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Picture an arc-shaped 70-kilometre string of pearls on an azure sea near the equator… The hub of Tuvalu, the Funafuti Atoll, is home for about 4,000 of the country’s 10,000 Polynesian people. You can cross it from side to side in five minutes, yet to circumnavigate the 30 sparse coral islets in this atoll can take more than a day. Nine island groups form the country of Tuvalu, which actually means ‘eight’ in the local language because only eight are permanently settled.

One of the smallest independent countries in the world, Tuvalu is a nation of contradictions, ingenious solutions and small miracles. Formerly the Ellice part of the British colony of the Gilbert & Ellice Islands, Tuvalu astounded world observers in 1978 when it sloughed off the tie to the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati), strange cousins who were culturally and ethnically Micronesian but with whom they had been yoked for British administrative convenience. Their proud sentiment was and is: ‘We’d rather be independent; we’re used to hardships and to compromises.’

Until recently economic survival depended on the interest from a Trust Fund given as an independence gift, on sales of postage stamps and on remittances from sailors working on overseas vessels – not to mention one of the world’s largest overseas-aid budgets per capita. More recently Tuvalu has found new sources of wealth by selling fishing rights, leasing its phone lines to sex-service companies and making money out of the internet country name ‘dot tv’.

Land has always been precious. After the war, salaries from wartime efforts were invested by Vaitupu village elders in the purchase of a freehold island (Kioa) in Fiji where the Tuvalu culture persists. In the early days of independence, an American carpetbagger tried to sell uninhabitable blocks of US desert to land-starved Tuvaluans who produced money from under their mats. Today, environmentally sensitive Tuvaluans are buying land in Fiji, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, anticipating the time when the rise in sea level due to global warming will cause the islands’ water to be too brackish to support a population.

Photo: Diane Goodwillie After the Pearl Harbour invasion, American Seabees in 1942 quickly built the Funafuti airstrip by excavating coral. They permanently destroyed the only fresh-food gardens on the island, altered currents and attractive beaches, and left behind unsightly holes from which soil was ‘borrowed’.

The proceeds of the internet-address deal (rumoured to be $50 million) are supposed to be ploughed into improving education on the outer islands, rebuilding the crumbling government administration buildings and extending the airstrip. Better sea transport is vital for this isolated island nation. Seaplanes are not economical. There still remains only one inter-island ferry and one Australian defence ship (said to patrol international waters and fishing rights).

Tuvalu has paid its $20,000 membership fee to join the United Nations and the $385,000 operating costs of an embassy in the US. As such its tiny civil service is probably the best travelled in the world, with paid invitations to international meetings and equal participation with China and the US. Their vote within the UN and the Commonwealth is sought after and continues to help bring in high levels of aid.

The culture is changing, even if the fun-loving, dancing and gift-giving Polynesian elements remain. Wide differences exist between Funafuti and the outer islands. TV and video have reinforced violence and power plays rather than the pacific way of discussion and consensus. Alcohol and sexual misdemeanors are ongoing problems.

Nevertheless the greatest threat to Tuvalu remains that of a watery extinction as a result of global warming. From the perspective of Tuvalu, the Bush administration’s scorn of the Kyoto agreements brings to mind Henry Kissinger’s comment about Micronesia: ‘There are only 10,000 people, who gives a damn!’

Diane Goodwillie

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Map of Tuvalu

At a glance

Leader: Prime Minister Faimalaga Luka.

Economy: GNP per capita $1,427 (Kiribati $910, Aotearoa/New Zealand $13,780).
Main exports: Copra, handicrafts and fishing.
Main source of revenue: interest from the $33-million Tuvalu Trust Fund, remittances from overseas sailors, use of internet address dot tv; fishing rights, and development assistance.
Main imports: Food, textiles, metal manufactures and petroleum products. Subsistence provides 70% of employment.

People: 10,000. People per square kilometre: 385 (Britain 238). But though Tuvalu has only 26 square kilometres of land, its exclusive economic zone covers 900,000 square kilometres of the Pacific.

Health: Infant mortality 40 per 1,000 live births (Kiribati 53, Aotearoa/New Zealand 6). There is no surface water and limited groundwater: 15% have no access to safe water. Medical staff are mainly concentrated on Funafuti, with health stations on the outer islands. New Zealand contributes to the cost of medical evacuation when necessary to Fiji or NZ.

Environment: There are five atolls and four coral islands with a maximum elevation of five metres above sea level. Apart from the long-term threat of the sea level rising, Tuvalu is very vulnerable to cyclones, tsunami and drought.

Culture: Polynesian ancestors arrived around 2,000 years ago. The northern atolls are influenced by Tonga, Kiribati and Wallis & Futuna and the southern islands by Samoa. There was some intermarriage with people from Kiribati during the British colonial administration.
Religion: 99% Christian, mainly Protestant.
Language: Tuvaluan (a Polynesian language) and English (in Funafuti particularly).

Sources: State of the World’s Children 2001, Pacific Human Development Report 1999, Asia & Pacific Review. Statistics Program Secretariat of the Pacific Community 2000.

Never previously profiled

star ratings

income distribution INCOME DISTRIBUTION
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Big variation between subsistence living on the outer islands and Funafuti where there is employment from government and small businesses.

SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Little debt, but big dependence on aid. Recent income from phone and internet sources has helped but Tuvalu is still very vulnerable.

position of women POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Both culture and religion ascribe subservient roles to females. But women are a determined force in the economy and in community activities.
LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
At 98%, the adult-literacy rate is high but the quality of education is generally poor: concerned parents try to send their children overseas for secondary school.
FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Civic freedom but the culture is restrictive. In such a small country everyone and everything is known and watched.
LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
67 years
(Aotearoa/New Zealand 77).
life expectancy


NI Assessment [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Prime Minister Faimalaga Luka is a seasoned administrator, drawn from just 15 MPs and the Government is generally financially prudent - if stingy in its health and education spending. But the country's politics are based on a tussle between island groups while an élite performs political magic tricks. There is little monitoring of government actions, though NGOs shows signs of improving watchdog functions.

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New Internationalist issue 339 magazine cover This article is from the October 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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