U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Vanuatu, June 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 Vanuatu
Area: Land--12,200 sq. km. (4,707 sq. mi.), includes more than 80
islands. Comparative area-- about the size of Connecticut.
Cities: Capital--Port Vila (on the island of Efate), pop. 30,000 (1993).
Other towns--Luganville (on the island of Espiritu Santo, also known
Terrain: Mostly mountains of volcanic origin, narrow coastal plains.
Nationality: Noun and adjective: ni-Vanuatu.
Population (1995 est.): About 168,400.
Annual growth rate (1995 est.): 2.7%.
Ethnic groups: 94% ni-Vanuatu; 4% European; 2% other Pacific
Religion: Predominantly Christian.
Languages: Bislama (Pidgin), English, French, over 100 tribal
Education: Years compulsory--6 primary; enrollment in primary is
94% with rapid fall-off to less than 20% in secondary and upper
secondary. Adult Literacy Rate (1991): 70%
Health: Infant mortality rate (1994)--69/1,000. Life expectancy (1994)-
Work force (66,290, 1989): Agriculture--75%
Manufacturing--1.3% Construction--2% Trade, Restaurants, Hotels--
4.1% Transport and Communication--1.6% Financial Services--1%
Community, Social and Personal Services--11.9%
Type: Parliamentary democracy.
Independence: July 30, 1980.
Constitution: July 30,1980.
Branches: Executive--president (head of state), prime minister. .(head
of government). Legislative--unicameral (50-member parliament).
Administrative subdivisions: 6 administrative districts.
Political parties: Vanua'aku Pati, Union of Moderate Parties,
.Melanesian Progressive Party, National United Party, People's
Democratic Party, Tan Union Party, Nagriamel Party, Friend
Suffrage: Universal over 18.
National holiday: July 30
Flag: A yellow Y with a black border horizontally divides the flag into
three parts. The open end is closest to the staff. Above this division is
red, below is forest green. The triangle remaining is black with a
yellow pig tusk curved around crossed palm fronds.
GDP (1993): $199 million.
Per capita income (1993): $1,243.
Real growth rate (1993): 3.8%.
Avg. inflation rate (1993): 5.4%.
Natural resources: Forests, agricultural land, marine resources.
Agriculture: Products--copra, cocoa, coffee, cattle, timber.
Industry: Types--copra production, beef processing, sawmilling,
tourism, financial services.
Trade (1994): Exports--$20.7 million: copra 37%, beef and veal 19%,
cocoa 9%, shells 4%, timber 13%, other 18%. Major markets--EEC
33%, Japan 24%, Bangladesh 16%, Australia 8%, New Caledonia 6%,
South Korea 3%. Imports--$85.1 million: machines and transport
equipment 31%, food and animals 16%,
basic manufactures 20%, misc. manufactured goods 12%, mineral fuels
7%, chemicals 7%, other 7%. Major suppliers--Australia 38%, New
Zealand 13%, Japan 10%, France 7%, New Caledonia 6%,
Hong Kong 6%, Fiji 5%.
Official exchange rate (Sep. 1995): 115 vatu=US $1.
Economic aid received (1994): $ 12.9 million (bilateral $9.7 million,
multilateral $3.2 million)
Membership in International Organizations
UN and its specialized and related agencies, including the World Bank
and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); South Pacific
Commission; South Pacific Forum; Non-Aligned Movement;
Commonwealth, Group of 77; Asian Development Bank (ADB).
Vanuatu is a 'Y' shaped archipelago that comprises 80 islands. It is
located 2,172 kilometers (1,303 mi.) northeast of Sydney and 5,750
kilometers (3,450 mi.) southwest of Honolulu. Fiji lies to the east, New
Caledonia to the south, and the Solomon Islands to the northwest, all
within the area of the South Pacific called Melanesia.
The two largest islands, Espiritu Santo (or Santo) and Malakula,
account for nearly one-half of the total land area. They are volcanic,
with sharp mountain peaks, plateaus, and lowlands. The last volcanic
eruption was in 1945. The larger islands of the remaining half also are
volcanic but are overlaid with limestone formations; the smaller ones
are coral and limestone. Rainfall averages about 2,360 millimeters (94
in.) per year but can be as high as 4,000 millimeters (160 in.) in the
The population of Vanuatu is 94% indigenous Melanesian. About
30,000 live in the capital, Port Vila. Another 9,600 live in Luganville
(or Santo Town) on Espiritu Santo. The remainder live in rural areas.
