Vanuatu (01/03)

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


Republic of Vanuatu

Area: Land--12,200 sq. km. (4,707 sq. mi.), includes more than 80 Islands. Comparative area--about the size of Connecticut.
Cities: Capital--Port Vila (on the island of Efate), pop. 30,000. Other towns--Luganville (on the island of Espiritu Santo, also known as Santo).
Terrain: Mostly mountains of volcanic origin, narrow coastal plains.
Climate: Tropical.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--ni-Vanuatu.
Population (2002 est.): 196,000.
Annual growth rate (2002 est.): 1.66%.
Ethnic groups: 94% ni-Vanuatu; 4% European; 2% other Pacific Islanders, Asian.
Religion: Predominantly Christian.
Languages: Bislama (Pidgin), English, French, more than 100 tribal languages.
Education: Enrollment in primary is 100% with rapid fall-off to 20% in secondary and upper secondary. Adult literacy rate (2002)--53% of those age 15 and older.
Health: Infant mortality rate (2002)--59.58/1,000. Life expectancy (2002)--61.3 yrs.
Work force (1999, 134,000): Agriculture--65%; industry--5%; service--30%.

Type: Parliamentary democracy.
Independence: July 30, 1980.
Constitution: July 30, 1980.
Branches: Executive--president (head of state), prime minister (head of government). Legislative--unicameral (52-member Parliament). Judicial--Supreme Court.
Administrative subdivisions: Six administrative districts.
Political parties: Vanua'aku Pati, Union of Moderate Parties, Melanesian Progressive Party, National United Party, People's Democratic Party, John Frum.
Suffrage: Universal over 18.
National holiday: July 30
Flag: A yellow Y with a black border horizontally divides the flag into three parts. The open end is closest to the staff. Above this division is red, below is forest green. The triangle remaining is black with a yellow pig tusk curved around crossed palm fronds.

GDP (2000): $257 million.
Per capita income (2000): $1,300.
Real growth rate (2000): 2.9%.
Avg. inflation rate (2000): 2.5%.
Natural resources: Forests, agricultural land, marine resources.
Agriculture: Products--copra, cocoa, coffee, cattle, timber.
Industry: Types--copra production, beef processing, sawmilling, tourism, financial services.
Trade (2000): Exports--$22.8 million: copra, kava, beef and veal, cocoa, timber, coffee. Major markets--Japan 32%, Belgium 17%, U.S. 17%, Germany 8%, Australia. Imports--$87.5 million: machines and transport equipment, basic manufactures, foodstuffs, fuel, miscellaneous manufactures. Major suppliers--Australia 28%, Singapore 14%, New Zealand 8%, Japan 4%, U.S. 1%.
Official exchange rate (2002 avg.): 134 vatu=U.S.$1.

Vanuatu is a 'Y' shaped archipelago that comprises 80 islands. It is located 2,172 kilometers (1,303 mi.) northeast of Sydney and 5,750 kilometers (3,450 mi.) southwest of Honolulu. Fiji lies to the east, New Caledonia to the south, and the Solomon Islands to the northwest, all within the area of the South Pacific called Melanesia.

The two largest islands, Espiritu Santo (or Santo) and Malakula, account for nearly one-half of the total land area. They are volcanic, with sharp mountain peaks, plateaus, and lowlands. The last volcanic eruption was in 1945. The larger islands of the remaining half also are volcanic but are overlaid with limestone formations; the smaller ones are coral and limestone. Rainfall averages about 2,360 millimeters (94 in.) per year but can be as high as 4,000 millimeters (160 in.) in the northern islands.

The population of Vanuatu is 94% indigenous Melanesian. About 30,000 live in the capital, Port Vila. Another 10,700 live in Luganville (or Santo Town) on Espiritu Santo. The remainder live in rural areas. About 2,000 ni-Vanuatu live and work in New Caledonia. Although local pidgin, called Bislama, is the national language, English and French also are official languages. Indigenous Melanesians speak 105 local languages.

Christianity has had a profound influence on ni-Vanuatu society, and an estimated 90% of the population is affiliated with a Christian denomination. The largest denominations are Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Anglican. John Frum, a syncretic sect, also is important on Tanna Island.

The prehistory of Vanuatu is obscure; archaeological evidence supports the commonly held theory that peoples speaking Austronesian languages first came to the islands some 4,000 years ago. Pottery fragments have been found dating back to 1300-1100 B.C.

The first island in the Vanuatu group discovered by Europeans was Espiritu Santo, when in 1606 the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Fernandez De Quiros, spied what he thought was a southern continent. Europeans did not return until 1768, when Louis Antoine de Bougainville rediscovered the islands. In 1774, Captain Cook named the islands the New Hebrides, a name that lasted until independence.

