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Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 16

4 Changing structure of island society

‘Silence is the nature of my island’, beach 
scene, Vlingilli, Maldives, April 2003

‘Dancing’ coconut trees, Manchineel Bay, 
Providencia, San Andres Archipelago, 
May 2003.


‘Nature is an eternal storehouse of great mysteries and enchanting beauties. She is a sincere friend who embalms man when his heart is wounded. She is a great philosopher who answers many a question of men. So spell bound the men become by her overall beauties that he finds tongues in trees, books in brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything. Nature is a thing of beauty and being in the company of Nature means a joy forever.

Maldives is one such country blessed by Mother Nature. The Maldivian islands are a group of beautiful islands located in the Indian Ocean. We are becoming more and more exposed to tourists – mainly from Italy and Germany. For this all our thanks goes to our beautiful sandy beaches and wonderful lagoons with their rich variety of fishes and marine life.

All that I see, sense, breathe, feel and adore is my own small island – Thinadhoo. Thinadhoo is a greenish lagoon that measures a diametre of 2 km. It is isolated from the capital of Maldives, Male. Therefore we have our own unique set of advantages and disadvantages.

Our life in a small island is generally associated with life in the lap of nature. My island people indeed lead a very simple life. There is no nerve breaking hustle and bustle. There are no straining hurries and worries. Rather we people believe in simple living. We love a sense of belongingness and share each other’s joys and sorrows.

We celebrate various festivals together, with a healthy spirit of give and take. Our youth actively involve themselves and embrace the rich cultural heritage of the Maldivian islands. The singing and dancing not only help to entertain our tourists but also goes a long way to keep our culture alive.

We are free from artificiality of the present modern life. We have no clubs, even no cinema to divert our attention from work. Rather we have our own simple ways of recreation. After a tiring day, the men and women sit under a shady breadfruit tree, gossip among themselves and feel as free as a bird. At times, our elders arrange recreational programs. The youngsters (boys and girls) enliven the whole gathering.

Life in a small island, no doubt, has its darker side also. Pollution is beginning to have an effect on our prestigious beaches. The range and quality of marine life around our island and in our lagoons is beginning to suffer as a consequence of pollution. The reef systems around the islands are relatively fragile and if we are not careful about overfishing and pollution, the very existence of the islands would be in doubt.

A large number of islanders leave the islands every year to find work and a better lifestyle overseas. Many of them never return to reside. The key to technical and skilled jobs lies fundamentally in the educational system; people have to be brought in from overseas to play these roles. Industries and factories are lacking, so every consumer good is imported, and therefore tends to be very expensive.

Our government ensures that enough resources are made available to help the islanders. A large portion of the revenue is used to upgrade and to improve the schools and education. A substantial amount of money is spent on educational programs to increase awareness concerning pollution and other environmental issues. This is helping our islanders to be more informed and to create a better understanding.

Even though we lack a lot of things, we are blessed with an enchanting nature. The fresh morning breeze, the ripples in the reef and the dancing coconut trees – all have beauty on their own. Whenever I see strong waves I get great courage to fight the modern world and whenever I am sad the dancing coconut trees bring cheer to my heart. I wish this beauty that I have found in culture, tradition and nature would be evergreen. Though I have a lot of things to say, I go silent here because silence is the nature of my island.’

Fathmath Waheedha, Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll Education Center, Maldives (Youth forum, November 2003)

The life described above by Fathmath Waheedha is in many ways an idyllic one, which is fast disappearing from many islands, if not already gone. For instance in the Caribbean, with its proximity to North and South America, it would be hard to find an island with no form of evening entertainment available. While change is inevitable, it is how islanders adapt to change that is the key to a better life. This chapter will examine some of the traditional aspects of island society, and will then discuss some of the main societal changes such as migration, influx of foreign workers, lack of jobs for school leavers, increases in crime and violence.

Traditional leadership

In many of the Pacific islands, traditional leadership plays an important role in the social hierarchy. For instance in Palau, there is a network of state, village and clan chiefs, with the chiefly titles generally held by men, who play an important role in local decision-making, land and resource management. While the people of Palau may appear to be among the most westernized of all Micronesians with their casual clothing and well-spoken English, many traditional customs have been retained over the years, such as those for a first-born child, marriage, house-building and funerals. Palau is also well known for its strong matrilineal culture, with family wealth and titles passed through female lineage and women playing a strong role in family and village decision-making as well as local politics (Holm, 2003).

