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Background Notes: Kiribati, May 1996

Released by the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
U.S. Department of State

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Official Name:  Republic of Kiribati

PROFILE

Geography

Area:  719 sq. km. (266 sq. mi.).
Capital:  Tarawa.
Terrain:  Archipelago of low-lying coral atolls surrounded by extensive 
reefs.
Climate:  Hot and humid, moderated by trade winds.

People

Nationality:  I'Kiribati
Population (1995):  77,852; Tarawa (1995):  32,356.
Annual growth rate (1995):  1.45%
Ethnic groups:  Predominantly Micronesian, with some Polynesian.
Religions:  54% Roman Catholic, 30% Protestant (Congregational), 
some Seventh-day Adventist, Baha'i, Latter-day Saints and Church of 
God.
Languages:  English (official), I-Kiribati.
Education (1985):  Compulsory through age 11.  Literacy--90%.
Health (1990):  Infant mortality rate--62/1,000.  Life expectancy--55 
yrs. male, 60 yrs. female.
Work force:  7,000.

Government

Type:  Republic.
Independence:  July 12, 1979, from the United Kingdom; formerly 
Gilbert Islands.
Constitution:  July 12, 1979.
Branches:  Executive--President, Vice President, Cabinet. Legislative--
unicameral house of assembly (Maneaba Ni Maungatabu). Judicial--
court of appeal, high court.
Administrative divisions:  Two units--Gilbert Islands, Line Islands & 
Phoenix Islands.
Political parties:  National Progressive Party; Manehan re Mauri Party.
Suffrage:  Universal at 18.
Flag:  Upper half red, with a yellow frigate bird flying over a yellow 
rising sun; lower half blue with three wavy bands.

Economy

GNP (1995 est.):  $36.8 million.
Per capita GDP (1995 est.):  $425 - $600.
Natural resources:  Fish and copra.
Agriculture:  30% of GDP (including fishing); copra and fish make up 
74% of exports; subsistence farming predominates; food crops--taro, 
coconuts, bananas, pandanus, papayas, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, 
vegetables.
Industry:  Fishing, handicrafts.
Trade (est.): Exports--$7 million:  fish 11%, copra 63%, seaweed 4%. 
Principal partners--EU, Marshall Islands, U.S., American Samoa. 
Imports (1994 est.)--A$36.1 million:  foodstuffs, fuel, transportation 
equipment.
Principal partners--Australia, Japan, New Zealand, United Kingdom, 
U.S.
Exchange rate  (1992):  U.S.$0.70= Aus$1.

PEOPLE

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).

HISTORY 

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.

GOVERNMENT 

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.

Principal Government Officials 

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

POLITICAL CONDITIONS 

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.

ECONOMY 

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.

FOREIGN RELATIONS

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.

U.S.-KIRIBATI RELATIONS

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.

Principal U.S. Officials

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).

TRAVEL NOTES

Customs:  A passport and visa are required for entry and exit. In 
addition, travelers must have a ticket to leave with confirmed onward 
reservations and necessary documentation to depart to a third country.

Climate and clothing:  Temperatures remain constant at 80 degrees F.

Modest light-weight casual clothing, preferably cotton, is 
recommended.  During the winter months, westerly gales bring rain 
and sticky discomfort.

Health:  Drink only bottled or boiled water.  Cholera and yellow-fever 
inoculations are required.

[end of document]

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