The Pacific

State of the Atoll Nation

tropical coffin IINever heard of Kiribati? Neither have lots of people. Yet millions of your tax dollars are injected annually into this tiny Pacific nation of thirty-three atolls of which only two are habitable—and, my word, are they inhabited, with around 50,000 people crammed onto the thin wedge-shaped chain of coral reefs and two main islets that make up the largest atoll, Tarawa. It thickens out a bit at the point of the wedge, facing south-east, but even at its widest, if such a thing as the Australian quarter-acre block existed on Tarawa, you’d have the eastern Pacific at the front gate and the western Pacific at the back.

Asking people whether they’ve heard of Kiribati is made harder because even if they’ve read the name (most likely in some doomsday list of islands allegedly threatened by rising seas) they don’t recognise it from the pronunciation. You don’t say ki-ri-ba-ti, phonetically, you say kiri-bus. The main town on Tarawa is Betio, pronounced bay-so. This divergence between orthography and pronunciation—though no wider than with some English words when you think about it—is characteristic of the national language, Gilbertese. Kiribati is a rough transliteration of Gilbert, the colonial name of these islands. It was bestowed in honour of Captain Thomas Gilbert, who sailed through the atolls in 1788 on his way home to England from delivering a shipload of convicts to Botany Bay. The Gilbert Islands (along with the nearby Ellice islands, now Tuvalu) were declared a British protectorate in 1892 and a colony in 1916. In 1978, as shreds of red were disappearing all over the map of the world, the Union Jack came down and the independent Republic of Kiribati was inaugurated.

Australia is now the nation of influence in Kiribati. In the current financial year Kiribati will receive around $27.9 million from “Australian Aid”. (What a patronising name that is—pure Lady Bountiful distributing largesse, something we can do only because we are lucky enough to be better off than other countries thanks to resources we acquired through no merit of our own. If we had proper notions of humility and stewardship of the earth’s abundance we’d call our “aid” something like “Australia sharing”. When I wrote to Julie Bishop suggesting this title she did not reply.)

Whatever you call it, the people of Kiribati—the i-Kiribati—certainly need that money. Kiribati is desperately poor, there is no industry, no arable land (the ground is all white coral dust) and the few fish from the ocean beyond the lagoon that make their way into the local market rather than being carried away by Korean or Taiwanese trawlers constitute the exiguous protein element, along with some chicken and pork, in the local diet. There are several supermarkets, but the limited stocks on their shelves (which look like a Soviet GUM in the old days) are frequently past their use-by date, either because of dumping by exporters or because they’ve sat too long on board slow itinerant ships or on the wharf at Betio. Essential services such as health are basic or inexistent. Diabetes, death in childbirth and infant mortality remain a scourge. Folk medicine is still practised, its nostrums handed down in families.

It is hard for Australians, who even if they are poor are miles better off than the average citizen in Kiribati, to picture the degrading level of poverty of truly destitute countries and the stoic resignation to the cruel fact that, as one “expat” candidly remarked of the local people in a Pacific state, “If they get really sick they don’t go to hospital to get better. They just die.”

Nor in Kiribati is there the foreseeable prospect of earning money, as in other Pacific islands, through tourism. The logical place to start would be Tarawa, but who would want to open a resort by its mephitic lagoon, foul with sewage? Kiribati is also inconvenient to get to, with only one flight a week from Brisbane, island-hopping to Honiara and Nauru on the way; or two a week from Fiji, three hours to the south. Cruise liners never call. Yet the potential is there. Many of the atolls are picture books of classic Pacific beauty with palm-fringed beaches and pale turquoise water. The scarlet-streaked western sky as the sun sets over the lagoon at Betio is breathtakingly lovely. A pity about the state of the lagoon itself.

Before pollution—which is so bad because there are too many people on Tarawa for the limited sewerage facilities—the then Gilbert Islands were paradisal, a place of friendly people (Kiribati is still a place of friendly people in spite of their privations) and tropical seascapes, with the equatorial climate made less harsh by the trade winds that blow gently every evening. This was the agreeable world described in A Pattern of Islands, which anyone over a certain age who did Year 12 English Expression in Victoria will remember as a “set book”. The author, Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Grimble, was a British colonial official posted to Tarawa in 1923. Republished in 2011, the book breathes his affection for the place. (Sir Arthur’s recollections were somewhat schmaltzily transferred to the screen in a 1956 film titled Pacific Destiny, with Denholm Elliott as the author and peaches-and-cream Susan Stephen as his plucky wife Olivia.)

