Australia and Oceania: Resources

Australia and Oceania: Resources

Oceania’s natural resources support both subsistence and export-based economies.


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Oceania is a region made up of thousands of islands throughout the Central and South Pacific Ocean. It includes Australia, the smallest continent in terms of total land area. Most of Oceania is under the Pacific, a vast body of water that is larger than all the Earth’s continental landmasses and islands combined. The name “Oceania” justly establishes the Pacific Ocean as the defining characteristic of the continent.

Oceania’s physical geography, environment and resources, and human geography can be considered separately.

Oceania’s natural resources are best defined in connection with its island groups. The continental islands of Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea support rich natural-resource economies, while the other Pacific Islands rely on their natural resources for subsistence more than economic development.

Climate and Agriculture

In Australia and Oceania, an island’s overall land area, latitude, relation to different winds, and geographic isolation determine its climate. The continental islands of Australia, New Zealand, and to a lesser degree, Papua New Guinea, have a diversity of climates and agricultural products. Most high and low islands have tropical climates and limited agricultural products.

Australia has the most diverse climate on the continent because of its large size and position on the Tropic of Capricorn, which runs through the middle of the country. Australia’s northern coast is tropical. This area is used principally for dairy and beef production. The country’s southern region has a Mediterranean climate. Wheat and other cereals, oilseeds, and legumes are mainly produced in this region. This area is also a major wine-producing region. Australia’s interior is mainly desert, surrounded by more temperate grasslands. Sheep ranching is common in grassland areas that flank the desert’s eastern and western edges. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of wool.

New Zealand’s isolation from other continents and exposure to cold western winds and ocean currents gives it a much milder climate than Australia. This climate is suited to livestock grazing and ranching, including beef cattle, dairy cattle, domestic deer, and, most importantly, sheep. Sheep outnumber people by about 12 to 1 in New Zealand. The country is the world’s largest producer and exporter of crossbred wool, a rougher-textured material than regular wool. Much like Australia, New Zealand is becoming an important wine producer. Grapes are grown on the northern tip of the North Island and the south-central area of the South Island.

Papua New Guinea lies in the warm equatorial region. Almost all of the country has a tropical wet climate. Its principal commercial crops are sweet potatoes, sugar cane, copra (dried coconut meat), coffee, cocoa, and rubber. About 85 percent of the population engages in subsistence agriculture, meaning they grow enough food to support themselves and their families. This is because Papua New Guinea is an extremely rural country, with many people living in isolated communities that have access to fertile lands but not centralized markets.

The Pacific Islands lie in a warm equatorial band between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. The tropical islands’ main agricultural products include banana, coconut, kava (a plant whose roots are made into a traditional beverage), and sugar cane. Much like Papua New Guinea, the people of the Pacific Islands practice mostly subsistence agriculture. Some of the few agricultural exports in the region are Tonga’s vanilla and squash, Samoa’s taro, and Fiji’s sugar products.

Forestry and Fishing

Forestry, the management of trees and other vegetation in forests, is an important economic activity in Australia and Oceania’s continental islands. Australia’s forest industries had a gross value of $1.7 billion in 2008. Its main forest products are sawn wood, wood-based panels, paper, and wood chips.

Australia’s forest industry has benefitted from the development of tree plantations, which yield up to 14 times more wood per hectare than native forests. Plantations now supply more than two-thirds of harvested logs in Australia. Fast-growing trees such as eucalyptus and Monterey pine dominate these plantations.

The lumber industry is also important to the economy of Papua New Guinea. The country has a unique forest-ownership program. Tribal clan groups own 95 percent of the total land area of the country. In order to carry out any forest-related operations, meetings must take place between government agencies and clan groups. The country’s main exported tree species are eucalyptus, rosewood, and pine.

In the Pacific Islands, native forests are an important part of local economies, but commercial forestry is uncommon. The Solomon Islands is one of the few Pacific Island nations that support commercial forestry. Forestry accounts for roughly 70 percent of the country’s exports. But logging practices are intensive and unsustainable. The Solomon Islands have lost 21.5 percent of their forest cover between 1990 and 2005. It is estimated that the lumber industry will be completely gone by 2014-15 if the country does not enforce more strict environmental controls on forestry activities.

The commercial fishing industry is an important contributor to economies throughout Australia and Oceania. About 600 marine and freshwater seafood species are sold in Australia for local and foreign consumption. “Wild-caught” seafood makes up about two-thirds of total seafood production. Rock lobster, pearls, abalone, and prawns make up $1.3 billion (86 percent) of total seafood exports.

New Zealand’s main seafood exports are mussels, rock lobster, hoki (hake), squid, and salmon. New Zealand exports about 90 percent of its seafood to foreign countries. Fishing is a main economic contributor for the Maori, the aboriginal people of New Zealand. The Maori own about 50 percent of the country’s fishing quota.

Papua New Guinea’s commercial fisheries support prawn, sea cucumber, tuna, lobster, shark, and other fish. Papua New Guinea also has a diverse range of small-scale and subsistence fisheries that support rural communities.

The Pacific Islands support subsistence fisheries that are the livelihoods of many local peoples. A lack of infrastructure and investment, however, makes large-scale commercial fishing difficult. As a result, the fishing industry has poor earnings even though fish resources are abundant. For example, Pacific Island countries catch just $600 million worth of tuna, while foreign nations fishing in the same waters catch more than $2 billion worth.

