Information Constraints in the Pacific Islands

There is no information because 18KB GIF good bulletin board material


Specialist Research

Assessment and monitoring was done by highly trained specialists with narrow fields of interest. While the information may be of high professional quality it may also be of limited use to anyone outside that particular specialty. There is also a tendency for specialists to limit their involvement with issues outside their own field of interest. Agricultural researchers who study insect pests of coconuts are unlikely to discuss their work with fishery statisticians or with people developing parks. Researchers are often highly protective of their positions of authority in their field, and unwilling to accept the opinion or observation of someone in a different field. This tends to fragment sectoral resource assessment and monitoring and prevents participation by the resource owners and users.

Mr. Shackles, a licensed commercial fisher in the Fly River of PNG, reported that the main river channel of the Middle Fly caused a major decline in Barramundi populations. He said there was a loss of habitat for the species because of an increase in the sediment loads of the main river channel caused by the operations of the OK Tedi copper mine. He stressed that the fish tend to avoid the main channel and migrate into the off-river water bodies and tributaries. (Kare 1995). The fisheries researchers conducted an extensive investigation into the decline of Barramundi and shrimp in the coastal areas adjacent to the Fly River but did not accept Mr. Shackles observations as more than "anecdotal evidence."

Meanwhile the OK Tedi mining company and the Department of Environment and Conservation and the DMP were collectively spending $5.5 million Kina for monitoring the environmental impact of the mining activity on the Fly River. Their study revealed "Bed aggradation is not predicted to occur in the middle Fly, the lower Fly or the estuary, although material does deposit on the prograding front of the estuary. The total sediment loads and suspended sediment concentration have increased in the Ok Tedi and Fly River system. There has been a threefold increase in total sediment load and a fourfold increase in sediment concentrations to 450 parts per million in the middle Fly. Nevertheless, these increased sediment concentrations represent just 50 percent of the natural sediment loading of the Strickland River and are within the ranges measured in other natural river systems in Papua New Guinea."

In an Australian court, the "anecdotal evidence" of villagers living along the Fly River was judged solid enough, in contrast to the expert study, to win a $110 million settlement against the mining company.

Since most resource assessment research is carried on by foreign scientists, they may investigate things of little practical importance to the day to day work of government departments or to the users of the resources. All too often large, complex scientific reports of environmental conditions in the Pacific islands wind up feeding cockroaches in musty cabinets because scientists unfamiliar with the socio-political conditions studied the wrong question and came up with information that nobody needed or intended to use.

Government restrictions on research

Governments exert a tight control over research in their countries. Any foreign research request normally requires authorization from the highest levels of Government, routed through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. In general, international agencies, such as the United Nations cannot initiate environmental research without a prior request from the concerned government. Research of all regional organizations within member countries is mediated by government oversight committees. If a subject is politically sensitive, (to any powerful person) it will be difficult to obtain funding or permission to investigate it. Since Governments (or government officials) are often involved in resource use projects, they are unlikely to request a study that might prove embarrassing or harmful to their enterprises.

Environmental research and information gathering programs conducted through the South Pacific Regional Environment Program, for example, are set by the heads of government that oversee SPREP's operation, and individual countries must still authorize and oversee any particular study. Reports of any environmental studies must be approved by the government prior to release. Copies of reports from the United Nations or other organizations are, once approved and published, normally sent to a single individual in the country for distribution to other interested parties. There is no guarantee that the report will be distributed and, in fact, there are many examples of reports being suppressed (even when there is no political or practical reason to do so).


In the Pacific islands, knowledge was traditionally held more valuable than material possessions. While material goods held a transitory value and was distributed to everyone, information was non-distributed wealth, jealously guarded and passed down from father to son (one son).

This remains true today and the data gathering and information processing systems of the Government perpetuate hoarding of information. Knowledge is strictly controlled in Government hierarchies. Information flows from the bottom up, orders for the information from the top down. Superiors must (generally) ask for information before it is offered. Inferiors do not volunteer or ask for information from superiors without permission to do so. The ministers control information within their sectors and lateral transfer of information is prohibited without special accord.

