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Diplomacy in Action

Tuvalu (12/04)


For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.

Flag of Tuvalu is light blue with flag of U.K. in upper hoist-side quadrant; outer half of flag represents map of the country with nine yellow five-pointed stars symbolizing the nine islands.



Area: 26 sq. km.
City: Funafuti.
Terrain: Very low lying and narrow coral atolls.
Climate: Tropical; moderated by easterly trade winds (March-November); westerly gales and heavy rain (November-March).

Nationality: Noun--Tuvaluan (s); adjective--Tuvaluan.
Population (2003 est.): 11,000. Age structure (2002 est.)--33% under 14; 5.1% over 64.
Growth rate (2003 est.): 1.3%.
Ethnic groups: Polynesians 96%, Micronesians 4%.
Religion: Church of Tuvalu (Congregationalist) 97%; Seventh-day Adventist 1.4%, Baha'I 1%, other 0.6%.
Languages: Tuvaluan, English. Samoan, Kiribati (on the island of Nui) also spoken.
Education (2002): Literacy--92%.
Health (2002 est.): Life expectancy--male 64.83 yrs; female 69.23 yrs. Infant mortality rate--22/1,000.
Work force (2004 est.): 6,000.

Type: Constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy.
Independence (from U.K.): October 1, 1978.
Constitution: October 1, 1978.
Branches: Executive--Governor General (appointed by the British monarch on recommendation of the prime minister, who is head of the government, Cabinet. Legislative--unicameral Parliament, also called House of Assembly (15 seats; members elected by popular vote to serve 4-year term. Judicial--High Court with eight Island Courts (with limited jurisdiction). Rulings from High Court could be appealed to the Court of Appeal in Fiji.
Major political parties: None.

GDP (2003 est.): $22.8 million.
GDP per capita (purchasing power parity, 2003 est.): $2,020.
Industry: Types--fishing, tourism (government and NGO officials on business), copra.
Trade: Exports (2004 est.)--$1.45 million; stamps, copra, handicrafts. Major markets--U.K., Italy. Imports (2004 est.)--$22.2 million; food, animals, mineral fuels, machinery, manufactured goods. Major sources--Fiji,  Japan,  New Zealand, Australia, Germany.

The Western Pacific nation of Tuvalu, formerly known as the Ellice Islands, is situated 4,000 kilometer (2,486 mi.) northeast of Australia. It is one half of the way from Hawaii to Australia. Tuvalu consists of four reef islands and five true atolls. Its small scattered group of atolls has poor soil and a total land area of only about 26sq. km. (less than 10 sq. mi.).

Tuvalu has westerly gales and heavy rain from November to March and tropical temperatures moderated by easterly winds from March-November. The land is very low lying with narrow coral atolls. The highest elevation is five meters above the sea level.

96% of the Tuvaluans are ethnic Polynesians, closely related to the people of Samoa and Tonga. The vast majority belong to the Church of Tuvalu, a Protestant denomination. Their ancestors were converted by Christian missionaries decades ago.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to see the islands in the 1500s. However, in 1819 an American ship captain, De Peyster, named the main island in the group Ellice's Island after a British politician who owned the cargo aboard his ship. In 1841, the U.S. Exploring Expedition commanded by Charles Wilkes visited three of Tuvalu's islands and welcomed visitors to his ships. Other early interactions with the outside world were far less benign--in 1863, hundreds of people from the southern islands were kidnapped when they were lured them aboard slave ships with promises that they would be taught about Christianity. Those islanders were forced to work under horrific conditions in the guano mines of Peru.

Eventually, the islands came under Britain's sphere of influence as the Pacific was divided up in the late 19th century. The Ellice Islands were administered by Britain as part of a protectorate (1892-1916) and as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (1916-74).

During World War II, several thousand American troops were in the islands. Beginning in October 1942, U.S. forces built airbases on the islands of Funafuti, Nanumea, and Nukufetau. Friendly cooperation was the hallmark of relations between the local people and the troops, mainly U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy SeaBees. The airstrip in the capital of Funafuti, originally built by the U.S. during the war, is still in use, as is the "American Passage" that was blasted through Nanumea's reef by SeaBees assisted by local divers.

In 1974 the Ellice Islanders voted for separate British dependency status as Tuvalu, separating from the Gilbert Islands which became Kiribati upon independence. Tuvalu became fully independent in 1978 and in 1979 signed a treaty of friendship with the United States, which recognized Tuvalu's possession of four small islands formerly claimed by the United States.

Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state, represented by the Governor General, who is appointed by the Queen on advice of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is elected by the members of the Parliament. The Cabinet is appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The legislative branch is a unicameral Parliament also called House of Assembly (15 seats; members elected by popular vote to serve 4-year terms.

Tuvalu maintains an independent judiciary consisting of a High Court and eight islands courts. The rulings of the High Court can be appealed to the Fiji Court of Appeal.

