Lesson 6: Kiribati

Kiribati, formerly known as the Gilbert Islands, is a group of 32 close-to-sea-level atolls and one island (Banaba) sprinkled along the very hot equator and stretching from the easternmost point of the eastern hemisphere across the International Date Line and into the western hemisphere. (How does the International Date Line work?) Kiribati, pronounced “Kiribas,” was populated some time about 3000 B.C. and maintained continuous contact with Polynesian islands like Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. Unlike other Micronesian islands it was not part of the Spanish or German colonial sphere, but instead the British settled starting in 1837; the Gilberts became a British protectorate in 1892. The Japanese occupied the Gilberts during World War II and the Americans fought a bloody battle to get them back. After the War the U.S. used some of the Gilbert islands as test sites for nuclear weapons but in 1979 allowed i-Kiribati (the people of Kiribati) to become independent. Kiribati became a member of the United Nations in 1999.

The International Date Line used to cut Kiribati in two sections, meaning at any given time some of Kiribati would be a different day than other parts of the nation, but in 1995 Kiribati declared it had moved the line to zig zag around the easternmost point of the islands to avoid confusion. Since Kiribati is the country closest to the date line it is the first to experience the dawn of each new day. This was particularly important on December 31, 1999, when Kiribati was not only the first to greet the year 2000 but the first to determine the actual effects of Y2k. News flash: we survived!

Today Kiribati has few national resources and its economy is less than robust. Because it is mainly composed of low-lying atolls it is also likely to be the first nation in the world to disappear as sea levels rise due to climate change. According to the Kiribati government’s website about climate change, Kiribati has developed three basic strategies to cope: mitigation (not likely) adaptation (consisting of such things as coastal management, figuring out how to maintain fresh water supply and planting of mangrove trees to solidify the coastline), and, ultimately, relocation (step 1: allow some i-Kiribati to enter Australia and New Zealand now, thereby establishing i-Kiribati expatriate communities, step 2: “the levels of qualifications able to be obtained in Kiribati will be raised to those available in countries such as Australia and New Zealand.” The goal? “Migration with dignity.”

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