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A-Z Around the World: Kiribati


Welcome Back to another installment of A-Z Around the World. This time we are covering Kiribati. Enjoy !!!

Kiribati, officially the Republic of Kiribati, is a sovereign state in Micronesia in the central Pacific Ocean. The permanent population is just over 110,000 (2015), more than half of whom live on Tarawa Atoll. The state comprises 32 atolls and reef islands and one raised coral island, Banaba. They have a total land area of 800 square kilometres (310 sq. mi) and are dispersed over 3.5 million square kilometres (1.3 million square miles). Their spread straddles both the equator and the 180th meridian, although the International Date Line goes round Kiribati and swings far to the east, almost reaching the 150°W meridian. This brings the Line Islands into the same day as the Kiribati Islands. Kiribati's easternmost islands, the southern Line Islands, south of Hawaii, have the most advanced time on Earth: UTC+14 hours.

Kiribati became independent from the United Kingdom in 1979. The capital, South Tarawa, which is now the most populated area, consists of a number of islets, connected by a series of causeways. These comprise about half the area of Tarawa Atoll.

Kiribati is a member of the Pacific Community (SPC), Commonwealth of Nations, the IMF, and the World Bank, and became a full member of the United Nations in 1999.

Etymology

The name Kiribati was adopted at independence. It is the local enunciation of Gilberts. This name derives from the main archipelago that forms the nation. It was named the Gilbert Islands after the British explorer Thomas Gilbert. He sighted many of the islands in 1788 while mapping out the Outer Passage route from Port Jackson to Canton.

The Kiribati archipelago was named Île’s Gilbert (Gilbert Islands in English), in about 1820, by Russian admiral Adam von Krusenstern and French captain Louis Duperrey. Both their maps, published in 1820, were written in French. In English, the archipelago was often referred to as the Kingsmill’s in the 19th century, although the name Gilbert Islands was used increasingly, including in the Western Pacific Order in Council of 1877.

The name Gilbert was incorporated into the name of the entire Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony from 1916, and was retained after the Ellice Islands became the separate nation of Tuvalu in 1976. The spelling of Gilberts in the Gilbertese language as Kiribati may be found in books in Gilbertese prepared by missionaries and others (see e.g. Hawaiian Board of Missionaries, 1895).

It is often suggested that the indigenous name for the Gilbert Islands proper is Tungaru. However, the name Kiribati was chosen as the name of the new independent nation by local consensus, on such grounds that it was modern, and to acknowledge the inclusion of islands (e.g. the Phoenix Group and Line Islands), which were never considered part of the Tungaru (or Gilberts) chain.

The pronunciation differs: Kiribas is the official pronunciation as ti in the Gilbertese language makes an s sound.

History

Early history

The area now called Kiribati has been inhabited by Micronesian's speaking the same Oceanic language since sometime between 3000 BC and AD 1300. The area was not isolated; invaders from Samoa, 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 homogenization.

Colonial Era

Chance visits by European ships occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries, as these ships attempted circumnavigations of the world or sought sailing routes from the south to north Pacific Ocean. A passing trade, whaling the On-The-Line grounds, and labour ships associated with black-birding visited the islands in large numbers during the 19th century with social, economic, political, religious and cultural consequences.

The passing trade gave rise to European, Chinese, Samoan and other residents from the 1830s: they included beachcombers, castaways, traders and missionaries. In 1892 local authorities (an uea, a chief from the Gilbert Group, and atun te boti or head of a clan) on each of the Gilbert Islands agreed to Captain Davis of the Royal Navy declaring them part of a British protectorate with the nearby Ellice Islands. They were administered by a resident commissioner based in Butaritari (1893–95), Tarawa (1896–1908) and Banaba (1908–1941), who was under the Western Pacific High Commission based in Fiji. Banaba, known to Europeans as Ocean Island, was added to the protectorate in 1900.

