About Kiribati

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Kiribati straddles the Equator and the 180 degree line of longitude. Its widely dispersed islands have a landmass of only about 800 km – but even that overstates the situation as twelve islands are unfit for permanent habitation because their freshwater is susceptible to seawater contamination. High temperatures, infrequent rainfall and low elevation mean this predicament has always threatened most islands, but global warming is worsening matters. The population of 20 of the other islands vary only slightly, mainly in line with land area and rainfall.

For the Kiribati Government’s account of the threat of climate change, see this website.

Then there is Tarawa, on which 35,000+ (40% of the population) are concentrated, compared with less than 3,000 (5%) before its elevation to Colony headquarters in the 1940s. From the air, these inhabited islands often look lush, but they are deserts and only coconuts, pandanus and other hardy vegetation grow naturally. Significant effort is expended on small plots to cultivate traditional and recently introduced crops (e.g., babai, breadfruit, pumpkin).

The most likely explanation of how the I-Kiribati (the people of Kiribati) came about is that over a few thousand years people from various places traversed the ocean and settled in the Gilberts. The remoteness of this island group, and canoe technology that enabled traversing the significant distances between islands in the group, engendered a common culture and language founded on surviving and propagating in a harsh natural environment.

European contact dates from the 17th century, through voyages of discovery and along the Outer Passage trade route between China and New South Wales. However, social, economic and political interaction with these outsiders was insignificant until they began whaling in the 1820s. Since, the islands and nearby ocean have experienced beachcombers, itinerant and resident traders, blackbirders, missionaries, Protectorate/Colony administrative staff and services staff (e.g., teachers, nurses), phosphateers, World War II combatants, tuna fishers, diplomats, and aid-agency employees, contract staff, volunteers and consultants. Conversely, as early as the 1850s I-Kiribati were visiting other Pacific Island and Rim countries to work and have gone further afield since, including to study.

Values were dynamic before European contact and have been much influenced by it since. Nevertheless, the ascendant way of life is one in which collective rights, responsibilities and obligations are paramount and flow along family, gender, age and spiritual lines, rather than microeconomic, organisational and managerial ones; people are uneasy about monitoring, controlling and evaluating other people. Land is the traditional form of ‘capital’, and has much social and spiritual significance. Oral traditions are strong and the spoken word is far more powerful than written records. Time has little meaning and tasks not done today can wait until tomorrow. Self-sufficiency of the extended family is prized.

The I-Kiribati now have sovereignty over, and in some cases inhabit, the Phoenix and Line Islands. These lie east of the Gilberts and have experienced outsiders such as plantation cultivators, military personnel, nuclear bomb testers, tourists and operators of a telephone relay station, an international airline and a commercial satellite facility.

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