BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Population Bomb in the Pacific

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HALF of the people living on Pacific islands are under the age of 23. 

The current generation of young people is the size of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents combined.  That startling statistic must be contemplated if we are to avoid catastrophe.  A baby boom of such proportions could end up being a great blessing or a curse.  We need to understand the reasons for it, the issues it raises, and look at some courses of action.

Let’s begin with the reason for the population explosion.  Besides the obvious fact that more children are being born, we find improvements in child mortality and life expectancy.  In other words, more children are surviving the dangerous first years and adults are living long enough to have more children.  Advances in health care, and greater access to those services, has fueled the baby boom.

It is not the only factor.  Culture plays an important part as well.  In many Pacific nations, an extended family doubles as a retirement plan.  The more children a person has, the more likely they will be well cared for in the closing years of life.  One Filipino father confessed to me that this was his plan.  “Have many children, raise them to work hard, then let them take care of me when I’m old,” he said.  That sounds as reasonable as any other retirement plan I have heard.

Additionally, in many Pacific cultures, fertility helps define a person’s value in the community.  Among both men and women, people who raise more children are more desirable and more respected.  I know of a Chamorro woman who has given birth to 12 children. She is spoken of with reverence and awe by other women.  In Latin America, the idea of machismo is tied directly to fatherhood.  The more children a man can claim, the more virulent, potent and macho he is, especially if he produces children with different women.  Something similar may be at work in the islands.  I heard a man brag about having children with three different women.  Not to be outdone, another spoke up, “That’s good, but my children come from four mothers.”  Notice that he began his brag with the words “That’s good.”

What issues are raised by the population explosion in the Pacific?

Economics: Right now, this generation of children lives at home with their parents, but what about ten or twenty years from now, when that group is grown and raising families of their own? The number of houses currently in existence will not shelter them all.  What about jobs?  Where will they work?  In an environment of labor abundance, wages drop or stagnate as workers compete for too few jobs.  The standard of living suffers.  Misery increases.

Urbanization:  Young people often find life in small towns or rural areas to be socially and economically stale.  Opportunities for education, work, recreation and even relationships are much greater in cities.  We already see the “urban drift” going on throughout the Pacific.  As young people migrate to cities, places like Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and Honiara in the Solomon Islands are swelling.  Drastic increases in city populations brings its own problems, including inadequate water and sanitation, the growth of unplanned shanty settlements on the outskirts of town, overwhelmed health care facilities and crime.

Education: With such a drastic increase in the number of students, schools must adjust to the increase.  That will mean building more school buildings and hiring more teachers.  Student completion rates among Pacific islands are already alarming.  In the Solomons, only 70% of girls who enroll in primary school finish, and only 7% of them graduate high school.  The numbers for boys are only slightly better.  The implications for the workforce, and quality of life, are obvious.  Employers cannot find enough literate employees, capable of handling complex tasks associated with the modern workplace.  What good is it to build a modern manufacturing plant on Saipan if a skilled workforce of necessary size cannot be found?    

Flight:  In order to escape all these dilemmas, Pacific youth are simply leaving.  Getting a job on the mainland is one obvious way, getting a college education in another country is another.  At the rate that young people are moving off-island, some Pacific nations may exist in name only before long. The population of Chuuk lagoon is dropping so fast, there may not be anyone left to maintain the scuba diving industry in another ten years.  Young Chuukese are learning that a job and apartment in America are preferable to a shack and muddy road in the lagoon.  If they lack the means to get away, the discontent will lead to…

Political unrest:  Many Pacific youth see the corruption in the system, that powerful, old family heads take political office, then surround themselves with family and friends who owe their livelihood and subsequent allegiance.  The young have no voice, the system does not work for their benefit.  Corrupt politicians in Papua New Guinea allowed foreigners to develop massive mining and logging industries that benefitted the foreign companies and the families of the Prime Minister.  But few locals got jobs.  On Saipan, young people see a giant, bloated casino but don’t see any direct benefit.  The Chinese company benefits, as do the friends and family of those who approved the multimillion-dollar boondoggle.  Such an atmosphere is ripe for political unrest, even revolution.  As the number of young, alienated people grows, so does their power.

I have presented the bad news but take courage!  This is not all negative.  The population explosion in the Pacific could end up being exactly what the islands need right now.  How?  I’ll explain next week.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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