Markets are a
traditional aspect of island life; 

a fish market in Male,
Maldives, April 2003;

a general market, Victoria, 
Seychelles, March 2002

Traditional men’s meeting house (bai),
Palau, February 2002


Islands sometimes show a very
cosmopolitan side, as seen here in
Koror, Palau, February 2002, and Port
Louis Mauritius, April 2003

In a Small Islands Voice opinion survey covering all age groups and sectors of society in Palau in 2003 (Holm, 2003), participants were asked to name three issues that concerned them the most. The top three issues in order of priority were (1) the economy, (2) eroding traditional values and leadership, and (3) high number of foreign workers. Economic concerns were at the forefront of most islands surveyed, but Palau was alone in ranking the decline of traditional values and leadership so high and only time will tell whether the decline can be halted. However, there is hope in that many island governments, civil society groups and others are working to conserve and retain their traditions and practices. As was discussed in the preceding chapter (and below), there is one positive sign in that young people living in islands appear to want to retain many of these traditions, which they see as part of their identity.

‘In the Republic of Palau, the act of "Respect" is very important. It is shown or applied to both young and old people. Respect or "omengull" in the Palauan language, is practised everywhere in Palau. Small gestures such as bending over or crouching when walking through crowded places, moving to the sidewalk to let an older person pass by, to whisper when speaking in a Bai or when a meeting is held in a Bai with the council of Chiefs, are acts of respect that Palauans practise. When a Palauan does these acts of respect, he/she is considered a true Palauan who was brought up with a positive view of being a good Palauan.’
Student from Mindzenty High School, Palau (Youth forum, April 2003)


Islands have historically been a ‘melting pot’ for human society, with people of different races and origins arriving, blending in and departing, sometimes as part of major explorations and colonizations, or even forced migrations as seen in the days of the slave trade. The migrations continue to the present day, sometimes as slow trickles and sometime as a major exodus. For example, every year hundreds of people from the Dominican Republic take to flimsy boats and try to cross the Mona Passage to reach what they hope will be a better life in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, some of these migrants drown when their small boats encounter rough seas en route.

Cook Islands

In the Cook Islands, in recent decades, there has been a continual movement of people from the Outer Islands to Rarotonga, the most populated island, and from there to New Zealand and Australia. In 1996, an economic stabilization programme was introduced in the Cook Islands, resulting in a 50% reduction in government departments and ministries and a reduction in pay for all government workers. About 2,000 public workers lost their jobs, which in a country of 20,000 inhabitants was a significant proportion of the working population. Many people had no alternative but to leave the country and search for jobs elsewhere, usually in New Zealand, where they have the legal right to live and work (Keller and Wheeler, 1998). Inevitably, this has changed the face of society in the Cook Islands:

‘I used to be a regular visitor to the Cook Islands early in the 1970s and the 1980s. However, during a recent visit I was a bit disappointed to see less smiles and the absence of young people. They all seem to be running away to jobs in New Zealand or around the Pacific. The friendly feeling that used to exist is no longer in place. A few people are struggling to hold on and keep the authenticity of the place but for what – when the young people are no longer there. To put this in short, I am brave enough to say that if the Cook Islands are not careful, their identity as Cook Islanders will be overrun by the tourists, investors or the imported labour force.’
Vaasiliifiti Moelani Jackson, Samoa (Global forum, July 2003)


In the Maldives, there is great variation in population density between the various atolls, ranging from 443 persons/ha in Hinnavaru, Faadhippolhi Atoll to 2 persons/ha in Maafilaafushi in the same atoll (UNEP, 2002). A Population and Development Consolidation Programme has been implemented which aims to maximize economies of scale in the provision of socio-economic services, by promoting economically viable population concentrations on large islands. The programme encourages inhabitants of small and remote islands to voluntarily move to larger islands where socio-economic services and employment opportunities are in place and they can therefore attain a better standard of living (Ministry of Planning and National Development, 2002).

‘Many small islands face the 
threat of losing their identity as 
they are overrun by tourists,
investors and foreign workers.'
Here, tourists visit the Punanga 
Nui Cultural Market, and wait 
for the launch to take them 
back to the cruise ship, 
Rarotonga, Cook Islands,
November 2003

Many of the people working to build Palau’s Compact Road are foreign 
workers, February 2002

While this programme has obvious economic benefits for individuals and the country, some social impacts have also resulted. During a Small Islands Voice opinion survey in July 2003, which covered 10% of the population in Eydhafushi Island of Baa Atoll, several social issues were identified. The most often identified issues were conflicts within the community and inadequate community collaboration. This latter issue was felt to be at the root of many other social problems and conflicts. The main reason identified was the fact that the present Eydhafushi community is made up of a mix of communities resettled from various nearby islands in the past, so there is little community spirit. It may take generations for the communities to ‘blend’ together. While this may not have been considered an issue in the past, increasing population and pressure on land and other resources were noted as resultant problems. The limited opportunities for social and entertainment activities were also noted as causing social problems within the community.

