heavily on U.S.military spending and the tourist trade.


Banana plantation in Tahiti, Polynesia
Banana plantation in Tahiti, Polynesia

Polynesia comprises a diverse set of islands lying within a triangular area having corners at New Zealand, the Hawaiian Islands, and Easter Island. French Polynesia is at the center of the triangle, 15 degrees south latitude and longitude 140 degrees west, and includes 118 islands and atolls.

The five archipelagoes of French Polynesia include four volcanic island chains (the Society Islands, the Marquesas, the Gambiers, and the Australs) and the low-lying atolls of the Tuamotus. The mountainous volcanic islands contain fertile soils along their narrow coastal strips.

The atolls have little soil and lack a permanent water supply. Permanent pasture covers 5 percent of French Polynesia, and 6 percent of the land is used for permanent crops. Agricultural products raised include coconuts, vegetables, fruits, vanilla, poultry, beef, and dairy products.

Coconut products and vanilla are exported. Thirteen percent of the population is involved in agriculture. On Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia, less than 10 percent of the land is arable. Exports include vanilla and coffee, but the main export from French Polynesia is pearls.

Samoa is a chain of seven islands lying several thousand miles to the west of Tahiti. Collectively, the islands are almost the size of Rhode Island, and they are covered with rugged mountains with a narrow coastal plain.

Approximately 24 percent of the land sustains crops of bananas, taro, yams, and coconuts. Taro is a crop that can be used in land reclamation by building mud ridges or mounds in swampy ponds between the beach rampart and the foothills. Coconuts grown on the island are processed into creams and copra for export.

Tuvalu is a group of nine coral atolls located 0 halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The soil is poor on these islands, and there are no streams or rivers. Water is captured in catchment systems and put into storage. Islanders live by subsistence farming and fishing. Coconut farming allows the islanders to export copra.

The Cook Islands comprise a combined area almost the size of Washington, D.C. Located halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, the northern islands are primarily low coral atolls, and the southern Cook Islands are hilly volcanic islands. Permanent crops occupy about 13 percent of the land; 29 percent of the labor force is involved in agriculture.

The Cook Islands produce a wide diversity of crops, including pineapple, tomatoes, beans, papayas, bananas, yams, taro, coffee, and citrus fruits. Agriculture is an important part of the economy, and copra, fresh and canned citrus fruit, and coffee are major exports.

The Hawaiian Islands are a volcanic chain of more than 130 islands, centered near 25 degrees north latitude and longitude 160 degrees west. Hawaii, with more than one million people, has the largest population in the Polynesian Island group.

Lanai, one of the seven largest islands in Hawaii, is privately owned, and almost all its cultivated land is planted in pineapples. There are more than fifty-five hundred farms in Hawaii, and more than forty crops are grown commercially.

Because of the absence of adequate water on some sides of the Hawaiian Islands, water is brought through aqueducts from the wet sides of the islands to the dry sides, then kept in lined reservoirs to be used for irrigation, ranching, and tourism.

Sugarcane requires enormous amounts of water to grow, and most pineapple crops are grown under irrigation. Hawaii is the second-largest producer of macadamia nuts in the world.

The islands of Hawaii, Kauai, Maui, Molokai, and Oahu produce 7.6 million pounds of green coffee a year. Hawaii is also a prime producer of pineapple, cane from sugar, greenhouse and nursery plants, and dairy products. The main exports are fruits, coffee, and nuts.

New Zealand

About the size of Colorado, New Zealand is divided into two large islands and numerous smaller islands. About 50 percent of its land is in permanent pasture.

A mountainous country with large coastal plains, 9 percent of the land in New Zealand is arable, and 5 percent is planted in permanent crops. Agriculture accounts for 9 percent of the gross national product and employs approximately 10 percent of the labor force.

In New Zealand, livestock outnumber people twenty-three to one. Wool, lamb, mutton, beef, and dairy products account for more than one-third of New Zealand’s exports, and New Zealand is one of the world’s top exporters of these products.

New Zealand exports 90 percent of its dairy products. Other exports include cheese, fruits, and vegetables. Industry in New Zealand is primarily based on food products, including processed fruit, wines, and textiles.