Republic of Kiribati
Area: 719 sq. km (266 sq. mi.) in 32 atolls and one
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 (2005 est.): 103,092. Age structure--38.9%
under 14; 3.3% over 65. Growth rate: 2.25%.
Ethnic groups: Micronesian 98%.
Religion: Roman Catholic 52%, Kiribati Protestant 40%.
Languages: English (official), Gilbertese/I-Kiribati (de
Health: Life expectancy--male 58.71 yrs., female
64.86 yrs. Infant mortality rate--48.52/1,000.
Work force: Majority engaged in subsistence activities.
Independence (from United Kingdom): 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,
Major political parties: Parties are only very loosely
organized--Maneaban Te Mauri (Protect the Maneaba),
National Progressive Party, Liberal Party.
Economy (all figures in U.S.$)
GDP(2004): $70 million
GNI 2003): $83 million.
GDP per capita(2004): $760.
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, South Korea,
Australia, United States, Thailand, , U.S. Imports--$87.2
million: food, manufactured goods. Import sources--Australia,
Fiji, New Zealand, South Korea, JapanAid per capita
Currency: Australian dollar (A$).
GEOGRAPHY AND PEOPLE
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 2,000 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 1930s 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
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
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. (See the next section
for an explanation of Kiribati's unique presidential
system.) In July 2003, 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 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
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 president 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
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
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 million 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 United Kingdom, 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 million to $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 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
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.
China's tracking station closed shortly thereafter.
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. Embassy Officials
Deputy Chief of Mission--Ted Mann
Political/Economic/Commercial Affairs--Brian J. Siler
Management Officer--Jeffrey Robertson
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.