Kiribati country profile

  • Published
map of Kiribati

The 33 atolls that make up Kiribati - the former Gilbert Islands - occupy a vast area in the equatorial Pacific - nearly 4,000 km from east to west and more than 2,000 km from north to south.

Kiribati - pronounced Kiribas - won independence from the United Kingdom in 1979. Home to the South Pacific's largest marine reserve, many of the atolls are inhabited; most of them are very low-lying and at risk from rising sea levels as a result of global warming.

With the Fijian government's permission, Kiribati has bought land in Fiji for food security and as a possible refuge.

Kiribati's economy is weak and is largely dependent on exports of copra and coconuts. Fishing licences, foreign aid and remittances from workers abroad also contribute, as does a trust fund set up with revenues from phosphate mines on the island of Banaba, whose depletion in 1980 hit Kiribati hard.


Kiribati facts

Capital: Tarawa Atoll

  • Population 103,000 (UN, 2011)

  • Area 810 sq km (313 sq miles)

  • Major language English, Gilbertese

  • Major religion Christianity

  • Life expectancy 59 years (men), 63 years (women) (UN)

  • Currency Australian dollar



President: Taneti Mamau

Taneti Mamau was elected as president in March 2016.

He succeeded Anote Tong who served three successive terms, the maximum allowed by the constitution.


Freedom of speech and of the media is generally respected. The government-run radio station and newspaper offer diverse views.

Protestant and Catholic churches publish newsletters and periodicals; these are important sources of information. There is no domestic TV service.


Image source, AP
Image caption,
The island of Kiritimati was used for nuclear testing by Britain in the 1950s and 1960s

11th-14th centuries - Samoans migrate to the islands, Fijians and Tongans follow.

1820 - Named the Gilbert Islands, after British naval captain Thomas Gilbert, who visited on several of them when sailing from Australia to China in 1788.

1892 - Britain declares a protectorate over the Gilbert Islands and the neighbouring Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu), turning them both into The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in 1916.

1943 - Japanese invade during World War Two. The Tarawa Atoll sees some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific.

1945 - Environmental damage caused by phosphate mining forces many residents of Banaba island to leave and settle on Rabi Island in Fiji.

1950s, 1960s - Britain explodes its first hydrogen bomb over Christmas Island. Britain and the US use Kiribati to carry out several nuclear tests.

1975 - The colony is divided into two separate territories, the Gilbert Islands and the Ellice Islands.

1979 - The Gilbert Islands become an independent republic within the Commonwealth under the name of Kiribati.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
US forces fought a tough battle to evict the Japanese from the Tarawa Atoll

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