New Internationalist


Issue 351

Kiribati not only straddles the equator but was also until recently divided by the international dateline, leaving only three shared working days between the two time zones: Mondays east of the dateline were Sundays in the capital, and Fridays in the capital were Saturday in the Line and Phoenix Islands. In 1995 Kiribati re-arranged the dateline to bring all the islands into the same time zone, a move the Government claimed was expedient, but others cynically observed resulted in a global television focus on Kiribati’s millennium celebrations of the first sunrise in the 21st century.

One of the world’s largest (in area) as well as lowest countries in the world, the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kir-i-bas) consists mostly of salt water and 33 low-lying densely populated atolls. Vulnerable to sea-level rise and climate change, its people live with poor sandy soil, brackish water, irregular transportation and isolation. It is a country that few are aware of and fewer still visit, with the exception of aid practitioners, Japanese telecommunications experts – and American fly fishers heading for Kiribati’s largest but most remote landmass: Christmas Island or Kiritimati.

Diane Goodwillie
Diane Goodwillie

A proud, stubborn, egalitarian and fun-loving people, i-Kiribati have survived in this harsh environment thanks to strict cultural practices and hard work. Faced with modern rubbish and sewage problems (non-biodegradable and hazardous waste), population expansion and the climatic threat of a flooded future, Kiribati backs small-island protests against those Western countries which refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.

Kiribati was at the mercy of colonial powers for most of the 20th century. Ruled by Britain as half of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (the name Kiribati is simply a local version of Gilbert), its people suffered Japanese and American atrocities during World War Two. It was the scene of the famous Battle of Betio (1943) where the US miscalculated the tides, sending young inexperienced troops to capture an island which the Japanese military considered invincible – which they did at the cost of over 5,000 Japanese and American lives. Many i-Kiribati faced population resettlement to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji, partly due to the exploitation of rich phosphate resources on Banaba and partly due to population pressure on resource-poor islands. In 1957 Britain detonated three hydrogen bombs near Christmas Island as part of its nuclear testing programme.

Independent since 1979, Kiribati gets little support from Britain but depends upon Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, New Zealand and Australian as well as regional and UN agencies for aid. Its politics continue to be dominated by religious as well as family links.

Girls’ participation in secondary education has been reluctantly accepted, though traditional patriarchal attitudes prevail. The wish to protect patriarchal culture and customs from the ‘invasion’ of so-called Western concepts like freedom of information led the Government recently to pass harsh media laws – widely criticized by the international community and by Reporters Without Borders.

Migrants from outer islands to the capital island of Tarawa add to the 25,380 people already there, resulting in an extraordinary population density of 1,610 per square kilometre. Around 46 per cent of the population is under 18, which threatens to place an already limited job market and poorly developed physical and social infrastructure under impossible pressure. Given that there is already extreme family and inter-family violence, this is a time bomb just waiting to explode.

Diane Goodwillie
Kiribati Fact File
Leader President Teburoro Tito (since 1994).
Economy GNI per capita $950 (Fiji $1,830, Aotearoa/NZ $13,080).
Monetary unit Australian dollar.
Main exports Copra, fish, seaweed. The British exhausted phosphate resources before granting independence. 80% of Kiribati households engage in fishing. Many i-Kiribati work on foreign ships, mainly German. The Government earns over US$2 million a year from licensing foreign boats to catch tuna.
People 84,494. Over 35% live on the main urban island, Tarawa.
Health Infant mortality 43 per 1,000 live births (Fiji 18, Aotearoa/NZ 6). Basic health services are available but there is difficulty in drugs reaching outer islands. Both fresh water and food variety are scarce and there is a very high incidence of Vitamin A deficiency. HIV/AIDS is growing alarmingly.
Environment 33 vastly dispersed coral atoll islands, vulnerable to climate change and consequent sea-level rise, storm surges, coastal flooding, erosion, salt water intrusion. More frequent droughts are disastrous, since people are dependent on rain-water tanks or ground water – the islands have no rivers.
Culture Micronesians arrived from the South Pacific between 200 and 500 AD and have a strong traditional culture.
Religion Almost entirely Christian. Mainly Catholic in the northern atolls and Protestant in the south.
Language i-Kiribati (a Micronesian language). English is understood in the capital Tarawa but less on the outer islands.
Sources Kiribati Census 2000; State of the World’s Children 2002; World Guide 2001/2002; Islands Business August 2002; Pacific Human Development Report 1999.
Last profiled link
Kiribati ratings in detail
Income distribution
Low income but fairly evenly distributed. Greatest variation is between incomes in Tarawa (from government and commerce) and outer islands where life is mainly subsistence augmented by handicrafts, copra cutting and sailors’ remittances.
Previously reviewed
Self Reliance
Little debt servicing, but very big dependence on aid – around US$187 per person. Very vulnerable to natural disasters such as drought and coastal flooding.
Previously reviewed
Position of women
Culture and religion ascribe subservient roles to females. Family violence is quite widespread though not publicly recognized.
Previously reviewed
Adult literacy 93%; net primary school enrolment/attendance 71%.
Previously reviewed
Civic freedom exists through the constitution but in practice culture severely inhibits and constrains. The Government restricts the media thereby limiting freedom of speech.
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy
60 years (Fiji 69, Aotearoa/NZ 78)
Previously reviewed
NI Assessment (Politics)
Kiribati was ill prepared for democracy by the British colonial regime, which mainly used people from Tuvalu as administrators. After 22 years of independence political parties and understanding of governance procedures are starting to emerge. But since public media is limited and restricted, voters tend to be swayed by family, island and church loyalties rather than issues of good governance.

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