Kiribati (11/03)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Republic of Kiribati

Area: 719 sq. km (266 sq. mi.) in 32 atolls and one island.
Cities: Capital--Tarawa (pop. 30,000).
Terrain: Archipelagos of low-lying coral atolls surrounded by extensive reefs.
Climate: Maritime equatorial or tropical.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--I-Kiribati (for both singular and plural).
Population: 90,000. Age structure--41% under 15; 3% over 65. Growth rate: 2.5%.
Ethnic groups: Micronesian 98%.
Religion: Roman Catholic 53%, Kiribati Protestant 39%.
Languages: English (official), Gilbertese/I-Kiribati (de facto).
Health: Life expectancy--male 58 yrs, female 64 yrs. Infant mortality rate--1.3/1,000.
Work force: Majority engaged in subsistence activities.

Type: Republic.
Independence (from U.K.): July 12, 1979.
Constitution: July 12, 1979.
Branches: Executive--president (head of state and government, known as Te Beretitenti), vice president, cabinet. Legislative--unicameral House of Assembly. Judicial--High Court, Court of Appeal, Magistrates' Courts.
Major political parties: Parties are only very loosely organized--Maneaban Te Mauri (Protect the Maneaba), National Progressive Party, Liberal Party.

Flag: flag of kiribati

(all figures in U.S.$)
GDP: $58.4 million.
GNP (GDP + investment income, fishing license fees, and seamen's remittances): $96.7 million.
GDP per capita: $663.
GDP composition by sector: Services 75%, agriculture 14%, industry 11%. Industry: Types--tourism, copra, fish.
Trade: Exports--$33.5 million: copra, pet fish, seaweed. Export markets--Japan, Thailand, Korea, U.S. Imports--$87.2 million: food, manufactured goods. Import sources--Japan, Australia, France, Fiji, New Zealand.
External debt: $4 million.
Currency: Australian dollar (A$).

Kiribati (pronounced "keer-ih-bahs") consists of 32 low-lying atolls and one raised island scattered over an expanse of ocean equivalent in size to the continental United States. The islands straddle the Equator and lie roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The three main groupings are the Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands, and Line Islands. In 1995 Kiribati unilaterally moved the International Date Line to include its easternmost islands, making it the same day throughout the country.

Kiribati includes Kiritimati (Christmas Island), the largest coral atoll in the world, and Banaba (Ocean Island), one of the three great phosphate islands in the Pacific. Except on Banaba, very little land is more than three meters above sea level.

The original inhabitants of Kiribati are Gilbertese, a Micronesian people. Approximately 90% of the population of Kiribati lives on the atolls of the Gilbert Islands. Although the Line Islands are about 2000 miles east of the Gilbert Islands, most inhabitants of the Line Islands are also Gilbertese. Owing to an annual population growth rate of around 2.5% and severe overcrowding in the capital on South Tarawa, a program of migration has been implemented to move nearly 5,000 inhabitants to outlying atolls, mainly in the Line Islands. The Phoenix Islands have never had any permanent population. A British effort to settle Gilbertese there in the 1930's failed due to lack of water. A new program of settlement to the Phoenix Islands was begun in 1995.

The I-Kiribati people settled what would become known as the Gilbert Islands between 1000 and 1300 AD. Subsequent invasions by Fijians and Tongans introduced Micronesian and Polynesian elements to the Micronesian culture, but extensive intermarriage has produced a population reasonably homogeneous in appearance and traditions.

European contact began in the 16th century. Whalers, slave traders, and merchant vessels arrived in great numbers in the 1800s, fomenting local tribal conflicts and introducing often fatal European diseases. In an effort to restore a measure of order, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (the Ellice Islands are now known as Tuvalu) consented to becoming British protectorates in 1892. Banaba (Ocean Island) was annexed in 1900 after the discovery of phosphate-rich guano deposits, and the entire collection was made a British colony in 1916. The Line and Phoenix Islands were incorporated piecemeal over the next 20 years.

Japan seized the islands during World War II. In November 1943, U.S. forces assaulted heavily fortified Japanese positions on Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts, resulting in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific campaign. The battle was a turning point in the Central Pacific.

