New Internationalist

Kiribati

Issue 218

new internationalist
issue 218 - April 1991

COUNTRY PROFILE

Kiribati

Where is Kiribati? Kiribati is about as big as the United States in area. Its vast economic zone in the Pacific Ocean straddles both the Equator and the International Date Line. Yet it has a population of just 70,000 - the equivalent of an English country town.

Kiribati's 33 islands stretch 3,900 kilometres from Banaba (Ocean Island) in the west, where in 1900 a British company acquired for £50 a year the rights to mine phosphate for 999 years, to Christmas Island in the east, where Britain tested nuclear weapons in the 1950s and the US in 1962.

The sun is generally thought to have set on the British Empire long ago yet Kiribati's independence from the UK came as recently as 1979. Until then it was part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands - and in fact the name Kiribati itself (pronounced 'kiribas') is a local corruption of the English name Gilberts.

A third of the people - the I-Kiribati - live on Tarawa, the main atoll, best known internationally for one of the fiercest US landing assaults of the Second World War, against a strongly entrenched Japanese garrison in 1943. Tarawa today is headquarters of the Republic of Kiribati - but its people are braced against a different kind of assault from the ocean. The highest point of the atoll - which is 64 kms long but for the most part only 100 metres wide - is only two metres above sea level. So the I-Kiribati, having lived down the centuries with a lurking anxiety about hurricanes and tidal waves, now face the prospect of being submerged as a result of the Greenhouse Effect.

About 1,000 I-Kiribati sailors work around the world on merchant ships, mainly German-owned vessels; their remittances account for nine per cent of gross domestic product. The Government is now attempting to redirect these skills to more direct local benefit through the creation of a Kiribati-based fishing industry concentrating on tuna.

Kiribati's President since independence, Ieremia Tabai, is widely seen as the Pacific island states' most able leader. In the mid-1980s President Tabai, a modest former accountant with a strong fear of aid dependency ('better poor but free') aroused considerable controversy when he signed a tuna deal with Soviet fishing authorities. However, it was not renewed; the Russians claimed the catch was not worth the license fee Tabai demanded. Kiribati has preserved its earnings from phosphate in a trust fund whose interest is drawn down annually for development projects.

Tabai, who is only 40, must retire under the constitution in mid-1991, after serving three terms as President. He is likely to move on to a senior regional position but he will be sorely missed by so tiny a nation with such a dispersed population.

Rowan Callick

 

LEADER: President Ieremia Tabai

ECONOMY: GNP per capita: $650 (US $19,840)
Monetary unit: Australian dollar Until independence, phosphate mined on Banaba accounted for 50 per cent of government revenue and 80 per cent of export earnings. Since then, the country has had to absorb the closure of its phosphate mine. Fishing and tourism are the key elements of its new strategy, though aid (with Japan the largest donor at $US four million per year) remains vital in the medium term. Copra is the only agricultural export.

PEOPLE: 70,000

HEALTH: Infant mortality 62 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Micronesian, with a few hundred Polynesians. Their lifestyle, at once easygoing and tough, practical and spiritual, was chronicled in the memoirs of British administrator Arthur Grimble, A Pattern of Islands. They broke on independence with the Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu) because the latter's Polynesian culture had remained strange to them, especially its hierarchical patterns.
Religion: Christian, mainly Catholic and Gilbert Islands Protestant Church (Congregational).
Languages: Kiribati and English

Never previously profiled

 

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Little conspic-uous wealth but urban poverty has arrived
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Good intentions, but re-placing phosphate income has proven hard
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Improving, but
yet to take key positions
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Parliament of 35 with
president chosen by vote
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80% Compulsory primary schooling has boosted the rate
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In theory fine, but lack of independent media prevents ultimate test
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60 years
(US 75 years).
Vital environmental health projects will help
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