Small size of Governments

With the exception of Papua New Guinea, Pacific Island countries have populations smaller than most small cities in metropolitan countries. Yet operation of a government requires and irreducible minima of people, especially in key management positions. People who are gifted in leadership, management skills, writing or speaking abilities or technical acuity are limited in any population. As any personnel director knows, finding the right person for a job is not easy. No corporation in the United States or Australia or New Zealand would think it unusual to search beyond the limits of their city or even their country to find a person with the required skills. And they draw from a population pool of millions of people. If they had to limit their selection to people of one ethnic origin and within a total population of a small town, the organization would have serious problems finding someone who could actually do the required work. While there would certainly be a few people in the community who might be satisfactory, the chances are they would already be employed. If they did find a local person who was perfect for the job, how could they hold the person if a better job was suddenly made available in another corporation which paid five times the salary?

Every small island nation faces this same situation; finding someone who can do the job from a small local population; someone willing to work for less money than might be earned overseas or in the private sector. Throughout the case studies the problem of high turn-over of staff and unavailability of personnel recurs as a central constraint to sustainable assessment and monitoring.

Pacific island governments, spread out over many islands separated by large distances, are run by a very small number of people. There are only 428 management personnel for the entire government of Tonga with backup from 3,840 professional, technical and related workers (IDEC 1990). Each one of these people have a work load that would be difficult to accomplish if, that is, they had time to do it. As it is, many executive level government staff members are in continuous meetings, workshops, and seminars. They travel overseas regularly to attend meetings or to obtain training, leaving their duties to the next lowest tier of staff members. In the case of environmental agencies, there may not be another professional staff member.

People from the small Pacific Island nations have a much poorer chance of going on to higher education than people from a comparably sized town in other countries. Those young people who do manage to obtain higher degrees often find higher wages and greater professional opportunity in metropolitan countries or regional agencies. The ones who do come back are frequently moved out of research areas into administration, often in areas outside of their areas of training.

This is one of the major reasons the Pacific Countries have pooled their resources in regional organizations like SPREP, the SPC, and FFA. Even these organizations have trouble finding key people from the Pacific island nations. And when they do they remove these people from their own national settings, reducing the nation's capability.

Lack of funds

Pacific Island research - including that done on a regional level or by the metropolitan territories - for resource use and environmental protection is entirely supported by outside assistance. Funds derived from the harvest of resources are seldom put back into the maintenance of the resource or assessment and monitoring. In the Solomon Islands, for example, the annual tax from timber exports includes about $4 million for reforestation. The actual budget for the Forestry Division is only $400,000 a year and only a fraction of this is spent on replanting trees. The income from offshore tuna fishery licenses is put into national treasuries and the resulting annual funding to the national fisheries division bears no relationship to the income from tuna fishing or exported fisheries products.

In addition, when resources are harvested and exported by foreign countries, a large proportion of the money generated by the activity does not enter the local economy of the countries - 93% in the case of tuna. Should South Pacific countries be expected to pay for the management of fisheries when most of the money generated by those activities does not circulate within their economies?

Cost of information versus value of resource

An economic activity cannot be sustainable if it costs more for management, research and development than the value of the resource. The low economic return of subsistence fishing, farming and forestry necessitates a meager research budget, or external subsidies. Line ministries, strapped for funds and personnel, are not likely to worry about the health of the subsistence resources on a small island a hundred kilometers away from the government Centre. When a nation is comprised of hundreds of small islands separated by hundreds of kilometers, there is little economic justification for launching a research project on the health of the coral reef or the soils or water supply on any one of the island sites; especially when these same resources are even more heavily stressed in the immediate vicinity of the government center.

Subsistence resources may be collectively important but since the problem of their (alleged) degradation is spread throughout many communities, the cost of approaching the issue from an assessment and monitoring viewpoint is simply too high.

This problem is inverted in the instance of community resource degradation from large scale mining or forestry. The economic value of the resource is in the removal of the trees or the minerals and this value greatly overshadows the insignificant economic value of the subsistence uses that might be lost as a result of the activities. A study on the effects of mining from the OK Tedi project refers to the impact as "causing inconvenience to the villagers." (see box quote).

Even when a government agrees subsistence values are critical to long-term sustainability of their society, where does the money come from to hire the required government personnel at reasonable wages and support their research and monitoring activities?

