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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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