Samoa (06/02)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Independent State of Samoa

Area: 2,934 sq. km. (1,133 sq. mi.) in two main islands plus seven smaller ones.
Cities: Capital (pop. 34,000)--Apia.
Terrain: Mountainous with narrow coastal plain.
Climate: Tropical.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Samoan.
Population (July 2000 est.): 180,000. Age structure--33% under 15; 6% over 65.
Growth rate: -0.2% (mainly due to emigration).
Ethnic groups: Samoan 93%, Euronesian (mixed European and Polynesian) 7%.
Religion: Christian 99%.
Languages: Samoan, English.
Education: Literacy--97%.
Health: Life expectancy--male 66.5 yrs.; female 72 yrs. Infant mortality rate--32.75/1,000.
Work force: Agriculture--64%; services--30%.

Type: Mix of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy.
Independence (from New Zealand-administered UN trusteeship): January 1, 1962.
Constitution: January 1, 1962.
Branches: Executive--chief of state (incumbent serves for life; successors will be elected), prime minister (head of government), cabinet. Legislative--unicameral parliament (Fono). Judicial--Supreme Court and supporting hierarchy.
Major political parties: Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), Samoan National Development Party (SNDP).

GDP: $238.06 million.
GDP per capita (nominal): $1,400.
GDP composition by sector: Services 56%, industry 27%, agriculture 17%.
Industry: Types--tourism, coconuts, small scale manufacturing, fishing.
Trade: Exports--$15.9 million: coconut products, fish, (processing of automotive components). Export markets--New Zealand, Australia, U.S. (includes American Samoa). Imports--$30.3 million: food and beverages, industrial supplies. Import sources--New Zealand, Australia, U.S. ($4.73 million), Fiji.
External debt: $151.5 million (90% is owed to multilateral lenders).
Currency: tala (or Samoan dollar).

Samoa consists of the two large islands of Upolu and Savai'i and seven small islets located about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand in the Polynesian region of the South Pacific. The main island of Upolu is home to nearly three-quarters of Samoa's population and its capital city of Apia. The climate is tropical, with a rainy season from November to April.

The Fa'a Samoa, or traditional Samoan way, remains a strong force in Samoan life and politics. Despite centuries of European influence, Samoa maintains its historical customs, social systems, and language, which is believed to be the oldest form of Polynesian speech still in existence. Only the Maoris of New Zealand outnumber the Samoans among Polynesian groups.

Migrants from Southeast Asia arrived in the Samoan islands more than 2,000 years ago and from there settled the rest of Polynesia further to the east. Contact with Europeans began in the early 1700s but did not intensify until the arrival of English missionaries and traders in the 1830s. At the turn of the 20th century, the Samoan islands were split into two sections. The eastern islands became territories of the United States in 1904 and today are known as American Samoa. The western islands became known as Western Samoa (now just Samoa), passing from German control to New Zealand in 1914. New Zealand administered Western Samoa under the auspices of the League of Nations and then as a UN trusteeship until independence in 1962. Western Samoa was the first Pacific Island country to gain its independence.

In July 1997 the constitution was amended to change the country's name from Western Samoa to Samoa. Samoa had been known simply as Samoa in the United Nations since joining the organization in 1976. The neighboring U.S. territory of American Samoa protested the move, feeling that the change diminished its own Samoan identity. American Samoans still use the terms Western Samoa and Western Samoans.

The 1960 constitution (which formally came into force with independence) is based on the British pattern of parliamentary democracy, modified to take account of Samoan customs. Samoa's two high chiefs at the time of independence were given lifetime appointments to jointly hold the office of head of state. Malietoa Tanumafili II has held this post alone since the death of his colleague in 1963. His eventual successor will be selected by the legislature for a 5-year term.

The unicameral legislature (Fono) contains 49 members serving 5-year terms. Forty-seven are elected from territorial districts by ethnic Samoans districts; the other two are chosen by non-Samoans on separate electoral rolls. Universal suffrage was extended in 1990, but only chiefs (matai) may stand for election to the Samoan seats. There are more than 25,000 matais in the country, about 5% of whom are women. The prime minister is chosen by a majority in the Fono and is appointed by the chief of state to form a government. The prime minister's choices for the 12 cabinet positions are appointed by the chief of state, subject to the continuing confidence of the Fono.

The judicial system is based on English common law and local customs. The Supreme Court is the court of highest jurisdiction. Its chief justice is appointed by the chief of state upon the recommendation of the prime minister.

Principal Government Officials
Head of State--Chief MALIETOA Tanumafili II
Head of Government--Prime Minister TUILA'EPA Sailele Malielegoai
Ambassador to the United States--Tuiloma Neroni SLADE

Samoa maintains its diplomatic representation in the U.S. at 800 2nd Avenue, Suite 400D, New York, NY 10017. Tel: 212-599-6196.

Since 1982 the majority party in the Fono has been the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP). HRPP leader Tofilau Eti Alesana served as prime minister for nearly all of the period between 1982 and 1998, when he resigned due to health reasons. Tofilau Eti was replaced by his deputy, Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi.

Parliamentary elections were held in March 2001. The Human Rights Protection Party, led by Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi, won 30 of the 49 seats in the current Fono. The Samoa National Development Party, led by Le Mamea Ropati, is the main opposition. Other political parties are the Samoan Progressive Conservative Party, the Samoa All Peoples Party, and the Samoa Liberal Party.