Britain began expanding self-government in the islands during the 1960s. In 1975 the Ellice Islands separated from the colony and in 1978 became the independent country of Tuvalu. The Gilberts obtained internal self-government in 1977, and formally became an independent nation on July 12, 1979, under the name of Kiribati.

Post-independence politics were initially dominated by Ieremia Tabai, Kiribati's first president, who served from 1979 to 1991, stepping down due to Kiribati's three-term limit for presidents. Teburoro Tito's tenure as president, 1994-2003, also was curtailed by the three-term limit, though in his case his third term lasted only a matter of months before he lost a no confidence motion in Parliament. (Note: See the next section for an explanation of Kiribati's unique presidential system.) In July 20003, Anote Tong defeated his elder brother, Harry Tong, who was backed by former-President Tito and his allies. An ensuing court challenge which alleged violations of campaign finance laws could have unseated President Tong. However, in October 2003, a judge specially brought in from Australia to ensure strict neutrality, ruled in President Tong's favor.

The Constitution promulgated at independence establishes Kiribati as a sovereign democratic republic and guarantees the fundamental rights of its citizens.

The unicameral House of Assembly (Maneaba) has 42 members: 40 elected representatives, one appointed member from Banaba island, and the Attorney General on an exofficio basis. All of the members of the Maneaba serve 4-year terms. The speaker for the legislature is elected by the Maneaba from outside of its membership and is not a voting member of Parliament.

After each general election, the new Maneaba nominates at least three but not more than four of its members to stand as candidates for president, locally referred to as "His Excellency Te Beretitenti." The voting public then elects the president from among these candidates. A cabinet of up to 10 members is appointed by the president from among the members of the Maneaba. Although popularly elected, the president can be deposed by a majority vote in Parliament. In this case, a new election for President must be held. A person can serve as pesident for only three terms, no matter how short each term is. As a result of this provision, former Presidents Tabai and Tito are constitutionally forbidden from serving as president again.

The judicial system consists of the High Court, a court of appeal, and magistrates' courts. All judicial appointments are made by the president.

Principal Government Officials
Head of State/Government--President Anote Tong
Vice President--Teima Onorio
Ambassador to the United States--Vacant

Political parties exist but are more similar to informal coalitions in behavior. They do not have official platforms or party structures. Most candidates formally present themselves as independents. Campaigning is by word of mouth and informal gatherings in traditional meeting houses.

While he is head of a minority party, President Anote Tong enjoys a comfortable majority in Parliament. The biggest political issue today is finding employment opportunities for a crowded and growing population. In 2003, the losses incurred by government-owned Air Kiribati became a major political issue as well.

An emotional issue has been the protracted bid by the residents of Banaba Island to secede and have their island placed under the protection of Fiji. Because Banaba was devastated by phosphate mining, the vast majority of Banabans moved to the island of Rabi in the Fiji Islands in the 1940s. They enjoy full Fiji citizenship. The Kiribati Government has responded by including several special provisions in the Constitution, such as the designation of a Banaban seat in the legislature and the return of land previously acquired by the government for phosphate mining. Only 200-300 people remain on Banaba.

Kiribati's per capita GNP of less than U.S.$1,000 makes it one of the poorest countries in the world. Phosphates had been profitably exported from Banaba Island since the turn of the century, but the deposits were exhausted in 1979.

The end of phosphate revenue in 1979 had a devastating impact on the economy. Receipts from phosphates had accounted for roughly 80% of export earnings and 50% of government revenue. Per capita GDP was more than cut in half between 1979 and 1981. A trust fund financed by phosphate earnings over the years--the Revenue Equalization Reserve Fund--still exists and contained more than U.S.$400 million in 2003. Kiribati has received high marks for its prudent management of the Reserve Fund, which is vital for the long-term welfare of the country.

In one form or another, Kiribati gets a large portion of its income from abroad. Examples include fishing licenses, development assistance, worker remittances, and tourism. In particular, about 2000 I-Kiribati work as sailors on foreign merchant ships. Given Kiribati's limited domestic production ability, it must import nearly all of its essential foodstuffs and manufactured items, and it depends on these external sources of income for financing.