Influx of foreign workers

As tourism and other service industries develop, some islands are seeing an influx of foreign workers and this too is changing the face of island society. This is another aspect of migration. For instance in Palau:

‘Whereas 20 years ago there were few foreign residents in Palau, now most jobs are taken by foreigners. Of the 13,300 people on the main island (where most people live) by 2000 less than half (6,243) were indigenous. Because the immigrants are almost all working age adults and the Palauans include many children and old people, most jobs were held by foreigners. (4,885 were Filipino or other Southeast Asian, 1,349 Chinese, 253 Japanese, 223 Bangladeshis, 347 Americans and Europeans including many Russians).’
Crocombe, 2002

And in another part of Micronesia:

‘In the Northern Mariana Islands, the belief that foreign investment would benefit everyone had some truth for a time when people wanted jobs. No longer. Whereas almost everyone in the Northern Marianas used to be Chamorro or other Micronesian, now two out of three people there are Asian or other non-indigenous. They have about the same indigenous population as the Cook Islands, but the World Health Organization recently estimated that there were 3,000 prostitutes in the Northern Marianas, servicing tourists, factory workers and others. As in Guam and Palau, unemployment among Micronesians is high, and many emigrate, but it is low among immigrants (excluding refugees)’.
Crocombe, 2002

Ron Crocombe goes on to argue in the newspaper article that once full employment is achieved, the benefits of foreign investment go down and the costs and problems go up. This issue was also discussed on the Small Islands Voice global internet forum where 65% of the 20 respondents agreed with his concept.

The issue of foreign labour is not restricted to the Pacific islands, it was also an issue mentioned in the global discussions and opinion surveys in the islands of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean.

Lack of jobs for school leavers

The lack of jobs for school leavers was one of the issues discussed by the Maldives in the Small Islands Voice internet-based discussion forum, and mention was made of expatriates being preferred for the more sought-after professional and white-collar jobs.

‘With regard to job opportunities, I have to mention that school leavers – especially at lower secondary level and even at higher secondary level – find it difficult to get jobs anywhere. Every year more than 7,000 students complete their secondary education and enter into the job market while not more than 250 job opportunities are created. Even though there are more than 70 tourist resorts, locals find it difficult to get jobs from the resorts. These resorts are disproportionately staffed by expatriates. While the government encourages the private sector, especially the tourism sector, to provide job opportunities to the locals, resort managers rely more on the expatriates because they are brought under a contract and there is a guarantee that these expatriates will remain there. Moreover, locals have more family commitments; sometimes leaving the workstation without giving prior notice to the management. The number of school leavers from day to day is increasing, but job opportunities are limited. Locals at professional levels are few. For instance, expatriate doctors and secondary school teachers dominate the service industry. Moreover, in resorts too, people at decision level are foreigners.’
Students from Baa Atoll Education Centre, Baa Atoll, Maldives (Youth forum, October 2003)

Similar situations exist in islands in the Pacific and Caribbean, as can be seen by the following responses.

‘The Cook Islands is a country consisting of fifteen small islands in the Pacific Ocean, thirteen of which are inhabited. It has a population of around 16,000 people and is slowly declining. One problem is the declining situation of job opportunities. There are many jobs vacant, but most locals leave the country for overseas to further their education, and level of qualification, and for the higher income and better recognition of their work. School-leavers usually get work at supermarkets, cafés, resorts etc. Some school-leavers leave school because of their inability to pass exams due to misunderstanding or laziness. Students resident in Rarotonga, the capital island, seeking higher secondary level education, usually migrate with or without family to New Zealand or Australia.’
Mercedes Makiuti, Nukutere College, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (Youth forum, November 2003)

‘The same can be said about the Commonwealth of Dominica. It can be very frustrating when a school leaver cannot find a job or ends up doing something he/she does not like or was not prepared for. Some school leavers wait for a year before finding employment. Other school leavers simply migrate to the USA to live with relatives while a few go off to study. Many migrate to the neighbouring islands. Those remaining here on island may get employment because someone in a company or business knows the individual or his/her parents. In concluding, I must say Dominicans are hard-working people, therefore they most time create employment for themselves.’
Students from Marigot Secondary School, Dominica (Youth forum, October 2003)

