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


Republic of Kiribati

Area: 719 sq. km (266 sq. mi.) in one island and 32 atolls.
Cities: Capital--Tarawa (pop. 25,000).
Terrain: Archipelago of low-lying coral atolls surrounded by extensive reefs.
Climate: Maritime equatorial or tropical.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--I-Kiribati (singular and plural).
Population: 86,000. Age structure--41% under 15; 3% over 65.
Growth rate: 2%.
Ethnic groups: Micronesian 98%.
Religion: Roman Catholic 53%, Kiribati Protestant 39%.
Languages: English (official), Gilbertese/I-Kiribati.
Health: Life expectancy--male 57 yrs., female 63 yrs. Infant mortality rate--55.3/1,000. Work force: Majority engaged in subsistence activities.

Type: Republic
Independence (from UK): July 12, 1979.
Constitution: July 12, 1979.
Branches: Executive--president (head of state and government), 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.

If a scroll bar appears below the following table, swipe the table to move left/right of the dashed line.
Flag: flag of kiribati

GDP: $48.3 million.
GNP (GDP + investment income, fishing license fees and seamen's remittances): $81.2 million.
GNP per capita: $950.
GDP composition by sector: Services 79%, agriculture 14%, industry 7%.
Industry: Types--tourism, copra, fish.
Trade: Exports ($5.9 million)--copra, pet fish, seaweed. Export markets--Australia, U.S. Imports ($41.7 million)--food, manufactured goods. Import sources--Australia, Fiji, Japan, New Zealand.
External debt: $20 million.
Currency: Australian dollar (A$).

Kiribati (pronounced "keer-ih-bahs") consists of 32 atolls and one island scattered over an expanse of ocean equivalent in size to the continental United States. The islands lie roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia in the Micronesian region of the South Pacific. The three main groupings are the Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands, and Line Islands. On January 1, 1995 Kiribati unilaterally moved the International Date Line to include its easternmost islands and make it the same day throughout the country.

Kiribati contains Kiritimati (Christmas Island), the largest coral atoll in the world, and Banaba (Ocean Island), one of the three great phosphate rock islands in the Pacific.

Most of the land is less than two meters above sea level. A 1989 United Nations report identified Kiribati as one of the countries that would completely disappear in the 21st century if steps were not taken to address global climate change. In mid-1999 it was announced that two uninhabited coral reefs had sunk beneath the sea.

Owing to a population growth rate of more than 2% and the overcrowding around the capital, a program of migration was begun in 1989 to move nearly 5,000 inhabitants to outlying atolls, mainly in the Line Islands. A further program of resettlement 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 Polynesian elements to the Micronesian culture, but extensive intermarriage 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, and the resulting upheaval fomented local tribal conflicts and introduced damaging European diseases. In an effort to restore a measure of order, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now 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 to form part of their island defenses. In November 1943, allied forces threw themselves against Japanese positions at Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts, resulting in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific campaign. The battle was a major turning point in the war for the Allies.

Britain began expanding self-government in the islands during the 1960s. In 1975 the Ellice Islands separated from the colony to form the independent state 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. Teburoro Tito has been President since 1994, and was most recently reelected in 1998.

The constitution promulgated at independence on July 12, 1979, establishes Kiribati as a sovereign democratic republic and guarantees the fundamental rights of its citizens.

The unicameral House of Assembly (Maneaba) has 41 members: 39 elected representatives; one appointed member from Banaba, and the Attorney General on an ex officio 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.

After each general election, the new Maneaba nominates three or four of its members to stand as candidates for president (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.

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 and Government--President Teburoro Tito
Vice President--Beniamin Tiinga
Ambassador to the U.S.--none

Kiribati does not have an embassy in the United States. It offers consular services in Hawaii.

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.

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 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.

The most recent parliamentary elections were held in September 1998. New elections will be held no later than September 2002.

Kiribati's per capita GNP of less than $1,000 makes it one of the poorest countries in the world. Phosphates had been profitably exported from Banaban Island since the turn of the century, but the deposits were exhausted in 1979. The economy now depends on foreign assistance and revenue from fishing licenses to finance its needed imports and development budget.

The expiration of phosphate deposits 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--does still exist, and contained more than $350 million in 1999. Prudent management of the Reserve Fund will be 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. Given Kiribati's limited domestic production ability, it must import nearly all of its essential foodstuffs and manufactured items; it depends on these external sources of income for financing.

Fishing fleets from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States pay a licensing fee in order to operate in Kiribati's territorial waters. These licenses produce over $20 million annually, with a surge in 1998 to nearly $30 million when El Nino climatic conditions boosted the local catch. Due to its small size and spread-out nature, however, Kiribati also loses untold millions of income per year from illegal, unlicensed fishing in its exclusive economic zone.

Another $20 million to $25 million of external income takes the form of direct financial transfers. Official development assistance amounts to between $15 million and $20 million per year. The largest donors are Japan, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Remittances from Kiribati workers living abroad provide another $5 million.

Tourism is one of the largest domestic activities. Between 3,000 and 4,000 visitors per year provide $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 every New Year.

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. Other exports include pet fish, shark fins, and seaweed. Kiribati's principal trading partner is Australia.

Kiribati maintains good relations with most countries and has particularly close ties to its Pacific neighbors--Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and China. Kiribati suspended its relations with France in 1995 over that country's decision to renew nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

Kiribati signed a treaty of friendship with the United States in 1979. The U.S. has no consular or diplomatic facilities in the country. Officers of the American Embassy in Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands, are concurrently accredited to Kiribati and make periodic visits.

Kiribati hosted the Thirty-First Pacific Islands Forum in October 2000. The country became a member of the United Nations in 1999.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador (accredited to both the Marshall Islands and Kiribati; resident in Majuro)--Michael J. Senko

The U.S. Embassy responsible for Kiribati is located in Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands. Its location is Lagoon Road, Majuro. Mailing address: P.O. Box 1379, Majuro, MH 96960-1379. Tel: 692-247-4011.

[This is a mobile copy of Kiribati (02/01)]

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