Kiribati, where leader shins up coconut trees and talks with Soviets

The President of Kiribati admits he still shins up trees now and again to bring down coconuts. He does it to supplement relatives' incomes: Daily life for most people in this tiny, independent central Pacific republic remains a subsistence existence.

But after his weekend coconut-picking, President Ieremia Tabai attends to the complex affairs of state. Near his office in one of the bungalow-style, palm-fringed government buildings in Tarawa, the capital island, officials try to balance the country's $9.6 million budget using Kiribati's first computer.

Such contradictions reflect life here -- a heady mix of old and new, set within a languid life style.

Kiribati -- pronounced ``kiri-bahs,'' formerly the Gilbert Islands until it gained independence from Britain in 1979 -- has just 60,000 people, who are Micronesian. They are scattered among 33 islands totaling 264 square miles but spread across 1.9 million square miles of ocean.

For all its remoteness, Kiribati is of some strategic importance to both the United States and the Soviet Union. It lies in the middle of lines of communication between Hawaii and Australia and New Zealand. And the islands are important to the Soviets, who test long-range missiles in the area between Hawaii and Kiribati.

At independence Britain promised economic aid which would decrease with each year. There's no provision for such help after this year. Now the resource-poor Kiribatis are casting for other sources of revenue.

Later this month they will begin formal negotiations with the Soviets on a fisheries agreement. The Soviet Union is offering a lucrative agreement for permission to fish in their waters and have onshore access to Kiribati.

Tarawa was the scene of one of the great battles of World War II: Rusting guns, half-submerged landing craft, and overgrown concrete bunkers wrested from Japanese control at great cost in lives remain as relics of the only time the outside world considered this place vitally important. (More than 4,600 Japanese were killed at the Battle of Tarawa. The American toll was 3,301 killed, missing in action, or wounded.)

Today, copra, tuna, and postage stamps (sold through philatelic agencies) are the only significant sources of income for the country. Australia, Japan, the US, and the European Community provide some aid. Even with this aid, the government has trouble making ends meet. The islands are far apart. Some have tiny populations, which naturally need health, education, communications, and law enforcement services. Poor and expensive communications are the bane of authorities. Ships are slow.

Foreign communications can be troublesome. Only two diplomatic missions, the Australian and British, are based here. Other diplomats, such as the Americans, shuttle up sporadically from Fiji, where they are based.

Tourism is envisaged as a future money-spinner for Christmas Island, one of the farthest outposts from Tarawa, where proximity to Hawaii is seen as a future lure for Americans. Attractions are a bird sanctuary, where 16 million birds of many varieties are said to nest, and deep-sea fishing. But for the moment Christmas Island has only one hotel and the Kiribati government air line, Air Tungaru, has abandoned its service to Honolulu because its lone Boeing 727 was too expensive to keep.

Up to 1,000 people from this traditionally seafaring nation are away at any one time working on foreign -- mostly West German -- merchant ships.

Contact with foreign values and a desire for material goods has increased, spurring crime. ``Assaults and drunkenness are more of a problem than years ago,'' Kiribati police commissioner Patrick Somerville said.

``But murders are still rare -- mostly crimes of passion where it's easy to find the culprit. Anyway, there's nowhere to run. A stranger in a village would be apparent at once.''

Officials tell of an Air Tungaru internal flight from a small island. It was supposed to transport an accused killer and a police escort to Tarawa. But there was only one spare seat.

The problem was simply solved: The policeman sent the killer alone, giving him bus fare to transport himself to the local lockup after he arrived in Tarawa. Sure enough, he handed himself over to authorities on schedule.

At Radio Kiribati's wood-framed headquarters, chief engineer Bill Reiher says listeners' letters indicate greater interest in the outside world. ``They want to know about science and technology these days, not just hear island music.''

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