The conduct of W. Telfer Campbell, the resident commissioner of the Gilberts of 1896 to 1908, was criticized as to his legislative, judicial and administrative management (including allegations of forced labour exacted from islanders) and became the subject of the 1909 report by Arthur Mahaffy. In 1913 an anonymous correspondent to the New Age journal described the mis-administration of W. Telfer Campbell and questioned the partiality of Arthur Mahaffy as he was a former colonial official in the Gilberts. The anonymous correspondent also criticized the operations of the Pacific Phosphate Company on Ocean Island.

The islands became the crown colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1916. The Line Islands, including Christmas Island (later spelled Kiritimati) and Fanning Island (Tabuaeran), were added to the colony in 1919 and the Phoenix Islands were added in 1937.

Sir Arthur Grimble was a cadet administrative officer based at Tarawa (1913–1919) and became Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony in 1926.

In 1902, the Pacific Cable Board laid the first trans-Pacific telegraph cable from Bamfield, British Columbia to Fanning Island (Tabuaeran) in the Line Islands and from Fiji to Fanning Island, thus completing the All Red Line, a series of telegraph lines circumnavigating the globe completely within the British Empire. The location of Fanning Island, one of the closest formations to Hawaii, led to its annexation by the British Empire in 1888. Nearby candidates including Palmyra Island were disfavored due to the lack of adequate landing sites.

The United States eventually incorporated the Northern Line into its territories and did the same with the Phoenix Islands which lie between Kiribati and the Line Islands including Howland, Jarvis, and Baker islands, thus, bringing about a territorial dispute. This was eventually resolved and they became part of Kiribati as part of the Treaty of Tarawa. This was signed shortly after independence and ratified in 1983, the United States relinquishing all claims to the sparsely inhabited Phoenix Islands and those of the Line Islands that are part of Kiribati territory.

Tarawa Atoll and others of the Gilbert group were occupied by Japan from 1941 to 1943 during World War II. Betio became an airfield and supply base. The expulsion of the Japanese military in late 1943 involved one of the bloodiest battles in US Marine Corps history. Marines landed in November 1943 and the Battle of Tarawa ensued.

Further military operations in the colony occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Christmas Island was used by the United States and United Kingdom for nuclear weapons testing including hydrogen bombs.

Institutions of internal self-rule were established on Tarawa from about 1967. The Ellice Islands were separated from the rest of the colony in 1975 and granted their own internal self-rule institutions. In 1978 the Ellice Islands became the independent nation of Tuvalu.

Independence

The Gilbert Islands gained independence as the Republic of Kiribati on 12 July 1979. The United States gave up most of the Line Islands and recognised Kiribati in 1983. Kiribati received Canton Island, Enderbury Island, Birnie Island, Mckean Island, Rawaki, Manra, Orona, and Nikumaroro from the Phoenix Islands; and Teraina, Tabuaeran, Kiritimati, Malden Island, Starbuck Island, Caroline Islands, Vostok Islands and Flint Island from the Line Islands.

Although the indigenous Gilbertese language name for the Gilbert Islands proper is "Tungaru", the new state chose the name "Kiribati", the I-Kiribati enunciation of "Gilberts", as an equivalent of the former colony to acknowledge the inclusion of Banaba, the Line Islands, and the Phoenix Islands. The last two of these were never occupied by I-Kiribati until the British authorities, and later the Republic Government, resettled I-Kiribati there under resettlement schemes.

In the post-independence era, overcrowding has been a problem, at least in British and aid organisations' eyes. In 1988, an announcement was made that 4,700 residents of the main island group would be resettled onto less-populated islands.

Teburoro Tito was elected president in 1994. In 1995, Kiribati unilaterally moved the international date line far to the east to encompass the Line Islands group, so that the nation would no longer be divided by the date line. The move, which fulfilled one of President Tito's campaign promises, was intended to allow businesses 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 re-elected in 1998. Kiribati gained UN membership in 1999.

In 2002, Kiribati passed a controversial law that enabled the government to shut down newspapers. The legislation followed the launching of Kiribati's first successful non-government-run newspaper. President Tito was re-elected 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 and in 2011.

