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The Commonwealth



Did you know:

In 2012 the cabinet approved a plan to purchase 6,000 acres of land in Fiji in case rising sea levels force the permanent evacuation of Kiribati citizens. Two years later, Kiribati made its final payment on the purchase of the Fiji land parcel, with Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama confirming that residents of Kiribati will be welcome to relocate to his country if Kiribati becomes uninhabitable.

Former President Sir Ieremia Tabai was in 2010 appointed to the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, which presented its recommendations for reform in the Commonwealth to Commonwealth leaders at CHOGM in Australia in October 2011.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 1979
Population: 102,000 (2013)
GDP: 0.9% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: World ranking 133
Official language: English
Timezone: GMT plus 12–14hrs
Currency: Australian dollar


Area: 811 sq km
Coastline: 1,140km
Capital city: Tarawa
Population density (per sq. km): 124

Kiribati (pronounced ‘Kirabas’) spreads across the central Pacific, intersected by the equator and formerly the International Date Line, with most other Commonwealth Pacific island countries lying to its south. Its 33 islands are scattered across 5.2 million sq km of ocean. There are three groups of islands: 17 Gilbert Islands (including Banaba), eight Line Islands and eight Phoenix Islands. The north/south extent is 2,050 km. Kiritimati (formerly Christmas Island) is the world’s biggest coral atoll (388 sq km). Kiritimati in the east is about 3,780 km from Banaba (formerly Ocean Island) in the west.

Main towns:

The main centre and capital is Tarawa, comprising Bairiki (Tarawa South, pop. 47,900 in 2010), Bonriki (Tarawa South, 4,000) and Buariki (Tarawa North, 3,300). Government offices are in Tarawa South at Betio, Bairiki and Bikenibeu. Other populated areas include Taburao (on the island of Abaiang, 4,300), Temaraia (on Nonouti, 3,000), Butaritari island (2,700) and Utiroa (on Tabiteuea, 2,500).


There are some 670 km of all-weather roads in urban Tarawa and Kiritimati. Causeways and bridges link north and south Tarawa, plus several other islands. Bairiki and Bikenibeu in south Tarawa are connected by causeways. Betio, the port area 3 km west of Bairiki, is connected to Bairiki by a causeway. There are about 3,000 vehicles, nearly 75 per cent of them motor cycles.

The principal port is at Betio Islet, Tarawa. International airports are at Bonriki on Tarawa and at Kiritimati, and all inhabited islands have airports. Air Kiribati, the national airline, operates scheduled services to nearly all the country’s outer islands, linking them with Tarawa.

International relations:

Kiribati is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, Pacific Community, Pacific Islands Forum and United Nations.


Kiribati is composed of coral atolls on a submerged volcanic chain, nowhere rising higher than two metres above sea level, except for Banaba, a coral outcrop, which rises to 80 metres. Most islands have coastal lagoons. Some lagoons are large (up to 80 km long), and bounded to the east by narrow strips of land. There are no hills or streams. The UN’s 1989 report on the ‘greenhouse effect’ listed Kiribati as an endangered country in the event of a rise in sea level during the 21st century.

In February 2005, massive seas breached sea walls, devastating some villages, destroying farmland and contaminating freshwater wells.


Varies from maritime equatorial (central islands) to tropical in the north and south. There is little temperature variation: from an average 29°C in the southern Gilberts to 27°C in the Line Islands, dropping by less than 1°C in the coolest months. Humidity is constant at 70–90 per cent. North-west trade winds blow between March and October. From November to April, there are occasional heavy rains, and strong to gale force winds, though Kiribati is outside the cyclone belt. Rainfall patterns vary considerably from year to year; drought is a constant danger.

In 1997, Kiritimati was devastated by El Niño, which, according to scientists studying the island, brought heavy rainfall, a half-metre rise in sea level and extensive flooding. Some 40 per cent of the coral was killed and the 14 million bird population, reputed to be the world’s richest, deserted the island.


The most significant environmental issues are limited natural freshwater resources, and heavy pollution of the south Tarawa lagoon, due to population growth around the lagoon and traditional practices such as lagoon latrines and open-pit dumping.


Poor soil (composed of coral sand and rock fragments) limits vegetation-types and agricultural potential. Coconuts cover most islands, except Banaba and some islands in the Phoenix and Line groups. Forest covers 15 per cent of the land area and there was no significant loss of forest cover during 1990–2011.