The Samoan economy is dependent on agricultural exports, tourism, and capital flows from abroad. The effects of three natural disasters in the early 1990s were overcome by the middle of the decade, but economic growth cooled again with the regional economic downturn. Long-run development depends upon upgrading the tourist infrastructure, attracting foreign investment, and further diversification of the economy.

Two major cyclones hit Samoa at the beginning of the 1990s. Cyclone Ofa left an estimated 10,000 islanders homeless in February 1990; Cyclone Val caused 13 deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in December 1991. As a result, GDP declined by nearly 50% from 1989 to 1991. These experiences and Samoa's position as a low-lying island state punctuate its concern about global climate change.

Further economic problems occurred in 1994 with an outbreak of taro leaf blight and the near collapse of the national airline Polynesian Airlines. Taro, a root crop, traditionally was Samoa's largest export, generating more than half of all export revenue in 1993. But a fungal blight decimated the plants, and in each year since 1994 taro exports have accounted for less than 1% of export revenue. Polynesian Airlines reached a financial crisis in 1994, which disrupted the tourist industry and eventually required a government bailout.

The government responded to these shocks with a major program of road building and post-cyclone infrastructure repair. Economic reforms were stepped up, including the liberalization of exchange controls. GDP growth rebounded to over 6% in both 1995 and 1996 before slowing again at the end of the decade.

The service sector accounts for more than half of GDP and employs approximately 30% of the labor force. Tourism is the largest-single activity, more than doubling in visitor numbers and revenue over the last decade. More than 85,000 visitors came to Samoa in 1999, contributing over $12 million to the local economy. One-third came from American Samoa, 28% from New Zealand, and 11% from the United States. Arrivals increased in 2000, as visitors to the South Pacific avoided the political strife in Fiji by traveling to Samoa instead.

The primary sector (agriculture, forestry, and fishing) employs nearly two-thirds of the labor force and produces 17% of GDP. Important products include coconuts and fish.

Industry accounts for over one-quarter of GDP while employing less than 6% of the work force. The largest industrial venture is Yazaki Samoa, a Japanese-owned company processing automotive components for export to Australia under a concessional market-access arrangement. The Yazaki plant employs more than 2,000 workers and makes up over 20% of the manufacturing sector's total output. Net receipts amount to between $1.5 million and $3.03 million annually, although shipments from Yazaki are counted as services (export processing) and therefore do not officially appear as merchandise exports.

New Zealand is Samoa's principal trading partner, typically providing between 35% and 40% of imports and purchasing 45%-50% of exports. Australia, American Samoa, the U.S., and Fiji also are important trading partners. Samoa's principal exports are coconut products and fish. Its main imports are food and beverages, industrial supplies, and fuels.

The collapse of taro exports in 1994 has had the unintended effect of modestly diversifying Samoa's export products and markets. Prior to the taro leaf blight, Samoa's exports consisted of taro ($1.1 million), coconut cream ($540,000), and "other" ($350,000). Ninety percent of exports went to the Pacific region, and only 1% went to Europe. Forced to look for alternatives to taro, Samoa's exporters have dramatically increased the production of copra, coconut oil, and fish. These three products, which combined to produce export revenue of less than $100,000 in 1993, now account for over $3.8 million. There also has been a relative shift from Pacific markets to European ones, which now receive nearly 15% of Samoa's exports. Samoa's exports are still concentrated in coconut products ($2.36 million worth of copra, copra meal, coconut oil, and coconut cream) and fish ($1.51 million) but are at least somewhat more diverse than before.

Samoa annually receives important financial assistance from abroad. The more than 100,000 Samoans who live overseas provide two sources of revenue. Their direct remittances have amounted to $12.1 million per year recently, and they account for more than half of all tourist visits. In addition to the expatriate community, Samoa also receives roughly $7.57 million annually in official development assistance from sources led by Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. These three sources of revenue--tourism, private transfers, and official transfers--allow Samoa to cover its persistently large trade deficit.

The Samoan Government is generally conservative and pro-Western, with a strong interest in regional political and economic issues. At independence in 1962, Samoa signed a Treaty of Friendship with New Zealand. This treaty confirms the special relationship between the two countries and provides a framework for their interaction. Under the terms of the treaty, Samoa can request that New Zealand act as a channel of communication to governments and international organizations outside the immediate area of the Pacific islands. Samoa also can request defense assistance, which New Zealand is required to consider (Samoa does not maintain a formal military). Overall Samoa has strong links with New Zealand, where many Samoans now live and many others were educated.

The Samoan Government was an outspoken critic of the French decision to resume nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific in 1995. An indefinite ban was placed on visits to Samoa by French warships and aircraft. Largescale street demonstrations were held in Apia. The French tests concluded in early 1996.

Samoa participated in a first round of negotiations with its Pacific Island neighbors for a regional trade agreement in August 2000.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador (accredited to both New Zealand and Samoa; resident in Wellington)-- Charles J. Swindells
Charge d'Affaires--Frankie Calhoun

The U.S. Embassy is located at 5th Floor, Beach Road, Apia. Its mailing address is P.O. Box 3430, Apia. Phone: [685] 21631. Email: