U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Kiribati, May 1996
Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Prepared and released by the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs,
Office of Pacific Island Affairs
Official Name: Republic of Kiribati
Area: 719 sq. km. (266 sq. mi.).
Terrain: Archipelago of low-lying coral atolls surrounded by extensive
Climate: Hot and humid, moderated by trade winds.
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
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.
Independence: July 12, 1979, from the United Kingdom; formerly
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 &
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.
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,
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
Principal partners--Australia, Japan, New Zealand, United Kingdom,
Exchange rate (1992): U.S.$0.70= Aus$1.
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).
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
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--
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.
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
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.
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
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
There is little trade between the United States and Kiribati. Peace
Corps volunteers teach and provide technical assistance throughout
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-
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.
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