In June 2008, Kiribati officials asked Australia and New Zealand to accept Kiribati citizens as permanent refugees. Kiribati is expected to be the first country to lose all its land territory to global warming. In June 2008, the Kiribati President Anote Tong said that the country has reached "the point of no return." He added, "To plan for the day when you no longer have a country is indeed painful but I think we have to do that."

In early 2012, the government of Kiribati purchased the 2,200-hectare Natoavatu Estate on the second largest island of Fiji, Vanua Levu. At the time it was widely reported that the government planned to evacuate the entire population of Kiribati to Fiji. In April 2013, President Tong began urging citizens to evacuate the islands and migrate elsewhere. In May 2014, the Office of the President confirmed the purchase of some 5,460 acres of land on Vanua Levu at a cost of 9.3 million Australian dollars.

Geography

Kiribati consists of 32 atolls and one solitary island (Banaba), extending into the eastern and western hemispheres, as well as the northern and southern hemispheres. It is the only country that is situated within all four hemispheres. The groups of islands are:

  • Banaba: an isolated island between Nauru and the Gilbert Islands

  • Gilbert Islands: 16 atolls located some 1,500 kilometres (932 mi) north of Fiji

  • Phoenix Islands: 8 atolls and coral islands located some 1,800 kilometres (1,118 mi) southeast of the Gilberts

  • Line Islands: 8 atolls and one reef, located about 3,300 kilometres (2,051 mi) east of the Gilberts

Banaba (or Ocean Island) is a raised-coral island. It was once a rich source of phosphates, but was exhausted in mining before independence. The rest of the land in Kiribati consists of the sand and reef rock islets of atolls or coral islands, which rise only one or two metres above sea level.

The soil is thin and calcareous. It has a low water-holding capacity and low organic matter and nutrient content—except for calcium, sodium, and magnesium. Banaba is one of the least suitable places for agriculture in the world.

Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Line Islands is the world's largest atoll. Based on a 1995 realignment of the International Date Line, the Line Islands were the first area to enter into a new year, including year 2000. For that reason, Caroline Island has been renamed Millennium Island. The majority of Kiribati, including the capital, is not first, for example New Zealand (UTC+13 in January) has an earlier new year.

Environmental issues

According to the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (previously South Pacific Regional Environment Programme), two small uninhabited Kiribati islets, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, disappeared underwater in 1999. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels will rise by about 50 cm (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.

The exposure of Kiribati to changes in sea levels is exacerbated by the Pacific decadal oscillation, which is a climate switch phenomenon that results in changes from periods of La Niña to periods of El Niño. This influences sea levels. For example, in 2000 there was a switch from periods of downward pressure of El Niño on sea levels to an upward pressure of La Niña on sea levels, which upward pressure causes more frequent and higher high tide levels. The Perigean spring tide (often called a king tide) can result in seawater flooding low-lying areas of the islands of Kiribati.

The atolls and reef islands can respond to changes in sea-level. Paul Kench at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and Arthur Webb at the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission in Fiji released a study in 2010 on the dynamic response of atolls and reef islands in the central Pacific. Kiribati was mentioned in the study, and Webb and Kench found that the three major urbanised islands in Kiribati—Betio, Bairiki and Nanikai—increased by 30% (36 hectares), 16.3% (5.8 hectares) and 12.5% (0.8 hectares), respectively.

The study by Paul Kench and Arthur Webb recognises that the islands are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise and concluded that: "This study did not measure vertical growth of the island surface nor does it suggest there is any change in the height of the islands. Since land height has not changed the vulnerability of the greater part of the land area of each island to submergence due to sea level rise is also unchanged and these low-lying atolls remain immediately and extremely vulnerable to inundation or sea water flooding."

The Climate Change in the Pacific Report of 2011 describes Kiribati as having a low risk of cyclones; however in March 2015 Kiribati experienced flooding and destruction of seawalls and coastal infrastructure as the result of Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 cyclone that devastated Vanuatu. Kiribati remains exposed to the risk that cyclones can strip the low-lying islands of their vegetation and soil.

