The Polynesian islands that are now French Polynesia operated on a subsistence economy prior to French colonization. The community as a whole organized and carried out work under the direction of the priests and the ruling class of the Arii. For the purpose of agricultural production, large systems made of coral stone walls trapped and stocked live fish, large systems made of artificial soil were created on atolls in large trenches, river banks were contained by stone walls, and mountains were terraced. The ruling class divided the population's production outputs.
Christian beliefs and clergy led to a significant cultural shift on those islands after contact with European ships was established. Foreign diseases led to the deaths of a large number of the island's inhabitants. Because there were fewer people to feed, there was more land available per capita, and land use shifted toward producing only what a family needed to live. As the population became more dependent on the lagoon and sea trade, habitats shifted toward seashores. Those islands were visited by European ships to purchase water, salt pork, dried fish, and fresh fruits.
Oranges, coffee, cotton, vanilla, and copra were among the agricultural exports that expanded as French, English, and American settlers arrived. Sandalwood and black pearls from Tahiti were also exported. Santal wood was close to disappearing, cotton production was short-lived as the south of the United States recovered from the American Civil War, and imported diseases afflicted coffee and orange trees stopped their exports. Despite their continued existence, the prices of coprah and vanilla and global competition had a significant impact on these productions in the second half of the 20th century. Makatea's guano mining began in 1917 and ended in 1966 when the stocks ran out.