Principal Government Officials
Head of the State (Governor General)--Faimalaga Luka
Head of the Government (Prime Minister)--Maatia Toafa (also Minister for Foreign Affairs and Labor)
Ambassador to the United Nations--Enele Sopoanga

Tuvalu maintains a diplomatic mission in New York at 800 2nd Ave, Suite 400B New York, New York 10017 (tel: 212-490-0534; fax: 212-937-0692).

Democratic values in Tuvalu are strong with free elections every 4 years by universal adult suffrage. Tuvalu does not face serious governance issues. There are no formal political parties in this country of only 11,000 people; election campaigns are largely on the basis of personal/family ties and reputation.

Members of Parliament have very close ties to the island they represent. Often the northern islands in the country compete against the southern islands with the center holding the balance of power. Traditional chiefs also still play a significant role in influencing island affairs, particularly on the outer islands. A long-held distinction between chiefs and commoners is slowly disappearing, and chiefs are now more often selected on merit rather than by birth.

Beginning with the death of Prime Minister Ionatana in late-2000, Tuvaulu has had a number of prime ministers. This in part reflects the pressures affecting the small nation, including the transition from an exchange economy to a money economy, an inherited system of government with only limited regard to Tuvaluan traditions of decision making, and the lack of clear path to implement Tuvalu's vision for the future.

Saufatu Sopoanga, a former civil servant, became Prime Minister in August 2002. He was replaced by Maatia Toafa in October 2004 after a vote of no confidence in August 2004. Toafa is the ninth Prime Minister of Tuvalu and also holds the portfolio of Minister for Foreign Affairs and Labor.

The economy suffers from Tuvalu's remoteness and lack of economies of scale. Virtually the only jobs in the islands that pay a steady wage or salary are with the government. Subsistence farming and fishing remain the primary economic activities, particularly off the capital island of Funafuti. There is no apparent huge disparity between rich and poor in the country.

The Australian dollar (A$) is the currency of Tuvalu. Tuvalu's GDP per capita was about U.S.$2,020 in 2004. Only 30% of the labor force participates in the formal wage economy. The remaining 70% are primarily in rural subsistence and livelihood activities. There is high youth unemployment and few new jobs being created. Meanwhile, there has been an inflow of people from the outer islands to Funafuti. Practical policies are needed for improvements to the livelihoods of the growing numbers of young Tuvaluans who aspire to a more affluent lifestyle than older generations.

About 800 Tuvalu men are employed abroad at any given time as miners in Nauru, or sailors, primarily on German-owned ships. Another 300 sailors are in Tuvalu on well-earned leave between rigorous, 12-plus-month cruises. Remittances from seafarers is a major source of income for families in the country. In 2002, the Asian Development Bank approved an assistance package to upgrade the Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute which trains young Tuvaluans so they can work aboard foreign vessels.

The Tuvalu Trust Fund (TTF), a prudently managed overseas investment fund, has contributed roughly 11% of the annual government budget each year since 1990. With a capital value of about 2.5 times GDP, the TTF provides an important cushion for Tuvalu's volatile income sources from fishing and royalties from the sale of the dot-TV domain. With an initial capital of about A$27 million at independence, it now totals about A$76 million.

Tuvalu is a safe country of unspoiled natural beauty and friendly people. Due to its remoteness, however, but also the current U.S.$600 return airfare to and from Fiji and the Marshall Islands on Air Fiji, only a handful of tourists visit Tuvalu annually. Almost all visitors are government officials, aid workers, non-governmental organization (NGO) officials or consultants.

Government revenues largely come from sales of stamps and coins, fishing licenses, income from the TTF, and from the lease of its highly fortuitous .tv Internet domain name. Domain name income paid most of the cost of paving the streets of Funafuti and installing street lighting in mid-2002.

Tuvalu maintains an independent but generally pro-Western foreign policy. It maintains close relations with Fiji and Australia. It has diplomatic relations with the Republic of China; Taipei maintains the only resident embassy in Tuvalu and has a large assistance program in the islands. No U.S. diplomats are resident in Tuvalu, but U.S. diplomats based in Fiji are accredited to Tuvalu and visit there regularly.

Tuvalu became a member of United Nations in 2000 and maintains a mission at the UN in New York. Tuvalu's only other diplomatic office is its High Commission in Suva, Fiji. Tuvalu is an active member of the Pacific Islands Forum. It also is a member of the Asian Development Bank.

A major international priority for Tuvalu in the UN, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and in other international fora is promoting concern about global warming and possible sea level rise. Tuvalu advocates ratification and implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. Tuvalu also takes an interest in the Republic of Nauru because of about 300 Tuvaluans working there. Many are allegedly owed substantial back wages.

Principal U.S. Officials
(All resident in Suva, Fiji)
Ambassador--David Lyon
Deputy Chief of Mission--vacant
Political/Economic Officer--Edmond E. Seay III
Consul--John Emery 
Management Officer--Jeffery Robertson

The U.S. Embassy in Fiji, also accredited to Tuvalu, is located at 31 Loftus Street, Suva. Tel: 679-331-4466. Fax: 679-330-0081. The mailing address is U.S. Embassy, P.O. Box 218, Suva, Fiji.

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