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Kiribati

[keer-ee-bah-tee, keer-uh-bas]
Kiribati or (kirr-i-bas, or KEE-ree-buhss, ˈkiɾibas in Gilbertese), officially the Republic of Kiribati, is an island nation located in the central tropical Pacific Ocean. It is composed of 32 atolls and one raised coral island dispersed over 3,500,000 square kilometres (1,351,000 square miles) straddling the equator and bordering the International Date Line to the east. The name Kiribati is the local pronunciation of "Gilberts", derived from the main island chain, the Gilbert Islands.

Etymology

Kiribati was named Gilbert Islands after the British Captain Thomas Gilbert, who sighted the islands in 1788. The current name, Kiribati (/'kiribas/), is an adaptation of "Gilberts", from the former European name the "Gilbert Islands".

History

Early history

The area now called Kiribati has been inhabited by Micronesians speaking the same Oceanic language since sometime between 3000 BC and AD 1300. The area was not isolated; invaders from Tonga and Fiji later introduced Polynesian and Melanesian cultural aspects, respectively. Intermarriage tended to blur cultural differences and resulted in a significant degree of cultural homogenisation.

Colonial era

The islands were first sighted by British and American ships in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The main island chain was named the Gilbert Islands in 1820 by a Russian admiral, Adam von Krusenstern, and French captain Louis Duperrey, after a British captain named Thomas Gilbert, who crossed the archipelago in 1788 when sailing from Australia to China.

From the early 19th century, Western whalers, merchant vessels and slave traders visited the islands, introducing diseases and firearms. The first British settlers arrived in 1837. In 1892 the Gilbert Islands consented to become a British protectorate together with the nearby Ellice Islands. They were administered by the Western Pacific High Commission based in Fiji. Together they became the crown colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1916. Kiritimati (Christmas Island) became part of the colony in 1919 and the Phoenix Islands were added in 1937.

Tarawa Atoll and others of the Gilbert group were occupied by Japan during World War II. Tarawa was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in US Marine Corps history. Marines landed in November 1943; the Battle of Tarawa was fought at Kiribati's former capital Betio on Tarawa Atoll.

Some of the islands of Kiribati, especially in the remote Line Islands, were formerly used by the United States and Great Britain for nuclear testing including hydrogen bombs in the late 1960s.

Independence to present day

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands gained self-rule in 1971, and were separated in 1975 and granted internal self-government by Britain. In 1978 the Ellice Islands became the independent nation of Tuvalu. The Gilbert Islands became independent as Kiribati on July 12, 1979. Although the indigenous Gilbertese language name for the Gilbert Islands proper is "Tungaru", the new state chose the name "Kiribati", the Gilbertese rendition of "Gilberts", as an equivalent of the former colony to acknowledge the inclusion of Banaba, the Line Islands, and the Phoenix Islands, which were never considered part of the Gilberts chain. In the Treaty of Tarawa, signed shortly after independence and ratified in 1983, the United States relinquished all claims to the sparsely inhabited Phoenix Islands and those of the Line Islands that are part of Kiribati territory.

Overcrowding has been a problem. In 1988 it was announced that 4,700 residents of the main island group would be resettled onto less-populated islands. Teburoro Tito was elected president in 1994. Kiribati's 1995 act of moving the international date line far to the east to encompass Kiribati's Line Islands group, so that it would no longer be divided by the date line, courted controversy. The move, which fulfilled one of President Tito's campaign promises, was intended to allow businesses all across the expansive nation to keep the same business week. This also enabled Kiribati to become the first country to see the dawn of the third millennium, an event of significance for tourism. Tito was reelected in 1998. Kiribati gained UN membership in 1999.

In 2002 Kiribati passed a controversial law enabling the government to shut down newspapers. The legislation followed the launching of Kiribati's first successful nongovernment-run newspaper. President Tito was reelected in 2003, but was removed from office in March 2003 by a no-confidence vote and replaced by a Council of State. Anote Tong of the opposition party Boutokaan Te Koaua was elected to succeed Tito in July 2003. He was re-elected in 2007.

In the summer of 2008, the Kiribati officials asked Australia and New Zealand to accept Kiribati citizens as permanent refugees. Kiribati is expected to be first country which land territory disappears due to global climate change. In June 2008, the Kiribati president Anote Tong said that the country has reached "the point of no return.

Politics

The Kiribati Constitution, promulgated July 12, 1979, provides for free and open elections. The executive branch consists of a president (te Beretitenti), a vice president and a cabinet (the president is also chief of the cabinet and has to be MP). Under the constitution, the president, nominated from among the elected legislators, is limited to three 4-year terms. The cabinet is composed of the president, vice president and 10 ministers (appointed by the president) who are members of the House of Assembly.

The legislative branch is the unicameral Maneaba Ni Maungatabu (House of Assembly). It has elected members, including by constitutional mandate a representative of the Banaban people in Fiji (Rabi Island, former Ocean Islanders), in addition to the attorney general, who serves as an ex-officio member. Legislators serve for a four-year term.