Gradual sea-level rise also allows for coral polyp activity to raise the atolls with the sea level. However, if the increase in sea level occurs at a rate faster than coral growth, or if polyp activity is damaged by ocean acidification, then the resilience of the atolls and reef islands is less certain. Also, coral bleaching has led to the death of up to 80% of the coral.

The Kiribati Adaptation Program (KAP), started in 2003, is a US $5.5 million initiative that was originally enacted by the national government of Kiribati with the support of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, and the Japanese government. Australia later joined the coalition, donating US $1.5 million to the effort. The program aims to take place over six years, supporting measures that reduce Kiribati's vulnerability to the effects of climate change and sea level rise by raising awareness of climate change, assessing and protecting available water resources, and managing inundation. At the start of the Adaptation Program, representatives from each of the inhabited atolls identified key climatic changes that had taken place over the past 20–40 years and proposed coping mechanisms to deal with these changes under four categories of urgency of need. The program is now focusing on the country's most vulnerable sectors in the most highly populated areas. Initiatives include improving water supply management in and around Tarawa; coastal management protection measures such as mangrove re-plantation and protection of public infrastructure; strengthening laws to reduce coastal erosion; and population settlement planning to reduce personal risks.

Climate

The climate is pleasant from April to October, with predominant northeastern winds and stable temperatures close to 30 °C (86 °F). From November to March, western gales bring rain. Kiribati does not experience cyclones but effects may occasionally be experienced during cyclone seasons affecting nearby Pacific Island countries such as Fiji.

Precipitation varies significantly between islands. For example, the annual average is 3,000 mm (120 in) in the north and 500 mm (20 in) in the south of the Gilbert Islands. Most of these islands are in the dry belt of the equatorial oceanic climatic zone and experience prolonged droughts.

Ecology

Because of the young geological age of the islands and atolls and high level of soil salination the flora of Kiribati is relatively poor. It contains about 83 indigenous and 306 introduced plants on Gilbert Islands, whereas the corresponding numbers for Line and Phoenix Islands are 67 and 283. None of these species are endemic, and about half of the indigenous ones have a limited distribution and became endangered or nearly extinct due to human activities such as phosphate mining. Coconut and pandanus palms and breadfruit trees are most common wild plants, whereas the five most cultivated crops are Chinese cabbage, pumpkin, tomato, watermelon and cucumber. Over eighty percent of the population participates in either farming or fishing.

Seaweed farming is an important part of the economy, with two major species Eucheuma alcarezii and Eucheuma spinosium introduced to the local lagoons from the Philippines in 1977. It competes with collection of the black-lipped pearl oyster (Pinctada margaritifera) and shellfish, which are dominated by the strombid gastropod (Strombus luhuanus) and Anadara cockles (Anadara uropigimelana), whereas the stocks of the giant clam (Tridacna gigas) have been largely exhausted.

Kiribati has a few land mammals, none being indigenous or endemic. They include the Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans), dogs and pigs. Among the 75 bird species, the Bokikokiko (Acrocephalus aequinoctialis) is endemic to Kiritimati.

There are 600–800 species of inshore and pelagic finfish, some 200 species of corals and about 1000 species of shellfish. Fishing mostly targets the family Scombridae, particularly the skipjack tuna and yellowfin tuna as well as flying fish (Cypselurus spp.).

Dogs introduced by European settlers have continued to grow in numbers and are roaming in traditional packs, particularly around South Tarawa.

Culture

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

Music

Kiribati folk music is generally based on chanting or other forms of vocalising, 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 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 performed only 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

Edward Carlyon Eliot, who was Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert & Ellice Islands (now Kiribati & Tuvalu) from 1913 to 1920 describes this period in his book "Broken Atoms" (autobiographical reminiscences) Pub. G. Bles, London, 1938.

Sir Arthur Grimble wrote about his time working in the British colonial service in Kiribati (then the Gilbert Islands) from 1914 to 1932 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).

 

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