Approximately 2,000 ni-Vanuatu live and work in New Caledonia.
Although local pidgin, called Bislama, is the national language, English
and French also are official languages. Indigenous Melanesians speak
105 local languages.
Christianity has had a profound influence on ni-Vanuatu society, and
an estimated 87% of the population is affiliated with a Christian
denomination. The majority is Protestant; the Anglican Church, the
Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church, and the Seventh-day
Adventist Church all have numerous adherents.
The prehistory of Vanuatu is obscure; archaeological evidence supports
the commonly held theory that peoples speaking Austronesian
languages first came to the islands some 4,000 years ago. Potsherds
have been found dating back to 1300-1100 B.C.
The first island in the Vanuatu group discovered by Europeans was
Espiritu Santo, when in 1606 the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Fernandez
De Quiros, spied what he thought was a southern continent. Europeans
did not return until 1768, when Louis Antoine de Bougainville
rediscovered the islands. In 1774, Captain Cook named the islands the
New Hebrides, a name that lasted until independence.
In 1825, trader Peter Dillon's discovery of sandalwood on the island of
Erromango began a rush that ended in 1830 after a clash between
immigrant Polynesian workers and indigenous Melanesians. During the
1860's, planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa
Islands, in need of laborers, encouraged a long-term indentured labor
trade called "blackbirding." At the height of the labor trade, more than
one-half the adult male population of several of the Islands worked
It was at this time that missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant
arrived on the islands. Settlers also came, looking for land on which to
establish cotton plantations. When international cotton prices collapsed,
they switched to coffee, cocoa, bananas, and, most successfully,
coconuts. Initially, British subjects from Australia made up the
majority, but the establishment of the Caledonian Company of the New
Hebrides in 1882 soon tipped the balance in favor of French subjects.
By the turn of the century, the French outnumbered the British two to
The jumbling of French and British interests in the Islands brought
petitions for one or another of the two powers to annex the territory. In
1906, however, France and the United Kingdom agreed to administer
the islands jointly. Called the British-French Condominium, it was a
unique form of government, with separate governmental systems that
came together only in a joint court. Melanesians were barred from
acquiring the citizenship of either power.
Challenges to this form of Government began in the early 1940s. The
arrival of Americans during World War II, with their informal
demeanor and relative wealth, was instrumental in the rise of
nationalism in the islands. The belief in a mythical messianic figure
named John Frum was the basis for an indigenous cargo cult (a
movement attempting to obtain industrial goods through magic)
promising Melanesian deliverance.
The first political party was established in the early 1970s and
originally was called the New Hebrides National Party. One of the
founders was Father Walter Lini, who later became Prime Minister.
Renamed the Vanua'aku Pati in 1974, the party pushed for
independence; in 1980, the Republic of Vanuatu was created.
The Constitution created a republican political system headed by a
president who has ceremonial powers only. Elected by a two-thirds
majority in an electoral college consisting of members of Parliament
and the presidents of Regional Councils; the President serves a five-
year term. The President may be removed by the electoral college for
gross misconduct or incapacity. The head of Government is the prime
minister, who is elected by a majority vote of a three-fourths quorum of
the Parliament. The Prime Minister in turn appoints the Council of
Ministers, whose number may not exceed one-fourth of the number of
parliamentary representatives. The Prime Minister and the Council of
Ministers constitute the executive government.
Parliament is a 50-member unicameral house elected by all persons
over 18 years old. Parliament normally sits for a four-year term unless
dissolved by majority vote of a three-fourths quorum or a directive
from the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. The National
Council of Chiefs, called the Malvatu Mauri and elected by district
councils of chiefs, advises the government on all matters concerning
ni-Vanuatu culture and language.
The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and up to three other
judges. Two or more members of this court may constitute a Court of
Appeal. Magistrate courts handle most routine legal matters. The legal
system is based on British law. The constitution also provides for the
establishment of village or island courts presided over by chiefs to deal
with questions of customary law.
Principal Government Officials
President--Jean Marie Leye Lenelcau Manatawai
Prime Minister--Maxime Carlot Korman
Deputy Prime Minister--Donal Kalpokas
Vanuatu does not have an embassy in Washington. Its Mission to
the United Nations is located at 866 U.N. Plaza, 4th Floor,
Room 41, First Avenue and 48th Street, New York, NY 10017.