The constitutional provisions governing administration 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 (in Betio) and the Court of Appeal. The president appoints the presiding judges.

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 generally are free from central government controls.

Kiribati has formal political parties but their organisation is quite informal. Ad hoc opposition groups tend to coalesce around specific issues. Today the only recognisable parties are the Maneaban te Mauri Party and the National Progressive Party. There is universal suffrage at age 18.

Island groups

Kiribati was formally divided into districts until its independence. The country now is divided into three island groups which have no administrative function, including a group which unites the Line Islands and the Phoenix Islands (ministry at London, Christmas). Each inhabited island has its own council (three councils on Tarawa: Betio, South-Tarawa, North-Tarawa; two councils on Tabiteuea). The original districts used to be:

The island groups include:

Four of the former districts (including Tarawa) lie in the Gilbert Islands, where most of the country's population lives. Five of the Line Islands are inhabited (Malden Island, Starbuck Island, Caroline Island, Vostok Island and Flint Island). The Phoenix Islands are uninhabited except for Kanton, and have no representation. Banaba itself is sparsely inhabited now. There is also a non-elected representative of the Banabans on Rabi Island in the nation of Fiji. Each of the 21 inhabited islands has a local council that takes care of the daily affairs. Tarawa Atoll has three councils: Betio Town Council, Te Inainano Urban Council (for the rest of South Tarawa) and Eutan Tarawa Council (for North Tarawa).

Foreign relations

General relations

Kiribati was admitted as the 186th member of the United Nations in September 1999.

Regional relations

Kiribati maintains cordial relations with most countries and has close relations with its Pacific neighbours, Japan, Australia and New Zealand; the latter three provide the majority of the country's foreign aid. Taiwan and Japan also have specified-period licences to fish in Kiribati's waters. In November 1999 it was announced that Japan's National Space Development Agency planned to lease land on Kiritimati (Christmas Island) for 20 years, on which to build a spaceport. The agreement stipulated that Japan was to pay US$840,000 per year and would also pay for any damage to roads and the environment. A Japanese-built downrange tracking station operates on Kiritimati and an abandoned airfield on the island was designated as the landing strip for a proposed reusable unmanned space shuttle called HOPE-X. HOPE-X, however, was eventually canceled by Japan in 2003.

United States relations

The Peace Corps, an independent United States federal agency, has announced plans to pull out of Kiribati in November 2008 after 35 years of working in the country. Michael Koffman, the Peace Corps Country Director for Kiribati, cited the frequently cancelled and erratic domestic air service in the country as the main reason why the Peace Corps was leaving Kiribati. Koffman stated that the frequently disrupted air links with outer islands had stopped the PCVs in the country from working effectively with I-Kiribati residents and posed a health threat to volunteers in the event of a medical emergency. He said that the Peace Corps would consider returning to Kiribati in the future if normal air domestic service returns to the country. Since the Peace Corps was established in Kiribati, more than 500 Americans have served in the country in the fields of education, health and local government. There are approximately 50 volunteers in Kiribati as of July 2008.

Geography

Kiribati consists of about 32 atolls and one island (Banaba), with at least three in each hemisphere. The groups of islands are:

  • Banaba: an isolated island between Nauru and the Gilbert Islands
  • Gilbert Islands: 16 atolls located some 930 miles (1,500 km) north of Fiji
  • Phoenix Islands: 8 atolls and coral islands located some 1,100 miles (1,800 km) southeast of the Gilberts
  • Line Islands: 8 atolls and one reef, located about 2,050 miles (3,300 km) east of the Gilberts

Banaba (or Ocean Island) is a raised-coral island which was once a rich source of phosphates, but it was mostly mined out before independence. The rest of the land in Kiribati consists of the sand and reef rock islets of atolls or coral islands which rise but a few metres (at most 6.5 feet) above sea level. The soil is thin and calcareous, making agriculture very difficult. Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Line Islands is the world's largest atoll. Based on a 1995 realignment of the International Date Line, Kiribati is now the easternmost country in the world, and was the first country to enter into the year 2000 at Caroline Island, which, not coincidentally, has been renamed Millennium Island.

According to the South Pacific Regional Environment Program, two small uninhabited Kiribati islets, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, disappeared underwater in 1999. The islet of Tepuka Savilivili (Tuvalu; not a Gilbertese name) no longer has any coconut trees due to salination. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels will rise by about half a metre (20 in) by 2100 due to global warming and a further rise would be inevitable. It is thus likely that within a century the nation's arable land will become subject to increased soil salination and will be largely submerged.

Economy

Kiribati has few natural resources. Commercially viable phosphate deposits were exhausted at the time of independence. Copra and fish now represent the bulk of production and exports. Tourism provides more than one-fifth of GDP.

Foreign financial aid, largely from the United Kingdom and Japan, is a critical supplement, equal in recent years to 25% to 50% of GDP. Agriculture accounts for 12.4% of GDP and 71% of labour; industry 0.9% of GDP and 1.9% of labour; trade 18.5% of GDP and 4.1% of labour; commercial trade 5.7% of GDP and 1.4% of labour; and service industries 5.7% of GDP and 1.4% of labour. The main export and import countries are Australia, USA, France, Japan, Hong Kong and Germany.