It is not uncommon to find government agencies (and international organizations) with barely enough funding to support recurring expenses and no funds to carry out any field projects.


selling a protected species.jpg 20kbThere may be adequate information about a resource use problem, but using the information can require politically or personally unacceptable actions.

Legislation has been passed to combat a range of resource abuses but lack of government enforcement of environmental and resource use issues is almost universal in the Pacific islands. The only notable exception is prosecution of the distant water tuna fleet and coastal fisheries in New Caledonia.

In Tonga, there have only been two prosecutions for non-compliance with fishery regulations and both defendants were non-Tongans. In the Solomon Islands, large scale timber companies have been prosecuted for non-compliance with their logging agreements, but were back at work almost instantly, using the same destructive techniques (Solomon Island Case Study 1997).

Fishers selling protected sea turtles in the Suva fish market.

The PNG government made no effort to investigate complaints of villagers that the OK Tedi mine was polluting the Fly River until the villagers themselves took the company to court in Australia.

In Fiji the Native Lands Trust has not prosecuted any of the many farmers who overlook erosion control practices and thus violate the terms of their leases (Fiji case study 1997).

Strict anti-littering laws exist in almost every country (Tonga has five different acts covering littering) and there are almost no prosecutions recorded anywhere.

There are multiple excuses for non-enforcement, including lack of funds for personnel or equipment needed for monitoring, the great distances involved and difficulties in travel, complexities of the environmental issues, and so on. But it is clear that the major obstacles involve political and economic motives. These are transparent in the case of large scale mining or forestry, but less easy to understand when it comes to enforcement of laws over local use of resources where there no obvious economic reasons to allow the activity - like littering or taking lobsters with eggs, polluting a water source, or illegally filling land in a mangrove area.

In Polynesia, it is considered socially and politically inept to resort to the justice system. Hundreds of environmentally or economically silly projects have been stopped by governments without resorting to prosecution, leaving the overburdened courts free to deal with "serious" issues of violent crime and land disputes. Stopping one of their own nationals from a damaging activity is usually handled by turning various not-so-subtle social or economic forces against the misguided entrepreneur. This is done with some deliberation because the extended family of the entrepreneur will often have its own political and financial network promoting the activity.

An island is a very small place. Everybody knows everybody else and there are elaborate family linkages. Social systems are carefully constructed to minimize direct conflict whenever possible. Polynesian and Micronesian leaders can be consummate social scientists. Minor offences, like littering or taking undersized clams, are not worth the risks of social and political in-fighting.

Melanesians developed a different approach to social survival on the rugged high islands of the Western Pacific. Their technique is evident in the great multitude and complexity of their languages - more than 1100 different languages in the archipelago reaching from Papua New Guinea to Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Each language represents a one-talk system; sort of an extended, extended family. Within this group there is absolute solidarity. There is a wary distrust of all outsiders, and often a distinct enmity and prejudice towards people of adjacent islands.

The concept of all people on an island or a group of islands belonging to one political entity - a nation or even a province - was introduced by the British. Rural Melanesians have not taken this concept to heart, but the one-talk system has extended, instead, through the medium of the Church. Although there are many Christian denominations and break-away sub-sects, members of a Church denomination are generally considered analogous to one-talks.

In terms of environmental enforcement, it would be unthinkable for someone to prosecute a one-talk in court. But the justice system is often used for land disputes between groups. There are also frustrations in settling land and resource disputes in the justice systems of Melanesia. The process of a village taking a logging company to court for violation of the terms of the logging agreement is lengthy and the issue is rarely settled (Solomon island case study 1997) resulting in disillusionment with the justice system.

Prejudices between the Melanesian people from different islands can spoil the authority of government officers, who are sometimes totally ignored. It would be difficult for a government officer from one island to apprehend and prosecute someone on another island without a great deal of assistance. It would never be attempted for minor offences.

Resource ownership

The land resources on the great majority of islands are controlled by the people who live on the land. The colonial government structures, and their modern descendants, have very little (or no) control over how people use the land or the living resources (such as trees) on their land.

In Tonga, where the nobility legally owns the land and controls the government, there is more control over land use. Agricultural committees, for example, can direct farming activities. But the controls are slight and major land use issues have become a difficult problem there, as they are in countries where the government has no say whatever in what people do with their land.