A few people visit Kiribati to see relics of the Second World War—bunkers, rusting guns and tanks, shipwrecks and skeletons of fighter planes are all still there. Red Beach on Tarawa was the scene of horrific carnage in three battles in 1942 when American forces tried to dislodge the Japanese, who had invaded the Gilbert Islands three days after Pearl Harbor and dug themselves in. For the year or more they were in control the Japanese behaved with characteristic brutality, beheading seventeen New Zealand coastwatchers and five other foreign nationals, though they seem to have left the local people alone as long as they behaved. The ruins of the Japanese HQ sit deserted and roofless beside Tarawa’s one main road.

Australia gives 45 per cent of all the “aid” Kiribati receives. China has its eye on the place, and until a diplomatic spat in 2003 had a satellite tracking station there. Beijing’s emissaries flounced out when Kiribati decided to recognise Taiwan instead.

The principal export of Kiribati is its people. Australian taxpayers’ money is used, among other things, for training i-Kiribati technical teachers so that they can teach the courses that will give their students Australian-recognised qualifications with which to get jobs outside the country and subsidise their families at home. (In addition to this useful work the educational agenda imposed by Canberra reflects the new and de rigueur ideological imperialism of the West towards deeply traditional communities by placing a certain intrusive emphasis on “gender quotas” and female “empowerment”, but that’s the price of international development handouts nowadays.) It seems to be hoped that one day the beneficiaries of technical training will acquire the expertise to establish income-generating ventures in Kiribati itself or develop schemes of reef reclamation to ease the overcrowding, but as yet there is little sign of the former and none of the latter.

The Kiribati legislature has a modern parliament house modelled on a traditional maneaba or meeting hut, with roofs vaguely reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. The Japanese built it in 2000 to say sorry. The forty-six MPs debate in well-cushioned comfort. Their constituents tend to live in humbler edifices of pandanus wood, coconut leaves and less traditional materials such as cement sheeting, concrete or tin, generally without running water (though invariably illuminated after dark by the flicker of satellite television on a plasma screen). There are a few more substantial structures such as offices, warehouses and churches (as a result of intense missionary activity in the nineteenth century most i-Kiribati are Christians, with about half Protestant and half Roman Catholic). There are several one-star or less hotels and noisy bars (in one on certain evenings you can choose between a karaoke version of, say, “Ring of Fire” and a congregational rendering of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” lifting the roof of the Presbyterian church next door). Short-term “expat” advisers and educators usually stay in the hotels, with the permanent ones and the Australian high commissioner living in the kind of bungalow you’d see in Darwin with windows opening onto the lagoon, though quickly shut if the wind is in the wrong direction. Such colonial buildings as there were have not withstood the battering of time and weather.

One long road runs all the way around the atoll, passing from islet to islet and along narrow necks of land on a causeway. It was first constructed in colonial times to give coherence to the villages scattered here and there around the atoll. The road is constantly under repair but always in disrepair. A heavy rainfall will wash away what was done the day before, leaving potholes like moon craters. There is no shortage of cars. The Japanese send shiploads of motor vehicles that no longer meet the standards of their internal market and these are snapped up by the i-Kiribati. There is though a shortage of spare parts. The cars are driven till they fall to pieces and are abandoned where they stop.

Junk abounds. In Betio a large and superannuated English Electric generator rusts by the roadside like a piece of progressive public art. There is a regular rubbish collection (paid for by New Zealand) but evidently that is not enough to, as municipal exhortations against littering always put it, keep Kiribati beautiful.

And yet in spite of everything Kiribati remains beautiful, and could be much more so. It is a shame that nature’s beneficence to this atoll-state has not been reciprocated by the consumer society.

Christopher Akehurst is a periodic contributor to Quadrant, Spectator Australia and Kairos, and editor of Organ Australia.


12 thoughts on “State of the Atoll Nation

  • says:

    Kiribati (population 106,000 (2013), 78,000 (1995); area 800 sqkm) has become a poster-child for climate alarmists in recent years; as has Tuvalu, the world’s fourth-smallest country (26 sqkm) with about 11,000 inhabitants.

    Both Tuvalu and Kiribati are members – together with 36 other countries – of a climate-change activist group, the Alliance of Small Island States. Formed over two decades ago, AOSIS’s mission remains to “address global warming”. It represents a surprising 20 per cent of UN members, but less than 2% of global population.

    Kiribati’s “initial communication” to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was in September 1999, stating “it was extremely worried and also scared by the potential for the sea level to rise as a result of the enhanced greenhouse effect.”

    In an address at the UN on 28th September 2013, His Excellency Vete Palakua Sakaio, Tuvalu’s Deputy Prime Minister, reiterated AOSIS’s cri de coeur – to an audience of less than 20 – that “It is humanity’s security issue……..The world must save Tuvalu – and save the whole planet – from climate change and sea-level rise (13min.)”

  • says:

    I was surprised to read on the Quadrant website the lazy canard that “we are lucky enough to be better off than other countries thanks to resources we acquired through no merit of our own”.

