Vanuatu - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Vanuatu: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...


Vanuatu, independent republic consisting of more than 80 islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, located about 5,600 km (about 3,500 mi) southwest of Hawaii and about 2,400 km (about 1,500 mi) northeast of Australia. From the late 19th century until independence in 1980, Vanuatu (then called the New Hebrides) was governed jointly by France and Britain. The capital and largest city is Port-Vila, located on the island of Éfaté.


The islands of Vanuatu extend about 800 km (about 500 mi) from north to south and about one-quarter of that distance from east to west. They lie in a Y-shaped configuration that tilts in a northwest to southeast direction. Total land area is 12,190 sq km (4,707 sq mi). About 70 of the islands are inhabited. The largest island, Espiritu Santo, has a land area of 4,856 sq km (1,875 sq mi); other principal islands include Malakula, Éfaté, Erromango, and Ambrym. Vanuatu’s exclusive economic zone—that is, the area of the ocean in which it controls fishing and other rights—covers about 1.8 million sq km (about 700,000 sq mi).

Most of Vanuatu’s islands are peaks of volcanic mountain ranges that rise from the ocean floor; several of the volcanoes are active, including Mount Yasur on the island of Tanna. The highest peak, Mount Tabwemasana on Espiritu Santo, rises to an elevation of 1,879 m (6,165 ft). Many of the islands have narrow coastal plain regions with relatively rich soils that support a variety of agricultural crops. Forests cover a large portion of the land. Two small rivers drain Espiritu Santo and smaller streams flow on some other islands.

Vanuatu has a tropical, humid climate. Trade winds moderate the climate between May and October, producing a slightly drier, cooler season than during the rest of the year. Winds vary considerably during the warmer season, causing occasional cyclones between December and April. A major cyclone ravaged Vanuatu in February 1987, destroying numerous buildings and ships. Average daily temperatures range from 22° to 27°C (72° to 81°F). Rainfall averages about 2,300 mm (about 90 in) in the southern islands and about 3,900 mm (about 154 in) in the northern islands.

Vanuatu supports more than 1,000 species of vegetation, including coconut palms, banyan trees, orchids, and ferns. Small reptiles, bats, and rats inhabit the islands, along with numerous varieties of birds, such as pigeons, parrots, and thrushes. Varied sea animals thrive in the surrounding waters, including bonito, tuna, swordfish, dolphins, sharks, crabs, and corals. Éfaté contains manganese deposits, which were mined in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1994 a geophysical survey identified possible gold and copper deposits on Malakula and Espiritu Santo.


The population of Vanuatu was estimated at 218,519 in 2009, yielding a population density of 18 persons per sq km (46 per sq mi). Ethnic Melanesians known as ni-Vanuatu are 94 percent of the people; the remainder are of French, Vietnamese, Chinese, Polynesian, or Micronesian descent. Rural areas are almost entirely ni-Vanuatu and contain 77 percent of Vanuatu’s people. About 70 percent of the republic’s population live on the islands of Anatom, Éfaté, Espiritu Santo, Futana, Malakula, and Tanna. Besides the capital of Port-Vila, the only other urban area in Vanuatu is Luganville on Espiritu Santo.

English, French, and Bislama, a form of pidgin English, are Vanuatu’s official languages. Government documents are sometimes published in all three. There are also more than 100 Melanesian languages spoken in the republic (see Austronesian languages). Given this linguistic variety, Bislama tends to serve as the nation’s lingua franca, or common language of communication. Literacy rates in Vanuatu rank among the lowest of Pacific nations. Although nearly all of Vanuatu’s children attend primary schools, only about one in five students continues beyond the primary level. The joint British and French colonial administration established a dual education system in Vanuatu, whereby some primary schools teach in English and others teach in French; this system continues today. A teacher training college and an extension of the University of the South Pacific (founded in 1989) are located in Port-Vila.

A majority of the people of Vanuatu practice Christianity. About 35 percent of the population are Presbyterians, while Anglicans (members of the Church of England) and Roman Catholics each comprise about 15 percent. Much of the rural population, regardless of church membership, continues to adhere to traditional animist rituals and beliefs (Animism).

The way of life in Port-Vila reflects its French and English colonial heritage. With fine restaurants, shops, and hotels, it is a cosmopolitan city that caters to Western tourists. Vanuatu’s other urban area, Luganville, is a simpler community with far fewer Western characteristics. In rural areas, the traditional lifestyle centered around subsistence agriculture remains largely intact. Houses made from local wood and palm leaves predominate, and much of the clothing is of traditional design. Both urban and rural residents consume kava, a mildly narcotic drink made from a plant in the pepper family, in ceremonial and recreational settings. Organized sports such as soccer and cricket are popular in Vanuatu’s urban areas.