Regional and international organizations, such as the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, are working to strengthen the fishing industry in the Pacific Islands. Environmental organizations are working to ensure the developing fishing industry is sustainable. They are also seeking to put limits or quotas on the amount of fish a vessel or organization can harvest.

Mining and Drilling

The continental islands of Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea have important mineral and metal deposits.

Australia is the world’s largest producer of opal and the world’s largest exporter of coal. The country is also one of the top producers of iron ore, nickel, gold, uranium, diamonds, and zinc. New Zealand is an important producer of coal, silver, iron ore, limestone, and gold.

Papua New Guinea’s mineral deposits account for 72 percent of its export earnings, and mining is one of the country’s largest employers. Its main exports are copper, gold, and oil. The country’s waters will also be home to the world’s first offshore mining project. Using technology familiar to offshore oil drilling, a Canadian company will extract copper, gold, lead, silver, and zinc from deposits more than a mile beneath the ocean’s surface.

Mining operations provide economic security to Papua New Guinea, while also contributing to environmental degradation.

The Ok Tedi Mine, for example, produces copper and gold. It also produces 80,000 tons of waste rocks and 120,000 tons of toxic runoff that flows into the Ok Tedi River system. The fishery in the Ok Tedi River, as well as agricultural plots near the river’s bank, has been destroyed. The “Ok Tedi environmental disaster” has resulted in a lawsuit brought against the mining companies by thousands of Papua New Guineans who claim the environmental impact of the mine has ruined their livelihoods. One community, the Yonggom, won a $28.6 million settlement from the mining company, while another indigenous group, the Ningerum, is seeking $4 billion. The Ok Tedi Mine is scheduled to close in 2012.

Most Pacific Islands have very limited mineral resources. New Caledonia contains about 10 percent of the world’s nickel reserves and is the world’s fifth-largest producer of the metal. Fiji’s second-largest export is gold (behind sugar cane) and the gold mining industry is a major employer in the country.

Oil and natural gas resources are relatively low throughout Australia and Oceania. There are some offshore facilities surrounding Australia and New Zealand, although both of these developed countries consume more oil than they produce. Island nations in Australia and Oceania must import almost all their oil and gas, often across great distances. The cost of oil and gas is very high in the Pacific Islands, slowing the development process.

The Built Environment

Australia and Oceania’s built environment is divided between the large continental islands and the smaller high and low islands. The urban areas of Sydney, Port Moresby, and Suva illustrate the diversity of the built environment in Australia and Oceania.

Sydney, Australia, is the largest city in Australia and Oceania, supporting about 4.5 million people in its metropolitan area. Sydney is considered one of the most livable cities in the world and is the second-wealthiest city in terms of the purchasing power of its inhabitants. (Zurich, Switzerland, is the wealthiest city.) Sydney is home to more than half of Australia’s top companies, the headquarters of 90 banks, and the regional headquarters of approximately 500 multinational corporations. It also has a reputation as an international center of culture, arts, education, tourism, and sports.

The city is culturally diverse. In addition to native Australians and European immigrants, Australians of Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Lebanese descent call Sydney home. Sydney has played host to many international events, such as the 2000 Summer Olympics and the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

One of the most famous buildings in the world is the Sydney Opera House, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean in Sydney Harbor. The building’s defining characteristic is a series of large, white triangular “shells,” which reflect the abundance of sailboats in the region. More than 8 million people visit this performing arts center every year. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Port Moresby is Papua New Guinea’s capital and largest city, with a population of more than 300,000. The city reflects the more rural and impoverished makeup of the country. Port Moresby sprawls along coastal bays and hillsides and is surrounded by plantations, livestock, and dairy farms. It is the main shipping terminal for the country and supports sawmills, tobacco processing, and the manufacture of handicrafts and concrete.

Port Moresby is consistently ranked as one of the world’s least livable capital cities. Like many cities in the developing world, Port Moresby has poor infrastructure and government services, and high rates of rape, robbery, and murder. A poor economy, lack of jobs, and ineffective local government have left large areas of the city controlled by gangs, known as raskols.

Suva, Fiji, is the Pacific Islands’ largest urban area, with a population of about 326,000—more than a third of the nation’s total population. Suva has developed as a hub of the island regions of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

Suva is home to the Pacific headquarters of many banks and financial institutions. The city is the main campus of the University of the South Pacific, which has campuses in 12 Pacific Island countries. USP is one of two international regional universities. (The University of the West Indies, serving 15 island countries in the Caribbean Sea, is the other.) USP is the international center of teaching, research, and training on all aspects of Pacific culture, environment, economy, and society.

Fast Fact

Population Density
Eight people per square kilometer

Fast Fact

Highest Elevation
Mount Kosciuszko, Australia (2,228 meters/7,310 feet)

Fast Fact

Most Renewable Electricity Produced
New Zealand (73 percent, including hydropower, geothermal, wind, and biomass)

Fast Fact

Largest Urban Area
Sydney, Australia (four million people)

Fast Fact

Largest Watershed
Murray-Darling river system (one million square kilometers/409,835 square miles)

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Diane Boudreau
Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Andrew Turgeon
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

November 10, 2023

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