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new internationalist
issue 251 - January 1994

Country profile: Tokelau

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On their low-lying coral atolls stranded in the middle of the South Pacific, Tokelauans literally struggle to keep their heads above water. During the worst cyclone in living memory, cyclone Ofa in 1987, waves washed over many of the islets destroying vegetation and polluting the fresh-water sources.

Tokelau is legally part of New Zealand. Recent changes will mean more autonomy for the atoll dwellers, as the New Zealand-appointed Administrator delegates power. All laws or rules are now made by Tokelauans or at their request, and the Office for Tokelau Affairs, currently located in Western Samoa, is in the process of moving to the atolls.

The main political institution is the General Fono where atoll representatives meet to decide policy issues. On the islands, the Taupulega or village council manages day-to-day affairs. The Faipule (headman) and the Pulenuku (administrative officer) are elected every three years. The Council of Faipule chooses a chairperson, holding office for one year, who is the Ulu-O-Tokelau or Head of Tokelau.

Tokelauans rely on aid from Aotearoa - over NZ$2,500 per head in 1992. They also have a guaranteed export market to that country. Atoll dwellers have dual nationality and there are now more of them living in Aotearoa, mainly around Wellington, than there are in Tokelau. Unemployment is high in this community with 47 per cent of 15-29 year olds out of work.

Communal farming and fishing are the basis of Tokelau's economy. The islets' isolation, lack of minerals and infertile soils leave little room for economic manoeuvre. Remittances from migrant workers, postage stamps and souvenir coins are major sources of foreign currency.

Schooling is free, with instruction in Tokelauan. The emphasis on education is also apparent in the community in Aotearoa with its high number of akoga kamata - Tokelauan language pre-schools.

On some working days, people in Tokelau may work as directed by the local leader, for example to catch fish which is shared by others in the community. Every few weeks, a ship calls at the islands to replenish stores in their one shop.

If this sounds like quiet stability, contrast it with Tokelau's history. For hundreds of years, there were constant wars between the atolls. In 1863 Peruvian slavers kidnapped several hundred Tokelauans and took them to South America. Some of these people have descendants on Easter Island, and an effort may be made someday to find the 'lost' Tokelauans.

Today death comes in a different form. Ill health is exacerbated by imported refined food and a sedentary lifestyle. Alcoholism and obesity are common: coronaries, diabetes and respiratory disease are the main causes of death. The link to Aotearoa may bring economic protection and security, but at a price.

Anna Buckley

With additional information from Falani Aukuso, Don Long and Susan Snelgrove.


LEADER: Administrator Lindsay Watt. Salesio Lui is Head of Tokelau for 1993.

ECONOMY: Aid worth NZ$4.3 million (about NZ$2,500 per capita) from Aotearoa (1992/3) Aid is six times export earnings from stamps, import duties and souvenir coins. Jobs created by public works and agriculture programmes are rotated among workers to distribute income through community.

PEOPLE: 1,557

HEALTH: Heavy reliance on imported foods and a more sedentary lifestyle has contributed to serious deterioration in health. Hypertension, coronaries and respiratory disease are the main causes of death. Alcoholism, diabetes and obesity are common ailments.

CULTURE: Polynesian. Faka-Tokelau (the Tokelau way of life) reflects a social and economic order based on community values and sharing - but this may erode as individualism increases.
Religion: Mainly Christian
Language: Tokelauan; English and Samoan also spoken.

Sources: The Asia and Pacific Review 1993/4, The State of World Population 1993, The New Zealand Ministry for Foreign Affairs and information supplied by contributors.



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Cash economy small but growing. Customs emphasise equality.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Free schooling.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
Depends on income from Aotearoa.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
No prisons. Village elders administer justice.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Improving as educational opportunities for women expand.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
71 years (for Polynesia), but could worsen.



Politics now

Very conservative.


NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 251 magazine cover This article is from the January 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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