Country in the southwest Pacific Ocean; formerly (until 1978) the Ellice Islands; part of Polynesia.
Government The constitution dates from 1978 when Tuvalu became an independent state within the Commonwealth, accepting the British monarch as head of state, represented by a resident governor general, who must be a Tuvaluan citizen and is appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister.
There is a single-chamber parliament (Fale I Fono) of 15 members, directly elected every four years. Its members elect a prime minister to head the government and cabinet, which is appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister. Parliament is subject to dissolution within its term. Each of the inhabited atolls of the Tuvalu group has its own elected island council, responsible for local affairs. There are no formal political parties and no regular army. Politics is based around personalities and geographical ties.
History The islands were inhabited by Melanesians, who came from Tonga and Samoa and settled the islands 2,000 years ago. The islands were invaded and occupied by Samoans during the 16th century. They were first reached by Europeans in 1765. During the mid-19th-century European slave traders captured indigenous Melanesians for forced labour on plantations in South America. As a result of this, and the importation of European diseases, the population declined from an estimated 20,000 to barely 3,000. Originally known as the Ellice Islands, the islands were a British protectorate from 1892 to 1916 and part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony from 1916. Protestant missionaries converted the islanders to Christianity. During 1943–45, the islands served as an operations base for Allied forces fighting the Japanese during World War II.
In 1974, the people of Ellice Islands voted to separate from the Micronesian-peopled Gilbert islands (later Kiribati). It became, in 1975, the British colony of Tuvalu, which means ‘eight standing together’ (it comprises four reef islands and five atolls, but one is very small).
Special member of Commonwealth In 1978, Tuvalu became fully independent within the Commonwealth. Because of its small size, Tuvalu is a ‘special member’ of the Commonwealth and does not have direct representation at meetings of heads of government. Its first prime minister was Toaripi Lauti, who resigned in 1981 as a result of his alleged involvement in an investment scandal. In 1986, in a referendum on whether Tuvalu should remain a constitutional monarchy or become a republic, only one atoll favoured republican status, but in 1995 Tuvalu removed the Union Jack from its flag. Bikenibeu Paeniu, the prime minister 1989–93 and 1996–99 sought to reduce the country's dependence on foreign aid.
In 1979, Tuvalu signed a treaty of friendship with the USA, which gave up its claims to its reef islands. In 2000, Tuvalu became a member – the smallest by population – of the United Nations.
Vulnerability to rising sea levels The low elevation of Tuvalu's islands and atolls, which are only 4 m/13 ft above sea level at their highest point, place it at severe risk from rises in sea level and storms. A 20–40 cm/8–16 in rise in sea level in the next 100 years would make it uninhabitable and force evacuation of the population to Australia, New Zealand, or Fiji. This has made dealing with the consequences of climate change a key issue for the government. In August 2006, prime minister Apisai Ielemia requested international assistance with evacuating and resettling Tuvaluans as he declared the country in immediate danger from rising sea levels. By 2010, a quarter of the population had been evacuated, with most being resettled in New Zealand.
In September 2011, the government declared a state of emergency because of a drinking-water shortage arising from a lack of desalination machinery and tanks to collect rainwater. In August 2013, the governor-general appointed Enele Sopoaga, the opposition leader and a prominent spokesman on climate change, as prime minister after dismissing Willy Telavi, who had been prime minister since December 2010, for failing to convene parliament for eight months.
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