Fishing fleets from South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, and the United States pay licensing fees to operate in Kiribati's territorial waters. These licenses produce revenue worth U.S.$20 to $35 million annually. Due to its small land mass and huge maritime area, however, Kiribati also loses untold millions of dollars per year from illegal, unlicensed fishing in its exclusive economic zone.

Another U.S.$20 million to $25 million of external income takes the form of direct financial transfers. Official development assistance amounts to between U.S.$15 million and $20 million per year. The largest donors are Japan, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. In addition, Taiwan is widely expected to become an important bilateral donor in the coming years. U.S. assistance is provided through multilateral institutions. Remittances from Kiribati workers living abroad provide more than $7.5 million annually.

Tourism is a relatively small, but important domestic sector. Between 3,000 and 4,000 visitors per year provide U.S.$5-$10 million in revenue. Attractions include World War II battle sites, game fishing, ecotourism, and the Millennium Islands, situated just inside the International Date Line and the first place on earth to celebrate New Year. The vast majority of American tourists only visit Christmas Island in the Line Islands on fishing and diving vacations via weekly charter flights from Honolulu.

Most islanders engage in subsistence activities ranging from fishing to the growing of food crops like bananas, breadfruit, and papaya. The leading export is the coconut product, copra, which accounts for about two-thirds of export revenue. Currently, copra is exported to Bangladesh for processing, but there are plans to process copra in Tarawa. Other exports include pet fish, shark fins, and seaweed. Kiribati's principal trading partners are Australia and Japan.

Transportation and communications are a challenge for Kiribati. International air links to the capital of Tarawa are provided only by a money-losing service by Air Kiribati and by the near-bankrupt Air Nauru. Air Kiribati provides service to most of the populated atolls in the Gilberts using small planes flying from Tarawa. Small ships serve outlying islands, including in the Line Islands, with irregular schedules. Hawaiian Air flies to Christmas Island once a week. It is not possible to travel from the Line Islands to the Gilbert Islands by air without traveling via Hawaii and either Fiji or the Marshall Islands.

Telecommunications are expensive, and service is mediocre. There is no broadband. The monopoly internet provider on Tarawa is one of the most expensive in the world.

Kiribati maintains friendly relations with most countries and has particularly close ties to its Pacific neighbors--Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. Under President Tito, Kiribati had particularly close relations with China and allowed Beijing to establish a satellite tracking station on South Tarawa. In November 2003, however, President Tong announced the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It is expected that China, with whom Kiribati has had diplomatic relations since the early 1980s, will break relations in response. The future of China's tracking station is unclear. Australia, Taiwan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom maintain resident diplomatic missions in Kiribati.

Relations between Kiribati and the United States are excellent. Kiribati signed a treaty of friendship with the United States after independence in 1979. The United States has no consular or diplomatic facilities in the country. Officers of the American Embassy in Suva, Fiji, are concurrently accredited to Kiribati and make periodic visits. The U.S. Peace Corps has maintained a program in Kiribati since 1967. Currently there are about 50 Peace Corps Volunteers serving in the county.

Kiribati became a member of the United Nations in 1999, but does not maintain a resident ambassador in New York. In September 2003, President Tong requested authority from Parliament to establish a UN mission. Kiribati also is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, Asian Development Bank, the Commonwealth, International Monetary Fund, the Pacific Community, and the World Bank. Kiribati is particularly active in the Pacific Islands Forum. The only Kiribati diplomatic missions overseas are a high commission in Fiji and an honorary consulate in Honolulu.

Principal U.S. Officials (all resident in Suva, Fiji) Ambassador--David L. Lyon
Deputy Chief of Mission--Hugh Neighbour
Political/Economic Affairs--Edmond E. Seay, III
Consular Affairs--Kirk L. Lindly

The U.S. Embassy responsible for Kiribati is located in Suva, Republic of the Fiji Islands. Its location is 31 Loftus Street, Suva, Fiji. Mailing address: P.O. Box 218, Suva, Fiji. Tel: +679-331-4466, fax: +679 330-0081

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.