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food / travel

Samoa, Tropical Paradise Burdened By German Past

The island was a German colony until 1914, which was once a source of pride and income for many. A century later, this part of its history is deepening Samoa's economic and social woe.

Local volunteers cleaning up debris in Samoa.
Local volunteers cleaning up debris in Samoa.
Nikolaus Doll

APIA — This South Pacific island hasn't fought a single war in hundreds of years. Here, there is no such thing as a national crisis or an ethnic conflict. Crime is virtually non-existant. A bank robbery that took place five years ago was the first in Samoan history — it is still a topic of discussion.

There are no cold snaps or extreme heat waves in Samoa. You won't find tropical diseases or dangerous animals here, either. The average temperature is 27 °C (80.6 °F). Regular rainfall, combined with an extremely fertile soil, allows a bountiful harvest from only a few seeds. Thick forests and lush vegetation give way to green rolling hills, dotted with small villages decorated with the most beautiful flowers. White beaches are all around.

The 52nd Independence Day celebrations recently took place amid this beautiful, seemingly perfect environment. Samoans are commemorating for the 52nd time the end of the colonial era, when New Zealanders and Germans — in a nutshell, all the white people — left.

The very first colonials masters of Samoa, the Germans did not leave the islands willingly. New Zealanders forced them to leave only three weeks after World War I broke out, as German authorities were vacating the South Pacific. Yet as a look into the local telephone book reveals a hundred years on, many chose to stay.

The German colonial heritage is quite noticeable in many other ways here. For a long time, Samoans benefited from it. Yet it now seems to have become an obstacle on the way to Samoa's prosperity. The island might look like the perfect exotic paradise — but it is an illusion.

History as a burden

Behind exotic landscapes, Samoa is one of the least developed countries of the world, according to the United Nations. While two-thirds of its population work in agriculture, the sector only accounts for 5% of the island's gross domestic income. Heavy storms often lay waste to the island, and are a threat to the safety of Samoans. In 2012 alone, they caused the deaths of 6.42 people per 100,000 — more than anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, this is not the exception but the rule.

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Downed Pulu trees following cyclone Eva, 2012 — Photo: Via Flickr

At the same time, the national debt keeps inflating, as most of the products Samoans need on a daily basis need to be imported. Inflation on the island was at 6.5% in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Samoa would be considered a poorhouse if measured by Western standards. But the native islanders' way of life, the Fa’a Samoa, does not give value to money.

Samoa’s head of state, Tupuola Taisi Tufuga Efi, is a much-travelled man and a cultivated politician. He knows Germany well and holds it in high regard, just like many of his fellow countrymen and women do. "It was extremely fortunate that the Germans were the ones to colonize Samoa," Efi said. "They sent the best people to govern us. The British would have never done that."

Yet the fall of the German Empire also left trouble. "A lot of people are leaving the islands," Efi added. Is it because of poverty? "No. Poverty isn't a problem if it means we can get financial support from abroad," he said. The reasons behind this departure wave are more historical than that.

Despite the U.N. recognizing Samoa as an impoverished state, Samoans aren't truly poor. This is due to the bylaws of the German Empire in the Pacific. Yet what was once considered a blessing is slowly turning into a curse.

The Samoa Treaty, which split the island between Germany and the U.S., settled the dominion race between the German Empire, the U.S. and the British Empire at the end of the 19th century. The latter, who wasn't happy with the treaty, encouraged Samoans to sell their lands to the British. The Germans implemented a land-selling ban in response.

What it means is that the large majority — 80% — of the land in Samoa is now owned by its village communities. Every Samoan is allowed to use the land but can't mortgage or sell it. Each clan is thus guaranteed a house on a decent plot of land, where they can rear pigs and cattle. Everyone also has access to the sea.

Essentially, all Samoans have a roof over their head, and can grow and catch their own food. But that also means that very few people own moveable wealth. They are, therefore, not used to cash. Wages are paid every two weeks to avoid the spending of a one-month wage in one go. "But most of the time, people are broke beforehand," said a civil servant. Samoans can't get loans due to these German laws — they would have to own land to obtain one.

This makes it impossible to open a small business venture on the island, and flee the constraints of the village community.

An island kept far from modernity

As a result, more Samoans now live abroad than on Samoa itself. Many live in New Zealand, another former colonial master, but there are also large Samoan communities in Australia and the U.S. People leave because of the shortage of job prospects on the island, beyond agricultural work. Without the money these Samoans living abroad send back home — and many have done so for generations — the island would not be able to survive.

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Apia coconut market — Photo: UN Women Pacific via Flickr

It completely depends on imports. There is no national electrical grid, as electricity is produced by diesel generators whose fuel needs to be imported. "Samoa imports 20 times as much as it exports," said Hans-Joachim Keil, a former Minister for Economy, Trade and Tourism. Taxes, tourism income and the money sent home by Samoans abroad pay for these imports.

Exports, on the other hand, are restricted to the natural resources available: fish, fruit juices, medical plants and coconut oil. The island cannot rely on tourism alone to boost its finances — its location, within the island maze of the South Pacific, is extremely remote. Only two cruise ships dock in Apia, Samoa's capital, every week. There is an average of just 14 direct flights connecting the island to the rest of the world. And unfortunately, there is nothing to distinguish Samoa from other South Pacific Island nations. Tourists don't make the detour to visit.

Without financial aid from international organizations and loans from wealthier countries — particularly New Zealand — Samoa would never stay afloat.

The laws created by Germans to protect Samoa seem to now worsen the island's problems. This could not, of course, have been foreseen. But even though Samoans still hold their German heritage in high esteem, it prevents them from competing with surrounding countries. The Fa’a Samoa may still be a part of the island's identity, it doesn't erase its necessity for modern life.

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With the end of the Hollywood writers and actors strikes, the creator economy is the next frontier for organized labor.

​photograph of a smartphone on a selfie stick

Smartphone on a selfie stick

Steve Gale/Unsplash
David Craig and Stuart Cunningham

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