    We are better off than other countries because of skill and hard work (applied to those resources, as well as in other fields)over a period of more than two centuries, exercised in a culture conducive to generating wealth that we were fortunate to inherit from the British. We owe a debt not to Lady Luck but to our ancestors who built this nation in material circumstances often worse than those described as pertaining in Kiribati.

  • en passant says:

    Why is it that I feel so little empathy and no sympathy for the self-created catastrophe these $60M a year whining beggars have created for themselves? They have the audacity to blame others for a pseudo-problem (not the real one) they claim is causing their woes and then they attack their benefactors. “You owe me!” they cry without a shred of substance to their demands.

    Despite TV and with nothing to do they breed like rabbits, do nothing to address the rubbish issue which is something they could deal with (compare their behaviour to the streets of Singapore) and do nothing to deal with their Malthusian population problem.

    I am sure that individually they are really nice people, but their only value to civilisation is as a Petri Dish for the rest of the world to examine and avoid.

    Solution? Compulsorily move them to land in North Korea if they have another child. If someone knows a practical ‘touchy-feely’ one I will support it.

    • whitelaughter says:

      They are not blaming other people. The trendy set are blaming other people, and because no one listens to the locals, that is all we hear.

      Go have a look at the disaster of compulsory birth control in China and India to see why it is a mindnumbingly stupid idea. Then, grab a population map and see for yourself that overpopulation is a myth – ‘starving children in Africa’ is *because* they don’t have the population needed to maintain infrastructure, while ‘overpopulated’ Europe, North America and Japan do very nicely. The locals in poor countries have lots of children because in squalor, children *die*, and if you are elderly without children to look after you, you die.

      The locals *are* doing what they can to solve the problem – youngsters get jobs on ships, and send money home. The islands are small, but are surrounded by huge tracts of rich ocean, these could be developed – but the locals don’t know how.

  • Warty says:

    For the life of me, I do not understand your little rant about Australian aid: ‘something we can do only because we are lucky enough to be better off than other countries thanks to resources we acquired through no merit of our own. If we had proper notions of humility and stewardship of the earth’s abundance we’d call our “aid” something like “Australia sharing’. Little wonder Julie Bishop didn’t respond to your suggestion; she was probably wondering what on earth we’d done wrong to earn your ire.
    As far as I can see, a good many of us have worked an honest day’s work to achieve what we have; let’s leave aside those members of the CFMEU who enjoyed 70 hours of stop-work meetings in May this year alone; and the warfies who did their best to cripple our troops, in August 1971 strikes, during the Vietnam War.
    So, why the sour grapes? Please explain.

  • Warty says:

    p.s. I worked as an air-track driller, up at Mt Wilson, in the Pilbara, way back in early 1971. I earned $45 a week, in the most unbelievable heat and dust. I still have a photograph of myself covered from head to boots in red dust. We had no face masks or ear muffs. I think I earned every cent of those $45.

  • Warty says:

    p.p.s My wife tells me I’m suffering from addled brain syndrome (abs) often experienced by people who were once young men or women in early 1971. Mt Wilson has rich, black volcanic soil, but Mt Newman, no longer a mountain, but rather a great bloody hole in the ground, is the iron ore mine where I once worked.

  • Jody says:

    What were people doing about these Pacific nations/atolls during the French atomic testing years?

  • says:

    Like all of these – an interesting desription of a problem – no attempt at a description of the solution.
    I assume the Kirbati have self determination – What are they doing to help themselves?
    On what basis do we give them the aid? – what right of claim do they have over us to demand aid?
    I dont understand the automatic assumption that the solution to their problems has to come from Australia?
    If Australia has an obligation (as the article seems to imply) to hand over our supoosedly un-earned wealth to the world’s “less lucky”, I suspect there may be more prior calls on it than the Kiribati.

  • en passant says:

    Let me add two additional comments to the one I made above:
    Firstly, I think the Kiribati should be punished for their profligacy which is why I suggested sending at least some of their excess breeding population to North Korea. Frankly that is not punishment enough, so let’s really punish them and send them to South Australia.

    Secondly, they are behaving exactly like the experiment involving a rat colony that was given a set amount of space and a fixed amount of space both greater than their needs. Think Kiribati & Australian ‘Aid’. The happy little rats had a wonderful time and went on a breeding spree until they filled all available space and were short of food. They turned on each other and their benefactors. Food was increased they went back to breeding until they were living on top of each other. Malthusian Kiribati in spades. The rats and the Kiribati’s never found the solution as increases in free stuff just lead to a repeat of the cycle and Paradise was lost forever.

    Future thefts from working, taxpaying Australians should be tied to a sterilisation programme and the histrionic condemnation of us by the UN. Alternatively, let the Chinese take over, I am sure they will be more caring than we would ever be …

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