The new geography group decided to spend its first three months studying some of the South Pacific Islands. Many of them were visited by Captain Cook and became part of the British Empire but gained their independence in the 1960s and 1970s.
A few of us had been lucky enough to visit that part of the world, so we heard first-hand accounts of life in New Caledonia (which has just voted to reject independence and remain French), Fiji and Samoa.
We found that, although the islands are exceptionally beautiful and the people warm and friendly, life there is not always easy. All the islands sit on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and many, especially Tonga, suffer frequent volcanic eruptions and earth tremors. This is also a part of the Earth where typhoons are common and whole villages of flimsy housing can be flattened.
Most of the islands’ economies are dependent upon foreign aid from New Zealand, Australia, and increasingly, China. One or two have deposits of gold and copper, but most make their living from tourism, agriculture and fisheries. They export coconuts, papaya, coffee, timber, palm oil, sugar and pearls, but income from fisheries is declining as fish stocks are depleted and the sea fills up with plastic.
As sea levels rise, some of the lower lying coral atolls are disappearing and villagers will have to be re-housed on other islands. Kiribati is particularly at risk, as only one of its 32 islands has a significant area of land which is more than 3 metres above sea level.
We found studying and discussing these islands’ history, economies, climate and current affairs fascinating. There is so much more to learn about them, and we shall all be much more aware of what is going on in that part of the world in the future.