In 1956 Kiribati established a sovereign wealth fund to act as a store of wealth for the country's earnings from phosphate mining. In 2008 the Revenue Equalization Reserve Fund was valued at US$ 400 million.

Balance of payments

Kiribati's narrow export base and its enormous need for imports contribute to the country’s large deficit in the merchandise trade balance. However, the country has several sources of external income, including fishing licence fees, investment income, seamen’s remittances and external grants. These inflows are usually more than sufficient to finance the large trade deficit. As a result, Kiribati’s current account balance has been in surplus most of the time in the past decade. International reserves have remained at around US$300 million since 2001.

Demographics

The native people of Kiribati are called I-Kiribati. The word Kiribati is the local spelling of the word Gilbert and the original name of this British colony was the Gilbert Islands. The indigenous format of the name was adopted when independence was gained in 1979.

Ethnically, the I-Kiribati are Micronesians. Recent archaeological evidence indicates that Austronesians originally settled the islands thousands of years ago. Around the 14th century, Fijians and Tongans invaded the islands, thus complicating the ethnic range; people of Polynesian ancestry further diversified the ethnic typologies. Intermarriage among all ancestral groups, however, has led to a population reasonably homogeneous in appearance and traditions.

The people of Kiribati speak a Micronesian dialect called "Gilbertese". Although English is the official language, it is not used very often outside the island capital of Tarawa. It is more likely that English is mixed in its use with Gilbertese. Older generations of I-Kiribati tend to use more complicated versions of the language.

Christianity is the major religion, having been introduced by missionaries in the 19th century. The population is predominantly Roman Catholic, although a substantial portion of the population is Congregationalist Protestant. Many other Protestant denominations, including more evangelical types, are also represented. The Bahá'í religion also exists in Kiribati, along with Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the latter numbering 11,511 at the end of 2005.

Human rights

Kiribati is a constitutional multiparty republic. The government of Kiribati works to respect the civil and human rights of its citizens. There are only a few areas in which problems remain, but the law provides effective means of addressing individual complaints . Some limits on the freedoms of press and speech, and a few incidences of extrajudicial communal justice, have been reported.

Human development

The population of Kiribati has a life expectancy at birth of 60 years (57 for males, and 63 for females) and an infant mortality rate of 54 deaths per 1,000 live births. The people of Kiribati 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. Frequent droughts hinder reliable large-scale agriculture, so the islanders have largely turned to the sea for livelihood and subsistence. Most are outrigger sailors and fishers. Copra plantations serve as a second source of employment. In recent years, large numbers of citizens have moved to the more urban island capital of Tarawa. To increase opportunities for the islanders, the government has placed greater emphasis on education. Primary education is free and compulsory for the first six years, now being extended to nine 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. To date, most choosing to do the latter have gone to Fiji, and those wishing to complete medical training have been sent to Cuba.

Culture

Songs (te anene) and above all dances (te mwaie) are held in high regard.

Music

Kiribati folk music is generally based around chanting or other forms of vocalizing, accompanied by body percussion. Public performances in modern Kiribati are generally performed by a seated chorus, accompanied by a guitar. However, during formal performances of the standing dance (Te Kaimatoa) or the hip dance (Te Buki) a wooden box is used as a percussion instrument. This box is constructed so as to give a hollow and reverberating tone when struck simultaneously by a chorus of men sitting around it. Traditional songs are often love-themed, but there are also competitive, religious, children's, patriotic, war and wedding songs . There are also stick dances (which accompany legends and semi-historical stories . These stick dances or 'tirere' (pronounced seerere) are only performed during major festivals.

Dance

The uniqueness of Kiribati when compared with other forms of Pacific island dance is its emphasis on the outstretched arms of the dancer and the sudden birdlike movement of the head. The Frigate bird (Fregata minor) on the Kiribati flag refers to this bird-like style of Kiribati dancing. Most dances are in the standing or sitting position with movement limited and staggered. Smiling whilst dancing is generally considered vulgar within the context of Kiribati dancing. This is due to its origin of not being solely as a form of entertainment but as a form of storytelling and a display of the skill, beauty and endurance of the dancer.

Outside perspectives

Arthur Grimble wrote about his time working in the British colonial service in Kiribati (then the Gilbert Islands) in the early 20th century in two popular books A Pattern of Islands (1952) and Return to the Islands (1957). He also undertook academic studies of Gilbertese culture.

J. Maarten Troost's more recent autobiographical experiences on the Tarawa Atoll are documented in his book The Sex Lives of Cannibals (2004).

Miscellaneous topics

References

  • (1997) Pancorbo, Luis: "Kiribati existe" Pp. 29-43; y "De Abemama a Madrid" Pp.43-54 en "Son los mares del Sur". Maeva, Madrid. ISBN 84-86478-60-X

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