In 1825, trader Peter Dillon's discovery of sandalwood on the island of Erromango began a rush that ended in 1830 after a clash between immigrant Polynesian workers and indigenous Melanesians. During the 1860s, planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands, in need of laborers, encouraged a long-term indentured labor trade called "blackbirding." At the height of the labor trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the Islands worked abroad.

It was at this time that missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, arrived on the islands. Settlers also came, looking for land on which to establish cotton plantations. When international cotton prices collapsed, they switched to coffee, cocoa, bananas, and, most successfully, coconuts. Initially, British subjects from Australia made up the majority, but the establishment of the Caledonian Company of the New Hebrides in 1882 soon tipped the balance in favor of French subjects. By the turn of the century, the French outnumbered the British two to one.

The jumbling of French and British interests in the islands brought petitions for one or another of the two powers to annex the territory. In 1906, however, France and the United Kingdom agreed to administer the islands jointly. Called the British-French Condominium, it was a unique form of government, with separate governmental systems that came together only in a joint court. Melanesians were barred from acquiring the citizenship of either power.

Challenges to this form of government began in the early 1940s. The arrival of Americans during World War II, with their informal demeanor and relative wealth, was instrumental in the rise of nationalism in the islands. The belief in a mythical messianic figure named John Frum was the basis for an indigenous cargo cult (a movement attempting to obtain industrial goods through magic) promising Melanesian deliverance. Today, John Frum is both a religion and a political party with two members in Parliament.

The first political party was established in the early 1970s and originally was called the New Hebrides National Party. One of the founders was Father Walter Lini, who later became Prime Minister. Renamed the Vanua'aku Pati in 1974, the party pushed for independence; in 1980, the Republic of Vanuatu was created.

The constitution created a republican political system headed by a president who has primarily ceremonial powers and is elected by a two-thirds majority in an electoral college consisting of members of Parliament and the presidents of Regional Councils. The president serves a 5-year term. The president may be removed by the electoral college for gross misconduct or incapacity. The prime minister, who is the head of government, is elected by a majority vote of a three-fourths quorum of the Parliament. The prime minister in turn appoints the Council of Ministers, whose number may not exceed one-fourth of the number of parliamentary representatives. The prime minister and the Council of Ministers constitute the executive government.

Parliament is a 52-member unicameral house elected by all persons over 18 years old. Parliament normally sits for a 4-year term unless dissolved by majority vote of a three-fourths quorum or a directive from the President on the advice of the prime minister. The national Council of Chiefs, called the Malvatu Mauri and elected by district councils of chiefs, advises the government on all matters concerning ni-Vanuatu culture and language.

The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and up to three other judges. Two or more members of this court may constitute a Court of Appeal. Magistrate courts handle most routine legal matters. The legal system is based on British law. The constitution also provides for the establishment of village or island courts presided over by chiefs to deal with questions of customary law.

Principal Government Officials
President--John Bani
Prime Minister--Edward Natapei
Deputy Prime Minister--Serge Vohor

Vanuatu does not have an embassy in Washington. Its mission to the United Nations is located at 866 UN Plaza, 4th Floor, Room 41, First Avenue and 48th Street, New York, NY 10017. Vanuatu Maritime Services, which provides information on ship registration in Vanuatu, is located at 120 Broadway, Suite 1743, New York, NY 10271.

Government and society in Vanuatu tend to divide along linguistic--French and English--lines. Historically, English-speaking politicians such as Walter Lini, Donald Kalpokas, and other leaders of the Vanua'aku Pati favored early independence, whereas French-speaking political leaders favored continuing association with the colonial administrators, particularly France.

On the eve of independence in 1980, Jimmy Stevens' Nagriamel movement, in alliance with private French interests, declared the island of Espiritu Santo independent of the new government. Following independence, Vanuatu requested assistance from Papua New Guinea, whose forces restored order on Santo. From then until 1991, the Vanua'aku Pati and its predominantly English-speaking leadership controlled the Vanuatu Government.

In December 1991, and following a split in the Vanua'aku Pati, Maxime Carlot Korman, leader of the Francophone Union of Moderate Parties (UMP), was elected Vanuatu's first Francophone prime minister. He formed a coalition government with Walter Lini's breakaway VP faction, now named the National United Party (NUP).

