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Micronesia can refer to either an area in the Pacific Ocean to the northeast of Papua New Guinea, or to the Federated States of Micronesia, an island nation within the region. While the larger area of Micronesia encompasses eight different territories, including Guam, Palau, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands, this article will deal with the Federated States of Micronesia.
The country is a sovereign state that gained its independence in 1986. Formerly part of a United Nations Trust Territory under the administration of the United States, Micronesia now has a Compact of Free Association with the US.
Micronesia consists of 607 islands, divided into four states: Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap. The islands were first settled by the ancestors of present day Micronesians over 4,000 years ago, and Yap eventually became the center of a chieftain-based Micronesian Empire. The island of Pohnpei, the largest island in the Federated States of Micronesia, was the seat of the Saudeleur Dynasty, which reigned from around 500 to 1450 CE. Nan Madol, a series of manmade islands and canals off the coast of Pohnpei, is sometimes referred to as the "Venice of the Pacific."
Europeans first encountered Micronesian islands in the 16th century. The Portuguese made first contact, and the Spanish soon followed and gained political control over the area. In 1899, the Spanish sold their Micronesian holdings to Germany. Micronesia changed hands during the two world wars, becoming a Japanese territory in 1914 and a United States Trust Territory under the United Nations following World War II. The Federated States of Micronesia established its present borders with a 1979 constitution.
Micronesia became independent in 1986, and the 1979 constitution is still in effect. The country has a unicameral Congress with 14 popularly elected members. Each of the four Micronesian states is represented by a senator, and Congress elects a President and Vice President from among these four senators. The President and Vice President appoint cabinet members.
The Micronesian economy largely consists of subsistence farming and fishing. Phosphate mining and long-line tuna fishing are currently the only viable industries on the islands. The country relies heavily on monetary aid from the United States.
Though the official currency of Micronesia is the United States dollar, large limestone wheels, or Rai stones, are the traditional form of money in Yap. The stones, originally quarried in Palau, can be very large and heavy, with the largest weighing four tons. Their value is increased by good craftsmanship and notable history. They are rarely moved, but Yapese are aware of who owns each stone. Rai stones are still exchanged for traditional purposes, such as to mark certain social transactions.
The population of Micronesia is nearly 100% Pacific Islander and Asian, though some Europeans, Americans, and Australians live on the islands. Micronesians are linguistically and culturally diverse. English has become the language of government and education, but shares official language status with Chuukese, Kosraean, Pohnpeian, Ulithian, Woleaian, and Yapese. A plethora of other languages are also spoken in Micronesia.