Marine resources follow the same pattern. In some countries, such as Fiji, PNG, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, village rights over coastal resources are recognized in law. In other countries, British (or American) law gives title to marine resources to the national government. But even in these countries the practical day to day control of resource use devolves to the community, because of a lack of monitoring and enforcement by the national or provincial governments.

In countries where village reef rights are legally recognized, the fisheries departments point to this as a major constraint to fisheries management and wish they had national control over the resources. In countries where village reef rights are not recognized, fisheries departments point to this as a major constraint to fisheries management and recommend that their governments legally recognize village reef rights. See country comments.

Even in New Caledonia, where there is strict enforcement of resource regulations, this is limited to Province Sud, and especially in the vicinity of Noumea.

Lack of involvement of resource owners and users

Except for census studies every decade, and periodic agricultural censuses, resource users were not informed of or involved in the assessment process. Resource users have considerable, pertinent assessment information. This is the rationale behind the periodic (and expensive) censuses. They also monitor their environment on a daily basis and are the first ones to complain when something goes wrong with it.

The habit of ignoring the resource users and their complaints is costly as it breeds a mutual distrust between government workers and rural people. Distrust and lack of respect results in conflict and political and economic costs. When people do not understand the issues, they are not likely to believe outsiders who think they know something about the local resources that they don't know themselves. Consequently people don't often believe or cooperate with resource rules and regulations set by foreign consultants for National government agencies.

Conflicts between traditional and European governance

European government structures are superimposed on and often conflict with traditional Pacific island social structures. The European style government is characteristically weak because of its geographic isolation in a national urban center and its financial dependence on foreign funding and/or foreign dominated resource use.

Traditional governance is typically stronger than the National control system and exerts the greatest influence in people's day to day behavior outside the government centers, especially in regard to community use of resources. Many of the traditional social controls are in decay from a variety of causes including the massive die-backs of populations from disease and warfare following the arrival of Europeans (Solomon Island case study 1997).

Problems in information flow

The acquisition and use of resource information suffers a number of constraints in the Pacific islands. Linkages between international, regional and national institutions are essential for sharing the limited human resources and preventing duplication of effort within the Pacific Islands. Regional technical organizations such as the SPC, FFA, and SPREP, strive to foster intercommunication, frequently using workshops and regional meetings to bring people together to discuss resource issues. These are invariably expensive exercises and transportation, per diems, and conference facilities are normally funded by outside donors. Although some observers feel the multitude of conferences is more expensive than productive, others point to them as the only effective means of maintaining information flow - if only during coffee breaks.

Part of the existing communication problem between sectors and organizations originates from the dislike many islanders have for writing reports and communications. Adams et all (1996) ascribe this to poor writing skills, but the poor writing skills may be a manifestation of a more basic social discord towards written communications. Pacific Islanders had no written language at all prior to colonization. Traditional social behavior patterns are based on speaking and community discussions. Reading and writing are anti-social in that they cause the writer or reader to withdraw from others to engage in this personal and private enterprise. Pacific Islanders are almost never alone, day or night., and seldom seek time away from their friends, associates, or families to practice reading or writing. Computers are somehow different, possibly because they are like television and possibly because modern computers are much easier, even fun, to use compared to typewriters or hand writing reports. Email has tended to overcome some of the blocks, and facilitates communications between regional organizations that are on-line.

There is no formal agreement for regional institutions to communicate with each other except through the SPOCC. In the past, avoidance of duplication of effort often lead to isolation of activities and a lack of willingness for one organization to become involved in the domain of another. This is especially troublesome for environmental issues which transcend sectoral boundaries. Recently, SPOCC meetings have become more productive in terms of establishing co-operative programs in the region.

Language blocks

The split in resource use policy between large scale export industry and subsistence use also parallels the language division between English (or French) and the local vernacular.

This is important because assessment information and an understanding of the ecological and economic relationships are inevitably written in English or French.

It is also important because many non-Europeans, even educated government workers, express completely different views on resource use when speaking with people in English or French versus speaking in their own language. This can be confusing, even to the speaker. Economic development issues might dominate a government employee's working hours while off hours are spent with family and friends completely absorbed in gardening, fishing or social activities totally removed from large scale economics.

