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By Jean Christensen

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (January 31, 2001 – Honolulu Advertiser/Associated Press)---As with the natural disasters to which they are vulnerable, Pacific Island nations can’t stop the tide of economic globalization from sweeping the region, leaders say.

But regional leaders huddled yesterday in search of ways to ensure globalization brings healthy progress, and not economic and cultural disaster, to their nations and territories.

"Globalization is here, and it’s universal, and it’s dangerous if we don’t prepare ourselves," American Samoa Gov. Tauese Sunia said at the Sixth Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders at the Ala Moana Hotel in Honolulu. "We have to protect our ways. We have to protect our value systems."

The East-West Center, located on the campus of the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, is holding the two-day conference, whose participants include heads of state and top officials from a vast swath of the Pacific extending from Papua New Guinea to the west, French Polynesia to the east, Hawai‘i to the north and Tonga to the south.

Representing Fiji is Laisenia Qarase, prime minister of the military-installed interim government that has been running the South Pacific country since a coup last May that toppled Fiji’s first ethnic Indian-leg government.

Chairing the proceedings, however, is former Fiji President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who was ousted in the coup and announced his retirement last month. Mara is a member of the East-West Center Board of Governors.

Robert Kiste, director of the University of Hawai‘i’s Center for Pacific Island Studies, said the challenges facing the region are greater and more complex than they were when the first Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders was held 20 years ago.

They include isolation, limited resources, small skilled work forces, vulnerability to natural disasters and bloated governments dependent on outside aid.

The region’s population has increased by half since 1980, to nearly 7.8 million, he said.

New players from Asia and the European Union are pouring in, while the United States’ involvement has diminished, Kiste said. That has brought an influx of cheap labor from Asian countries.

Many leaders attending had a dim view of the falling trade barriers that are fueling corporations’ global push.

"Globalization benefits only the economically strong countries and nations," said Tetaua Taitai, secretary to cabinet for Kiribati.

Qarase said Pacific Island nations face an uphill battle in preserving their cultures as they move from traditional, communal forms of government to debate-driven democratic systems.

"Solutions for our problems in Fiji lie in Fiji," he said. "Interference of outsiders has not solved our problems and in a lot of cases has probably worsened the situation."

For additional reports from The Honolulu Advertiser, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Honolulu Advertiser.

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