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Country profile - Samoa


The volcanic islands of Samoa lie south of the equator, about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, in the Polynesian region of the South Pacific. The total land area for Samoa is less than 3000 square kilometres with the two largest islands, Upolu and Savai'i, accounting for over 95 per cent of the land mass. Only two of the eight smaller islets are inhabited but all the islands are mountainous, with fertile land suitable for agriculture situated in a fringe around the coastlines. Subject to natural disasters, the islands are ecologically fragile and vulnerable to environmental degradation. In the early 1990s, a succession of highly destructive cyclones caused widespread damage to the country's economy and infrastructure. More recently, in early 2004, cyclone Heta seriously damaged crops and resulted in extensive flooding.

Such natural disasters have an enormous impact on an island nation dependent on fishing and agriculture. Over two-thirds of Samoans are employed directly or indirectly in the agricultural sector, with the manufacturing sector also mainly processing agricultural products. Much of Samoa's economy is, however, based on primary production. Crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry account for around 40 per cent GDP, much of it at subsistence level. Coconut, cocoa and banana are all important cash crops and fishing provides the major source of protein as well as important cash income. Livestock production is mostly small-scale, mainly pigs, poultry and cattle.

A taro tale

Scientist examining leaf-blight-resistant taro
Scientist examining leaf-blight-resistant taro

Samoa's farming system is still largely based on the traditional practice of mixed cropping. Root crops are the most important staple food. Taro (Colocasia esculenta), believed to be one of the world's oldest food crops, was traditionally the main root crop of Samoa and was the preferred starchy staple until the cyclones of the 1990s. However, the impact of the cyclones followed by the rapid spread of taro leaf blight (Phytophthera colocasiae) resulted in a major decline in production, particularly as all cultivars proved susceptible to the disease. Whereas taro was once the largest export commodity, generating more than half of all export revenue in 1993, it currently accounts for less than one per cent of export revenue.

As a result of the devastating impact of taro leaf blight and the potential threat to other Pacific islands, an AusAID-funded project established the Taro Genetic Resources and Utilisation (TaroGEN) project. The objective of the project was to produce leaf blight resistant cultivars, but this has not proved easy as taro is difficult to breed, and improved cultivars have failed to be accepted by consumers. The project ended in 2003 but accessions from around the Pacific have been collected and a regional germplasm centre has been established in Suva, Fiji. TaroGEN has also helped to support a breeding programme in Samoa involving staff and students from the University of the South Pacific, the Extension and Research Divisions of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forests and Meteorology, and local farmers. However, until acceptable blight resistant cultivars are identified, integrated control combining cultural and chemical methods appears to provide the most effective approach for managing the disease.

A need to diversify

Prior to taro leaf blight, Samoa's major exports were taro and coconut cream, mostly destined for other countries in the Pacific. However, the collapse of taro exports has led to some diversification of Samoa's export products and markets. In recent years, production and export of copra, coconut oil and fish have significantly increased and almost 15 per cent of Samoa's exports are now sent to European markets. But despite some diversification, including into exports such as nonu juice, two-thirds of agricultural exports are derived from coconut (copra, copra meal, coconut oil and coconut cream). However, this too could be threatened by the recent increase in rhinoceros beetle (Oryctes rhinoceros). The adults cause the most damage, burrowing into young coconut leaves and, if they reach the growing tip, the palm may be killed or suffer reduced nut set. Biological control, particularly when combined with cultural control and field sanitation, has proved to be quite effective. A recent development is to promote the use of coconut oil as a biofuel. Samoa's Electric Power Corporation is currently running a trial using 15 per cent locally produced coconut oil mixed with 85 per cent diesel in some power generators. Results so far have proved encouraging.

Woman carrying bundle of pandanus palm leaves
Woman carrying bundle of pandanus palm leaves

Home to the second largest Polynesian ethnic population in the world, after the Maori, the national culture for the majority of Samoans remains very traditional; the majority of land is owned communally and the system of village government is well recognised. But with few options beyond agriculture, fishing or tourism, many of the younger generation are migrating to Apia for better paid work or are leaving the country for American Samoa, New Zealand or the US. Remittances sent home provide valuable income for many Samoan households. Changes in expectations, however, are resulting in conflicts and there is a likelihood of greater instability as court battles over land titles increase. With shrinking markets for agricultural produce, higher input costs and lower availability of labour in rural areas, extended families are no longer able to provide an assured social safety net. Samoa is also no longer self-sufficient and imported foods, which are usually of low nutritional value, are now established as basic household necessities and are cheaper to buy than local vegetables.

As agriculture declines, tourism is growing rapidly and the sector is now the largest revenue earner after remittances. However, even with tourism providing employment in rural areas, there are many who believe that the rapid rise in tourism is not good for the economy or the environment. The Prime Minister, Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi, will seek a third term in late February 2006. Though generally popular, his leadership has recently been questioned, particularly in relation to an ongoing strike of government doctors, and some feel that the current government has had insufficient opposition.

New Zealand, Samoa's principal trading partner, has recently increased its support to the agro sector in Samoa and commercial trade in breadfruit and papaya began in 2005. However, the challenge, according to the New Zealand High Commission, is for Samoa to develop capacity to deliver exports in commercial quantities and to support these with effective marketing strategies.

Statistical information
  • Country: Independent State of Samoa
  • Capital: Apia
  • Area: 2,944 sq km
  • Population: 177,287
  • Languages: Samoan (Polynesian), English
  • Life expectancy: 71 years
  • GDP: purchasing power parity - $1 billion (2002 est.)
  • GDP per capita: purchasing power parity - $5,600 (2002 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture 1 4%, industry 23% services 63% (2001 est.)
  • Land use: arable land 21.2 %, permanent crops 24.38 %, other 54.42% (2001)
  • Major industries: tourism, food processing, construction
  • Agricultural products: coconuts, bananas, taro, yams, coffee, cocoa
  • Natural resources: hardwood forests, fish, hydropower
  • Export commodities: fish, coconut oil and cream, copra, taro, automotive parts, garments, beer
  • Major export partners: NZ & Australia 67.2%, US 5.7%, Indonesia 5.3% (2004)

Date published: January 2006


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