Combined with the natural tendency to keep work and leisure separate, and the hopelessness of translating professional jargon into most local languages, there is a major communication gap between resource users and government workers (see adjacent box).


Educational facilities are excellent in the French and American territories and good in most Polynesian countries, even if poorly funded. Melanesian educational systems, especially in PNG and the Solomon Islands, are financially and administratively challenged. That is, they are generally terrible except for a nucleus of talented, dedicated teachers that strive to overcome innumerable challenges to help their students.

Environmental education has received considerable regional support. Materials for classroom use are available in many Pacific island countries and can be obtained free from organizations like SPREP.

Libraries and Databases

Researchers have repeatedly urged Pacific country governments to establish local libraries of studies that were or are made of their countries and to make such information accessible to the public. Where national libraries of research reports have been set up, they are seldom open to the public, never comprehensive, poorly maintained and short lived.

Valuable reports on resources commonly can't be found at all within the country that is supposed to benefit from the report. For example, the Forum Fisheries Agency produced a comprehensive profile on fisheries resources for each independent member country. These reference documents should play an invaluable role in fisheries management. The only copy of Samoa's fishery resource profile is reportedly at the FFA headquarters in the Solomon Islands. The Samoa's copy was lost when a hard drive on a computer in the Fisheries Division went down. Finding a copy of the Environmental Management Plan for the Kingdom of Tonga in the capital of Tonga is nearly impossible - the last one in the Development Planning Office Library vanished, reportedly swiped by a visiting expert. The comprehensive 12 volume report on the Forest Resources Survey of the Solomon Islands may only exist outside the Solomon Islands. A consultant for the ADB set up a complete research library in Tarawa, going to great lengths to find copies of reports concerning Kiribati resources. Within six months the reports and books had vanished.

Data incompatibility

Data is often incompatible or in an array of different formats. Although some of this information can be converted from one format to the other, this takes time. Questionnaires requesting information from government departments arrive on a regular basis from a range of international agencies. These are often lengthy, requesting information that might be available but is likely to be in a different format than requested on the survey form. Log exports might, for example, be in recorded in cubic metros but the survey may ask for exports in tones. The result is that many questionnaires are thrown away.

Databases have not standardized and trying to take data from one database to another can be a time consuming and frustrating experience, especially if the person doing it is not very computer literate and the software not user friendly (most database software is notoriously unfriendly). Custom-made software for databases is not uncommon and the data can often only be transferred to another system or more modern database by printing the information and re-entering it.

Lack of incentive for information exchange

In March, 1996, SPREP hosted a meeting on Environment and Statistics for The State of the Environment Reporting. The South Pacific Countries agreed to using the UNSTAT Framework for the Development of Environmental Statistics (FDES). It combines the media approach (organizing data on air, water, land/soil and their biota and the human environment to depict the state of the environment) and the stress-response approach (focussing on the stresses on the environment and the response of the environment to these as shown by various indicators) (Thistlethwaite 1996).

SPREP prepared a database for the information, purchased computers to put the database on, and handed these out to 80% of its member countries, placed either in the Environmental or the Statistics departments. The database has a core set of environmental indicators. The countries are expected to determine what other indices they feel are of interest to them. SPREP has been spending about $100,000 a year on the project and it is supported almost entirely by UNEP.

Interviews with the people in charge of the database for the past six months in Samoan, Solomon Island and Kiribati revealed they had not placed any data in the database. All claimed to have submitted appropriate questionnaires to other relevant agencies but, with the exception of the meteorological department, nobody replied.

Even when the person in charge of the database had relevant information on their desk, it was not entered into the database.

Information Pollution

There is a huge amount of information on resources available in the Pacific islands, but it is fragmented, scattered, narrowly focussed, complex, and sometimes conflicting. Considering the small sizes of government departments and the wide range of activities required of the management staff, the amount of diverse information itself acts as a barrier to effective understanding of issues.

This is a form of information pollution, common enough in our modern world, but devastating to small government agencies in the Pacific islands.


Information might be available on Internet, but this is of little use to people without a connection to Internet. The rapid advancement of Internet in the Pacific islands is reducing this problem, and may help solve related information problems as the regional organizations compile relevant information databases for their member countries.