Vanuatu Maritime Services, which provides information on ship
registration in Vanuatu, is located at 120 Broadway, Suite
1743, New York, NY 10271.
Government and society in Vanuatu tend to divide along linguistic--
French and English--lines. Historically English-speaking politicians
such as Walter Lini, Donald Kalpokas and other leaders of the
Vanua'aku Pati favored early independence, whereas French-speaking
political leaders favored continuing association with the colonial
administrators, particularly France.
One the eve of independence in 1980, Jimmy Stevens' Nagriamel, in
alliance with private French interests, declared the island of Espiritu
Santo independent of the new government. After negotiations failed,
the U.K. and French colonial authorities dispatched a small joint
military force which proved ineffective. Following independence,
Vanuatu requested assistance from Papua New Guinea, whose forces,
transported by Australian military aircraft, restored order on Santo.
From then until late 1991, the Vanua'aku Pati (VP) and its
predominantly English-speaking leadership controlled the Vanuatu
Government, although an internal power struggle resulted in Donald
Kalpokas taking over as Prime Minister from Walter Lini in 1991.
In December 1991, Maxime Carlot Korman, leader of the Francophone
Union of Moderate Parties, was elected Vanuatu's first Francophone
prime minister. He formed a coalition government with Walter Lini's
breakaway VP faction, now named National United Party (NUP).
Carlot Korman survived an opposition vote of no confidence in
A major issue then, as now, is sustainable forestry. Carlot Korman
suspended all licenses held by logging companies on the islands of
Erromango and Santo. His government intended to renegotiate some
licenses and cancel others as part of a strategy to limit the
unsustainable logging of Vanuatu's forests. In 1993 and continuing into
1994, Carlot Korman's government was hit by a strike of public-sector
employees, later supported by the Teachers Union. Many strikers lost
their jobs. Few qualified replacements were found. Parliament
instituted a program of "decentralization" in 1994 to improve the
delivery of services to remote areas. The program restructured the
previous eleven administrative districts into six districts.
Following parliamentary elections on November 30, 1995, Carlot
Korman was succeeded by Serge Vohor, a dissident UMP leader who
formed a coalition with Lini's NUP. Vohor subsequently resigned and
Carlot Korman won the prime ministership back in a February 1996
parliamentary vote with the support of MP's from his faction of the
UMP and the Anglophone Unity Front (UF). The UF is a coalition of
the VP and several smaller Anglophone parties headed by Donald
Kalpokas, who was appointed Deputy Prime Minister.
Government control over most media and occasionally strong pressures
on the one independent newspaper, together with discrimination and
violence against women, remain the major human rights problems.
Vanuatu's economy is primarily agricultural; 80% of the population is
engaged in agricultural activities that range from subsistence farming
to smallholder farming of coconuts and other cash crops. Copra is by
far the most important cash crop (making up over 35% of the country's
exports), followed by timber, beef, and cocoa. In addition, the
government has maintained Vanuatu's pre-independence status as a tax
haven and international financial center. About 2,300 registered
institutions offer a wide range of offshore banking, investment, legal,
accounting, and insurance and trust-company services. Vanuatu has
also opened an international shipping register in New York City.
Although the gross domestic product (GDP) dropped by 1% in 1987
due to the effects of a cyclone, the economy grew about 5% a year in
1989-91. A series of cyclones in early 1992 adversely affected export
crops and tourism, and growth in 1992 was negligible. Another cyclone
in early 1993 caused a further setback, but improved agriculture
production later in the year, together with better export performance
(primarily beef) and increased tourist arrivals, resulted in growth of
almost 4% for the year. Copra, cocoa and beef account for over 60% of
Vanuatu's total exports by value and agriculture accounts for
approximately 20% of GDP. Manufacturing is Vanuatu's fastest-
growing sector, having more than doubled from 3% to 7.3% of GDP
between 1983 and 1990. Tourism is the most important source of
foreign exchange of Vanuatu and expanded to contribute 25% of GDP
as recently as 1990. That contribution declined to 16-17% in 1992-93.
Government consumption accounted for about 26% of GDP in 1990
and forestry for 1%.
Vanuatu is a small country, with few commodities produced for export.
The result is a chronic trade deficit. Seventy-five percent of its exports
are agricultural. In 1994, imports exceeded exports by a ration of over
4 to 1. In order of value, the leading exports in 1994 were copra, beef
and veal, cocoa, timber and shells.
