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.
President: Anote Tong
Anote Tong won a third successive term in January 2012, having gained nearly 42% of the vote.
It is his final term in office, as the constitution restricts the president to a maximum of three four-year terms.
Mr Tong says he will continue to push for global recognition of the effects of climate change and rising sea levels on Kiribati. Economic development is another priority.
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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.
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.
1975 – The colony is divided into two separate territories, the Gilbert Islands and the Ellice Islands.
1979 12 July – The Gilbert Islands become an independent republic within the Commonwealth under the name of Kiribati.
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