‘Well, we would like to comment on this topic because in Bequia we are suffering from the same problem. Many of our students who leave secondary school are finding it hard to find jobs. Others who dropped out of school would be found getting into delinquent behaviour because they cannot find jobs to suit their standard of living. In St Vincent where we live, the government has started up a "yes programme" for students who have left school with qualifications and can't find jobs. They are employed as helpers in government offices and given a minimal wage until they could find jobs.’
Students from Bequia Community High School (Youth forum, November 2003)

Increase in crime and violence

The students from Bequia mention delinquent behaviour among youth, and this is a very real problem in small islands, as well as in larger countries. It may partly be fuelled by a lack of jobs, few opportunities and a loss of hope. But it is an extremely complex and serious problem, and is manifest in an increase in crime and violence, especially among youth. This has been one of the topics highlighted and discussed by islanders in opinion surveys and discussions over the past two years.

In an opinion survey of the general public conducted in St Kitts and Nevis in 2002 (Lake and Byron, 2002), the main concern was the escalation of crime and violence among young people. The breakdown of moral values was another related issue cited by many of the respondents. In St Vincent and the Grenadines, a survey among young people indicated violence in the community was one of the main areas of concern; the nature of this violence included gang rapes, violence in sports, gossip and profane language (Youth concerns in Bequia, 2002). Increased crime and violence is not just a Caribbean concern; in Fiji it is a frequent topic in island media and in Palau the issue, together with drugs, featured high on the list of priority concerns during an opinion survey of island residents (Holm, 2003).

A newspaper article from the Caribbean discussed at length in the Small Islands Voice global forum, featured a violent incident in a Caribbean island which took place in 2003 when a gang of young men forced the driver and passengers off a minibus and preceded to attack two young men, one of whom they killed. The young man who died was a decent, hardworking member of society and it may have been a case of mistaken identity. The discussion featured ways to stop the cycle of crime and violence and included:

Stories about increasing crime and violence regularly make the
headlines in island newspapers

‘In summary – there are influences inside and outside the island community that promote harmony and violence. To understand what those influences are and to act constructively to bring more peace and less disruption to the community requires everyone's cooperation – top to bottom. Focus has to be on that which is in your control. The village needs to reinforce the foundations of moral behaviour in the family, the schools, and in its own honest behaviour – for no generation will follow the rules of a hypocritical role model. The young are influenced more by what you do then what you say.’
Brian Mommsen (Global forum, September 2003)

An article on gang violence (username view, password only) posted on the Small Islands Voice youth forum by students from Marigot Secondary School provides some insight on how young people see these problems:

‘There is a lack of employment opportunities available to the youth. Hence, the inevitable result of stress and depression leading to gang-related crimes, theft, rape, murder, just to name a few. The abuse of alcohol is becoming a culture, more so during festive times among the youth. A few weeks ago an incident occurred at a popular shopping centre, where one man was killed by a gang. All this happens due to a lack of socialization among family members, youth and society. In view of this, we suggest that more activities should be planned for the youths, such as sports (e.g. basketball, cricket) and cultural activities (e.g. calypso, queen shows).’
Students from Marigot Secondary School, Dominica (Youth forum, October 2003)

During a workshop in Dominica in July 2003, involving 12 Caribbean territories, two Pacific territories and one Indian Ocean territory, the main priority concern was identified as a group of social issues comprising drug abuse, crime, violence and especially gang violence, and unemployment. Participants felt that it was impossible to separate these issues (Report on Second Sandwatch workshop, 2003).

Concluding comments

As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, change is inevitable, and it is how people adapt to and manage change that is most important. Based on the activities undertaken within Small Islands Voice, and especially seen in the internet discussions, there is a desire among islanders to learn about events and conditions in other islands and to help each other. In the internet-based youth forum, young people learnt about islands they had previously never heard about.

‘Thank you for taking the time and effort to reply to our article. It is great hearing from people from other parts of the world. We had not heard of Dominica until we received the Small Islands Voice replies to our article. Thank you.’
Students from Mangaia School, Cook Islands (Youth forum, April 2003)

Similarly, in the Small Islands Voice global internet discussion on crime and violence, there was a desire among the respondents to search out the cause of the problems, to discuss different situations, and to learn from each other as to possible solutions. In this respect, the internet is proving to be a practical tool, allowing islanders from the Pacific, at the touch of a button, to exchange their ideas with islanders in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean regions. It was also enlightening to see that islanders accepted that problems such as crime and violence among youth were a result of deficiencies in their own community structure and society, and therefore these problems were theirs to solve – not something to be blamed on the government or outside parties.



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