Many varieties of sea birds visit the islands, including terns, shearwaters and skuas.


The present inhabitants are descended mainly from Samoans who migrated to Kiribati at some time between the 11th and 14th centuries. Traces of later contact with other Pacific Islanders and a Chinese influence remain in the population and culture. Social structure was diverse, chiefs ruling in the northern islands and councils of elders having authority in the south.

The islands were sighted by 16th-century Spanish seamen, but settlement was not attempted, and Europeans did not arrive in any numbers until after 1765. Between the late 18th century and 1870 the waters of Kiribati were used by European sperm-whaling ships; deserters from the ships sometimes settled on the islands. Trade in coconut oil began about 1860, followed by trade in copra. By the second half of the 19th century about 9,000 Kiribati people were working overseas, thanks to energetic labour recruitment.

Christian missionaries first arrived in the northern Gilberts in 1857. In 1870 Samoan clergy, sponsored by the London Missionary Society, arrived at Arorae, Tamara, Onotoa and Beru. In 1888 Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in the Gilberts, which are today predominantly Roman Catholic.

In 1892 a British protectorate was proclaimed at Abemama by Captain Davis of HMS Royalist on behalf of Queen Victoria. The headquarters were established at Tarawa, district magistrates were assigned to the islands and a code of law was drawn up. Phosphate-rich Banaba (Ocean Island) was annexed by Britain in 1900. In 1915, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were annexed by a British order in council which came into effect on 12 January 1916.

The Japanese army occupied the Gilbert Islands (1942–43) until driven out by the US army in some of the Pacific War’s fiercest fighting. In 1957 three hydrogen bombs were detonated in the vicinity of Kiritimati, as part of the UK’s atmospheric testing programme.

In 1975 the Ellice Islands seceded to form the separate territory of Tuvalu. Internal self-government was given to the Gilbert Islands, renamed Kiribati, on 1 January 1977. At a conference in 1978 it was agreed that Kiribati, with other islands appended to the territory by the colonial authorities, should become fully independent as a republic. On Independence Day, 12 July 1979, Kiribati became the 41st member of the Commonwealth.

Ieremia Tabai became the first President of Kiribati in July 1979. He was re-elected in April 1982, but the following December his government was defeated in a vote of no confidence. Re-elected President in February 1983, he went on to win the election of May 1987. Prevented by the constitution from standing for a further term, he was succeeded after the 1991 general election by his former Vice-President, Teatao Teannaki.

There were no political parties before September 1985, and candidates continued to stand for election as independent individuals, though loosely structured parties – for example, Teatao Teannaki’s National Progressive Party, Teburoro Tito’s Maneaban Te Mauri, and Boutokaan Te Koaua – emerged thereafter.

In May 1994, President Teannaki’s government lost a vote of no confidence. A general election held in July 1994 brought 18 new members into parliament. The majority of the 39 seats were won by an opposition grouping and in the presidential election that followed in September 1994 Teburoro Tito was elected from a list of four nominations.

In March 1998, among the main recommendations of the first review of the constitution since independence in 1979 was that foreign husbands of I-Kiribati women should have the same automatic rights to Kiribati citizenship as foreign wives of I-Kiribati men.

On 23 and 30 September 1998, elections were held for the House of Assembly. In the first round of voting the government won six seats, and the opposition eight seats. In the second round, the government won a further 14 seats (making 20 in all) and the opposition nine seats (17 in all); the remaining two seats were won by independents. In November 1998, President Tito was re-elected. He defeated opposition members Amberoti Nikora and Harry Tong.


Phosphate mining has made Banaba almost uninhabitable. The inhabitants were moved to the Fijian island of Rabi in the mid-1940s; in 1970 they became citizens of Fiji, but kept the ownership of land on Banaba. In 1981, after ten years of discussion and litigation over phosphate royalties and environmental damage caused by open-cast mining, they accepted A$14.58 million compensation from the British government. The Banabans have special rights of residence and representation in Kiribati.

History of Kiribati

Kiribati: a drowning paradise in the South Pacific

Learn more about Kiribati on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

Kiribati: The Islands Being Destroyed By Climate Change

Kiribati Travel Guide

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

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