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COLUMN ONE : The 'Pacific Paradox': Islands of Despair : The region's good times have passed many tiny nations by, leaving them mired in poverty. Critics blame government waste, depleted natural resources.

March 16, 1995|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VERAHUE, Solomon Islands — Peter Jack held his palms to the beating sun in a gesture of despair.

"Our lives have been really hurt by logging," Jack said. "The bulldozers have taken away the topsoil, and now we can't grow potatoes or yams in our gardens. Life is so different than before."

Jack is a 40-year-old subsistence farmer whose family ekes out a living on the northern coast of Guadalcanal--a Pacific island, famous as the site of a savage battle between U.S. and Japanese forces in 1942, that has slipped into impoverished oblivion.

Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Island chain, is a dusty, flyblown town with one bumpy road and 52,000 people. It is infested with a deadly strain of malaria and economically stagnant. The rows of empty shelves at the Consumers Co-op supermarket remind a visitor of West Africa or perhaps Eastern Europe before perestroika.

Less than 25% of the Solomons' 350,000 people can read, one of the world's lowest literacy rates. Every year, only 700 paying jobs are created while more than 5,500 people join the labor force.

This was supposed to be the Pacific Century, a mercantile age when the nations of the Pacific Rim would race ahead of the industrialized West economically. But the good times have largely passed over the hundreds of Pacific isles, leaving them mired in poverty and facing the evils of overpopulation, government mismanagement and depleted natural resources.

"Around us there swirls a maelstrom of economic growth in the Pacific Rim while the heart of the Pacific--its islands--stands still, at best going nowhere and in many cases going backward," noted a recent commentary in Pacific Islands Monthly, a newsmagazine published in Fiji.

The World Bank even coined a phrase--the "Pacific Paradox"--to help explain why the islands increasingly are being left behind, even compared to the relatively backward Caribbean nations.

It seems a far cry from the days when French painter Paul Gauguin memorialized the Pacific islands as a place where one can "enter into Truth, become one with nature and, after the disease of civilization, life in this new world is a return to health."

Stretching from Melanesia near Australia to the islands of Polynesia and the tiny atolls of the Marshall Islands, the Pacific isles are a crazy quilt of past and present American and European colonies. Some, such as Vanuatu, were ruled by two colonial masters, Britain and France, at once.

Many in the Pacific island states have blamed their predicament on a history of indifferent colonialism or the vast stretches of sea that make them inaccessible to tourists and investors. But even sympathetic economists note that island nations such as Mauritius and the Maldives, remotely located in the Indian Ocean, have fared much better in managing their resources and planning their economic futures.

Australia, the South Pacific's largest aid donor, has begun to warn the islands that the days of unquestioned financial assistance are nearing an end.

"I really don't think there is much use pouring money into a country that is not looking after its own interests," said Gordon Bilney, Australia's minister for the South Pacific. "We think they could do a much better job of managing their own resources."

Bilney noted in an interview that Papua New Guinea, a former Australian protectorate whose 4 million people make it the island region's most populous nation, has received more than $4.5 billion in Australian aid over the years. But in that time every measure of development, from illiteracy to deaths in child birth, has worsened. Largely to blame, he said, was government mismanagement.

Bilney also said that Pacific island countries last year lost a collective $100 million maintaining unprofitable "vanity" airlines, more than the combined total of aid given to the region by Australia and New Zealand. Western Samoa alone lost $20 million on Polynesian Airlines, half the country's foreign reserves.

A demographic study of the island states by Australia's National Center for Development Studies warned in a recent "doomsday scenario" that the region faces a doubling of its population, strains on its education systems and exhaustion of its natural resources by 2010.

"There is a concern that, if things fall over, we may well see an implosion in the region to rather distressing environmental problems and poverty that will be hard to get out of," said Rowan Callick, a South Pacific specialist, who wrote the "doomsday" study.

The report looked at burgeoning population growth and declining economies in Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and Vanuatu. It said that with birth rates among the world's highest and incomes declining sharply, it would be impossible to improve education in these countries; even in 20 years they would be unable to afford to offer 10 years of education to every student.

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