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ABC Australia /Asia Pacific June 6, 2001

A leading demographer predicts that the population in the South Pacific will double in the next 50 years.

Professor John Caldwell has been calculating the number of people in Oceania over the last thousand years as part of a world project by the International Union for Scientific Study of Population.

In 2000, Oceania’s population was 30 and a half million, which is half of one percent of the world’s total. Australia has 62% of Oceania’s people, Melanesia 21%, New Zealand 13% and Polynesia and Micronesia 2% each.

Professor Caldwell says death rates have fallen dramatically since WWII, and this has led to a dramatic multiplication of population, although there is a slowdown at the moment.

Birth Rates Down

"Birth rates are now well on the way down in Polynesia, somewhat less rapidly in Micronesia, less rapidly still in Melanesia, although even in Melanesia birth rates are now falling.

"By the end of the present century most of us expect that they’ll be equally grim again. That doesn’t mean that population growth won’t be pretty rapid in the next 50 years in the Pacific, it will be, and it will be a question both of developing resources towards resources and so on further, but almost certainly of continued immigration to Australia, America and New Zealand and so on."

The Professor says the island countries will probably double their populations within 50 years, although there are definite regional variations. He points out that in terms of density, Micronesia is more densely populated than China, Polynesia is close to European population densities, and Melanesia has greater density than North America.

Can Islands Cope?

But can island states actually deal with those sorts of populations?

"History tells us that on the whole they can. In the present century we’ve got to take into account that their resource areas extend well beyond the land area of the islands. Finally, what is expanding most in a richer world is tourism and there most of the Pacific Islands have a great deal to offer."

Professor Caldwell says it should be borne in mind that much of this Pacific population boom will actually affect developed nations on the Pacific Rim, which will be host to significant diaspora communities.

Migration to Australia and New Zealand

"My guess is that about half the population increase in the next 50 or 100 years will be dissipated in the form of migration to the usual places -- to New Zealand, to America and to Australia.

"The connections will be kept; doubtless they’ll be weakened over time, but if I’m right and about half the growth will leave the islands, the islands will nevertheless have to absorb the other half, and will have to diversify their economies, especially in, I think, new ways of attracting tourists."

He says although some of the island states will lose some of their best and brightest young people to this migratory drift, remittances they will send back will help to raise living standards.

Cultural Challenge

Professor Caldwell admits that indigenous cultures will face some strong challenges though.

"In one sense the whole world is homogenizing its culture. The culture of Europe is certainly not what it was 100 years ago; the same is true of the Islands.

"There’s the slightly worrying aspect that what will be sold is a kind of manufactured culture, something to make the tourists see how distinct they are, but then the Islands are not the only ones who will be guilty of that."

For additional reports from ABC Australia News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/ABC News Online.

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