Polynesia will see demographic changes in mere decades

The smaller the country and more homogeneous the population, the sooner and stronger will be the perceived change. In the Pacific islands region, Polynesian countries like Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands will more probably perceive changes in their ethnic composition far sooner than other larger countries of the Pacific.

Dev Nadkarni

In a novel that is set one thousand years into the future, in AD 3001 to be precise, my favourite science fiction author, the late Arthur C Clarke, has an interesting character – a scientist who has Japanese first and last names but who is brown skinned, yet has Caucasian features, Afro hair and comes from Scandinavia!

Ever the master craftsman who had a ready, rationally credible explanation for every single detail in his fabulous storytelling, Clarke explained what seems to us an anomaly today as the norm a thousand years from now: because of large scale migration and interbreeding across forty generations, ethnicities as we know them today had become so mixed up that in the thirtieth century it was impossible to guess which geographical region a particular person came from merely based on their looks or their names.

Migration has existed ever since early humanoid bipeds ventured out of Africa’s Olduvai Gorge all those hundreds of millennia ago. Eventually they branched out into every continent, setting up civilisations wherever they went, flourishing and perishing, while also pushing their geographical range ever further. It is this migration and the intermingling of different strains of diverse humans across the ages that has produced the diversity of ethnicities that we know today.

Being bang in the middle of oceanic migratory routes, the Pacific islands region has been witness to several waves of migration down the centuries – more than many peoples from larger landlocked regions. Despite being isolated geographically, the human gene pool of some of the Pacific islands has a high degree of diversity because of this reason. In the past millennium or so, ethnicities from several parts of the world have made the islands their home and intermingled with people who came here generations before them, continually adding to the diversity.

The last major migration happened in comparatively recent historical times – the past two centuries. The region saw Europeans, Asians and Indians settle down in the islands, both preserving their separate identities by marrying within their own ethnicities and also intermingling with local populations producing newer diversities in succeeding generations. It is therefore quite common to come across people with greatly mixed heritage living in the islands.

Arthur Clarke’s AD 3001 phenomenon is not new. It has been happening since times immemorial. But in the past, however, this happened slowly, almost imperceptibly and comparatively infrequently. One would hardly notice it when one lives through the times. But if one were to somehow fast forward by every hundred or so years and stop to take a peek, one would see perceptible differences every three or four generations.

Faster, on a bigger scale

The scenario today is different. World statistics show that migration is taking place on an unprecedented scale in our times. And it is happening at a pace faster than at any time before in the history of humankind. More people are moving to countries far away from where they were born and raised to live and work semi permanently or even permanently. The runaway growth in remittances is testimony to that.

Interestingly, such high migration levels are taking place at a time when immigration regimes are becoming tougher with each passing year and governments are making it ever more difficult for people to migrate when compared to the rules of past decades. There is little doubt that the long held relationships between geographical areas and ethnicities are in an ever increasing state of flux. The world’s demographics are in the throes of a major realignment.

While in past centuries the drivers for migration were primarily the imperatives of survival and commerce, the drivers today are almost exclusively economic growth and its concomitant of the quest for better lives for individuals and their families; and geopolitical compulsions like political instability, terrorism and ethnic strife. Whatever the reason, migration led changes in ethnic composition of regions is happening in greater volumes and faster rates.

The smaller the country and more homogeneous the population, the sooner and stronger will be the perceived change. In the Pacific islands region, Polynesian countries like Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands will more probably perceive changes in their ethnic composition far sooner than other larger countries of the Pacific.

Geopolitical compulsions that have led to closer relationships with Asia, particularly China, have resulted in an ever increasing presence of people drawn from ethnic Asian stock in Tonga and Samoa. Anecdotal evidence and testimonies from regular visitors to the countries tend to point to the fact that as well as people, the Asian presence in commerce, retail and general economic activity such as trade and investment is increasing by leaps and bounds.

A BBC report last month outlined how Chinese presence is growing even on Tonga’s outer islands. The report told the story of a young Chinese businessman whose retail business is thriving on an outer island. Caught in a whirlpool of perpetually depressed economic circumstances and no prospects of any worthwhile growth, small Tongan and Samoan businesses obviously see merit in selling off to the first cash buyer that comes their way. And there is no dearth of Chinese businesspeople that will offer them a fair price in exchange for a chance to live and work in Tonga.

Shrinking populations, cultural compulsions and an absence of any prospects of economic growth make a country like Tonga as unattractive for native Tongans as it makes it attractive for globetrotting Chinese entrepreneurs who are on a mission to cast their business net as far and wide as they possibly can.

These businesspeople, having gained residency, will be a part of the local landscape in no time. Their numbers will multiply faster in relation to those of the natives and they are bound to be become more prosperous and eventually play a bigger role in the country’s commerce and politics.

Owing to their smaller size, comparatively lax immigration policies when it comes to geopolitically ambitious and big ticket donor nations like China, an eagerness to readily accept economic favours in exchange for poorly strategised concessions, the effect of demographic rebalancing will be far more palpable in Tonga, Samoa and Tuvalu over the next two decades than in other countries of the Pacific.

There is no doubt that before our very eyes, the demographic composition of Polynesia is changing and unlike such changes in the past, the present changes are discernible even within the space of our own lifetimes.

First appeared in Islands Business, August 2013