Following parliamentary elections on November 30, 1995, Carlot Korman was succeeded by Serge Vohor, a dissident UMP leader. Over the next 2 years, government leadership changed several times thanks to unstable coalitions within the Parliament. In November 1997, the President dissolved Parliament. Following the subsequent election on March 6, 1998, Donald Kalpokas, the leader of the Vanua'aku Pati, was elected prime minister. A vote of no confidence in November 1999 brought Barak Sope to the fore as Prime Minister. Yet another vote of no confidence resulted in the selection of Edward Natapei as Prime Minister in March 2001. Edward Natapei returned as Prime Minister in the May 2002 national parliamentary elections.

Vanuatu's economy is primarily agricultural; 80% of the population is engaged in agricultural activities that range from subsistence farming to smallholder farming of coconuts and other cash crops. Copra is by far the most important cash crop (making up more than 35% of the country's exports), followed by timber, beef, and cocoa. Kava root extract exports also have become important. In addition, the government has maintained Vanuatu's preindependence status as a tax haven and international financial center. About 2,000 registered institutions offer a wide range of offshore banking, investment, legal, accounting, and insurance and trust-company services. Vanuatu also maintains an international shipping register in New York City.

Copra, cocoa, kava, and beef account for more than 60% of Vanuatu's total exports by value, and agriculture accounts for about 20% of GDP. Tourism is Vanuatu's fastest-growing sector, having comprised 40% of GDP in 2000. Industry's portion of GDP declined from 15% to 10% between 1990 and 2000. Government consumption accounted for about 27% of GDP.

Vanuatu is a small country, with only a few commodities, mostly agricultural, produced for export. In 2000, imports exceeded exports by a ratio of nearly 4 to 1. However, this was offset by high services income from tourism, which kept the current account balance fairly even.

Vanuatu claims an exclusive economic zone of 680,000 square kilometers and possesses substantial marine resources. Currently, only a limited number of ni-Vanuatu are involved in fishing, while foreign fleets exploit this potential.

In 1997 the government, with the aid of the Asian Development Bank, committed itself to a 3-year comprehensive reform program. During the first year of the program the government has adopted a value-added tax, consolidated and reformed government-owned banks, and started a 10% downsizing in the public service. The program was derailed when Barak Sope became Prime Minister. Under Prime Minister Edward Natapei, reform programs have slowly been reintroduced.

Vanuatu maintains relations with more than 65 countries, including Russia, the People's Republic of China, Cuba, and Vietnam. However, only Australia, the United Kingdom, France, New Zealand, and the People's Republic of China maintain embassies, high commissions, or missions in Port Vila.

The government's main concern has been to bolster the economy. In keeping with its need for financial assistance, Vanuatu has joined the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Agence de Cooperation Culturelle et Technique.

The government encourages private enterprise, foreign investment, and producer cooperatives. Like other developing countries, Vanuatu is particularly interested in enterprises that add value to local primary products and that provide employment. In less lucrative sectors, the government sets up its own production companies or enters joint ventures with foreign investors.

Since 1980, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, and New Zealand have provided the bulk of Vanuatu's development aid. A number of other countries, including Japan, Canada, Germany, and various multilateral organizations, such as the Economic and Social Council for Asia and the Pacific, the UN Development Program, the Asian Development Bank, the European Economic Community, and the Commonwealth Development Corporation also provide developmental aid. The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Japan also send volunteers.

Vanuatu retains strong economic and cultural ties to Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and France. Australia has provided the bulk of Vanuatu's military assistance, training its paramilitary mobile force and also providing patrol boats to patrol Vanuatu's waters.

Vanuatu is a member of the United Nations and its specialized and related agencies, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; South Pacific Commission; South Pacific Forum; Non-Aligned Movement; Commonwealth, Group of 77; and Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The United States and Vanuatu established diplomatic relations in 1986. Between 1977 and 1987, Vanuatu received just under $3 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), including projects focusing on assisting the transition to indigenous plantation management. In June 1994, the regional USAID office located in Suva, Fiji, was closed due to U.S. Government budgetary cutbacks. However, the United States remains a major financial contributor to international and regional organizations that assist Vanuatu, including the World Bank, UNICEF, WHO, the UN Fund for Population Activities, and the Asian Development Bank.

In 1989, the United States concluded a Peace Corps agreement with Vanuatu. The Peace Corps has met with a warm welcome there and currently has about 75 volunteers in-country. The United States also provides military training assistance to the Vanuatu Mobile Force, a paramilitary branch of the Vanuatu police.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Susan Jacobs (resident in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea)
Peace Corps Country Director--Kevin George

The mailing address of the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea is P.O. Box 1492, Port Moresby (tel: 675-321-1455; fax: 675-321-3423).