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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
History of Kiribati
Kiribati: a drowning
paradise in the South Pacific
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