Vanuatu's largest export is copra, which had an export value of more
than $7 million in 1994. Copra is a volatile commodity with widely
fluctuating prices. Moreover, Vanuatu's copra is of poor quality. The
government has attempted to diversify the economy. However, the
value of exported copra continues to exceed the sum of the two next
most important export commodities, beef and timber.
Vanuatu claims an exclusive economic zone of 680,000 square
kilometers and possesses substantial marine resources. Currently only a
limited number of ni-Vanuatu are involved in fishing, while foreign
fleets exploit this potential.
Vanuatu is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. The government
simultaneously established diplomatic relations with the United States
and the former Soviet Union in July 1986.
Vanuatu maintains relations with more than 65 countries, including
Russia, the People's Republic of China, Cuba, and Vietnam. However,
only Australia, the United Kingdom, France, New Zealand, the
People's Republic of China, and the European Community maintain
embassies, high commissions, or missions in Port Vila.
The government's main concern has been to bolster the economy. In
keeping with its need for financial assistance, Vanuatu has joined the
Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the International Monetary
Fund, and the Agence de Cooperation Culturelle et Technique.
The government encourages private enterprise, foreign investment, and
producer cooperatives. Like other developing countries, Vanuatu is
particularly interested in enterprises that add value to local primary
products and that provide employment. In less lucrative sectors, the
government sets up its own production companies or enters joint
ventures with foreign investors.
Since 1980, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, and New Zealand
have provided the bulk of Vanuatu's development aid. A number of
other countries, including Japan, Canada, Germany, and various
multilateral organizations, such as the Economic and Social Council for
Asia and the Pacific, the U.N. Development Program, the Asian
Development Bank, the European Economic Community, and the
Commonwealth Development Corporation also provide developmental
aid. The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United
Kingdom, and Japan also send volunteers.
Vanuatu retains strong economic and cultural ties to Australia, New
Zealand, the United Kingdom, and France. Australia has provided the
bulk of Vanuatu's military assistance, training its paramilitary Mobile
Force and also providing patrol boats to patrol Vanuatu's waters.
The United States and Vanuatu established diplomatic relations in
Between 1977 and 1987, Vanuatu received just under $3 million from
the United States Agency for International Development (USAID),
including projects focusing on assisting the transition to indigenous
plantation management. In June 1994, the regional USAID office
located in Suva, Fiji was closed due to U.S. government budgetary
cutbacks. However, the United States remains a major financial
contributor to international and regional organizations that assist
Vanuatu, including the World Bank, UNICEF, WHO and the U.N.
Fund for Population Activities.
In 1989, the United States concluded a Peace Corps agreement with
Vanuatu. The Peace Corps has met with a warm welcome there and
currently has about 20 volunteers in-country. Units of the United States
Army first participated in training exercises with the Vanuatu Mobile
Force in September 1994 on the island of Efate and the two nations
now hold annual bilateral military exercises.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--currently vacant (resident in Port Moresby, Papua New
The mailing address of the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea is P.O.
Box 1492, Port Moresby (Tel: 675-321-1455; fax: 675-321-3423).
Customs: Passports are required, but visas are not required for stays up
to 30 days. Inquire at the British Embassy or nearest consulate for
Climate and clothing: Lightweight casual clothing is worn year round.
Cyclone season is January through April.
Telecommunications: There are two AM radio stations and 3,000
telephones. There is one satellite ground station--Pacific Ocean
Intelsaat. Vanuatu is 11 hours ahead of Greenwich mean time (12
during daylight savings time).
Transportation: Vanuatu has 1,027 kilometers (616 mi.) of highways
and three minor ports (Port Vila, Luganville, Palikoulo). Visitors
sailing to any of the islands must obtain permission in Port Vila. There
are flights scheduled from New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea,
Solomon Islands and Singapore. Timetables change frequently; check
with a travel agent for the most current flights.
These titles are provided as a general indication of the material
published on this country. The Department of State does not endorse
Beasant, John. The Santo Rebellion: An Imperial Reckoning.
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984.
Oceania, A Regional Study. Washington, D.C.: The American
University, 1984. 2d ed.
Trumbull, Robert. Tin Roofs and Palm Trees. Canberra: Australian
National University Press, 1977.
Worsley Peter. The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of 'Cargo' Cults in
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