Background Notes: Kiribati

Contributed By RealAdventures

Kiribatians mostly live in villages with populations between 50 and 3,000 on the outer islands. Most houses are made of materials obtained from coconut and pandanus trees.

Due to frequent droughts and the lack of large crops, the islanders have found it necessary to turn to the sea for livelihood. Most are outrigger sailors and fishers. Copra plantations serve as a second source of employment. In recent years, large numbers of Kiribatians have moved to the more urban island capital of Tarawa.

To increase the opportunities of the islanders, the government has placed greater emphasis on education. Primary education is free and compulsory for the first six years. Mission schools are slowly being absorbed into the government primary school system. Higher education is expanding; students may seek technical, teacher, or marine training or study in other countries (usually in Fiji).

The I'Kiribati people are Micronesians, but recent archeological evidence indicates that the islands were originally settled by Austronesians thousands of years ago. Around the 14th century A.D., the islands were invaded by Fijians and Tongans. Intermarriage led to a population reasonably homogeneous in appearance and traditions.

The first recorded European encounter with Kiribati was by the Spanish explorer Quiros in 1606. By the 1820s, all of the islands had been charted. At that time, the Russian hydrographer A.I. Krusenstern gave the group the name Gilbert Islands. Until about 1870, many British and American whaling vessels sought sperm whales in Gilbertese waters. Starting in 1850, trading vessels passed through, seeking first coconut oil and then copra. In the 1860s, "black-birders" (slave ships) carried off islanders to work on plantations in Peru and, later, in Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, and Australia. Not only did this practice reduce the number of men on the islands, it also introduced European diseases, such as measles, against which the islanders had little resistance. With the people's consent, the Ellice groups (now Tuvalu) and the Gilbert Islands became a British protectorate in 1892, in the hope of eradicating slave raids and incessant tribal warfare.

In 1900, phosphate was discovered on Ocean Island. A surge of British interest in the area resulted, and more islands were placed under the British protectorate. Phosphate was the predominant source of income for Kiribati until 1979, when deposits were exhausted.

Japan seized the islands in 1941. On November 21, 1943, American forces launched their first penetration of Japan's ring of island defenses by attacking the Tarawa islet of Betio. Tarawa Atoll was the setting for one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific and was a major turning point in the war for the Allies.

One of the most important post-war moves in the main islands was the strengthening of the cooperatives. New rules made it unprofitable for overseas trading firms to reestablish themselves. Kiribatians gained a stronger voice in the affairs of the colony during the 1950s and 1960s, when an advisory council and, later, a house of representatives with powers of recommendation were created. In 1974, the colony moved forward to a ministerial form of government. In 1975, the Ellice Islands seceded from the colony and became the independent nation of Tuvalu. On July 12, 1979, Kiribati obtained its own independence from the United Kingdom and became a republic within the Commonwealth.

Kiribati's constitution, promulgated July 12, 1979, provides for free and open elections. The executive branch consists of a president, a vice president, and a cabinet. Under the constitution, the president, nominated from among the elected members of the House of Assembly, is limited to three four-year terms. The president does not represent a political party. The cabinet is composed of the President, Vice President, and the ten Ministers (appointed by the President) who are members of the House of Assembly.

The legislative branch is the unicameral House of Assembly (Maneaba Ni Maungatabu). The legislature consists of 40 elected members, including a representative of the Banaban (Ocean Islanders) people and the attorney-general as an ex-officio member.

The constitutional provisions governing the administrations of justice are similar to those in other former British possessions in that the judiciary is free from governmental interference. The judicial branch is made up of the high court and the court of appeal. The presiding judges are appointed by the president.

Local government is through island councils with elected members. Local affairs are handled in a manner similar to town meetings in colonial America. Island councils make their own estimates of revenue and expenditure and are generally free of central government controls.

President and Minister of Foreign Affairs--Hon. Teburoro Tito
Vice President and Minister of Home Affairs & Rural Development--Tewareka Tentoa

Traditionally, Kiribati had no formally organized parties. Instead, ad hoc opposition groups tended to coalesce around specific issues. Today, the only recognizable parties are the Maneaban te Mauri Party and the National Progressive Party. There is universal suffrage at 18.

A major source of conflict has been the protracted bid by the residents of Banaban Island to secede and have their island placed under the protection of Fiji. The government's attempts to placate the Banabans include specific provisions in the constitution, such as giving them a seat in the house of assembly and returning to them land on Banaban acquired by the government for phosphate mining.

Kiribati's economy is very small and has fluctuated widely in recent years. The country has few natural resources. Phosphate deposits had already been exhausted by the time of independence in 1979. Most people are engaged in subsistence agriculture but are not self-sufficient in food. In the 12 years since independence, the government has focused on private sector involvement in development, extensive use of joint ventures, and a stable partnership with business.

The islands' isolation and meager resources, including poor soil and limited arable land, severely limit prospects for economic development. Moreover, development efforts are hampered by transportation difficulties, overcrowding on Tarawa and shortages of trained workers and management.

As the social and economic indicators show, while Kiribati has experienced some improvement in standards of living, the economy of Kiribati has been relatively stagnant in recents with annual real rates of growth general below population growth, i.e. from 2.1% to 2.8% over the period 1989 to 1995. Indeed, the economy has been relatively stagnant since independence and the exhaustion of phosphate mining despite relatively high levels of, mostly government, investment. Kiribati trade, with a visible trade gap growing from A$22.2M in 1989 to A$42.0M in 1995, the budget, and the economy overall, continue to be dependent on a very few investments in foreign economies. Foreign earnings are acquired from the export of capital (RERF, NPF, bank deposits), fish licenses, the export of labor (remittances) and a dependence on aid.

Efforts are being made to diversify the economy, primarily through fisheries projects and tourism. The creation of the 200-mile economic and fisheries zone has given islanders hope of developing their marine resources to a point where fish could be the country's main source of revenue through export earnings and licensing fees paid by fishing nations like Japan and the United States. A regional survey of fish resources by the South Pacific Commission has revealed large stocks of tuna in Kiribati waters.

Kiribati maintains cordial relations with most countries and has close relations with its Pacific neighbors, Japan, Australia and New Zealand; the latter three provide the majority of the country's foreign aid. Taiwan and Japan also have specified-period licenses to fish in Kiribati's waters.

In September 1979, a treaty of friendship was signed between the Republic of Kiribati and the United States. In 1983 the U.S. Senate approved recognition of Kiribati's sovereignty over the Line and Phoenix island groups.

The United States has no consular or diplomatic offices in Kiribati. Officers of the American Embassy in Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands, are concurrently accredited to Kiribati and make periodic visits.

There is little trade between the United States and Kiribati. Peace Corps volunteers teach and provide technical assistance throughout Kiribati.

Ambassador--Joan M. Plaisted
Deputy Chief of Mission--Thomas M. Murphy
Administrative Officer--Gail Gardner
Military Liaison--Thomas Keene

The Peace Corps director is resident in Tarawa, but all other officials reside in Majuro, Marshall Islands. The U.S. Embassy in Majuro, Marshall Islands is located on Lagoon Road, Majuro (tel. 692-247- 4011).

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