In 2007 Vanuatu had an estimated gross domestic product (GDP) of $452 million. Agriculture dominates the country’s economy at both the subsistence and commercial levels. About 80 percent of the people engage primarily in subsistence agriculture. Food crops include yams, taro, cassava, and bananas. Livestock raising and small-scale fishing provide nearly all of the beef, pork, poultry, and fish consumed in Vanuatu. Agricultural activities also generate most of the country’s major exports, including copra (dried meat of the coconut), beef, cocoa, and coffee. The forestry industry, which is controlled to prevent overlogging, provides timber, the other important export. Agriculture and forestry also supply Vanuatu’s manufacturing industries, which include food processing and canning and wood processing.

Although agriculture employs the majority of Vanuatu’s workforce, the services sector—especially tourism and offshore banking—provides the majority of GDP. Although Vanuatu’s government originally discouraged tourism beyond Éfaté in an effort to preserve isolated island cultures, the desire to spread the tourism industry’s economic benefits more widely has led in recent years to an increase in rural and village-based tourism. Other sources of revenue in Vanuatu include a shipping registry, which allows foreign merchant ships to operate under the Vanuatu flag to profit from the country’s less restrictive regulations, and the licensing of foreign vessels to fish in surrounding waters. The possibility of reopening manganese-mining operations on Éfaté holds further economic potential.

The value of Vanuatu’s imports typically outweighs the value of its exports by several times. Principal imports include machinery and vehicles, manufactured goods, and mineral fuels. Sources for Vanuatu’s imports include Japan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, France, and the Fiji Islands, while the principal purchasers of its exports are Japan, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The national unit of currency in Vanuatu is the vatu (102.4 vatu equal U.S.$1; 2007 average).

Air Vanuatu and several other airlines provide international service from Vanuatu’s main airport, located near Port-Vila. Several shipping lines provide frequent service to Port-Vila and Luganville, and small vessels shuttle among the islands. There are some paved roads on Éfaté, but mostly unimproved roads elsewhere. Vanuatu has two weekly newspapers, one published by the government and one privately owned. The government operates the only radio and television stations. Radio Vanuatu broadcasts in the three official languages. Many television programs are imported from New Zealand and France. International telephone service is available in Port-Vila and Luganville.


Vanuatu is governed under a constitution that came into effect with the republic’s independence in 1980. The president of Vanuatu serves as head of state, a largely ceremonial office. The president is elected by Vanuatu’s parliament and the heads of regional government councils. The parliament, or legislature, is a single-chamber body whose membership has increased several times since independence; in 1998 the parliament had 52 members. Members of parliament are chosen by popular election and serve four-year terms. The parliament chooses from among its members a prime minister, who serves a four-year term as the head of government and may be reelected indefinitely. The prime minister and a council of ministers that he or she appoints hold executive power. Vanuatu’s National Council of Chiefs, a body of traditional chiefs elected by their peers, plays an advisory role in matters concerning land and cultural traditions. All adults in Vanuatu age 18 and older are eligible to vote.

The Supreme Court of Vanuatu holds the highest level of judicial power. The president appoints the chief justice of the court upon the advice of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. The country also has a court of appeal and magistrate courts that handle local matters. Legislation passed in 1994 replaced Vanuatu’s 11 local government councils with 6 provincial bodies that hold greater executive authority than the former councils.

Vanuatu is active in regional affairs. The country is a member of the South Pacific Commission, a body promoting social stability, and the South Pacific Forum, a regional organization concerned with foreign affairs and international trade. Vanuatu also belongs to the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of countries and territories that give symbolic or actual allegiance to the United Kingdom.


Human Settlement in Vanuatu

Human settlement in present-day Vanuatu dates back at least 4,000 years. Archaeological findings suggest that the first settlers were related to the Melanesian people of the islands to the west of Vanuatu. Polynesians from the central Pacific islands arrived between the 11th and 15th centuries, establishing settlements on the southern islands of Vanuatu. Spanish explorer Pedro de Queirós sighted the islands of Vanuatu in 1606 while searching for a purported southern continent. In 1768 French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville sailed through the islands and landed on several of them. British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in 1774 and began mapping the islands. He named them the New Hebrides after a similarly rugged group of islands off the west coast of Scotland.

More substantial European contact began in 1825, after an Irish seaman discovered sandalwood, valuable in trade with China, on the islands. Despite several violent incidents between Europeans and local residents, the sandalwood trade flourished until the late 1860s, by which time most of the supply had been depleted. In 1839 the first British missionaries arrived in the New Hebrides, and during the 1840s and 1850s missionaries used new Christian converts from the Samoa Islands to establish Christianity, especially Presbyterianism, among the ni-Vanuatu. European settlement on the New Hebrides began in the late 1850s. About this time, European and Australian labor recruiters known as blackbirders began to persuade—and in many cases kidnap—islanders to work on plantations in Australia and on other Pacific islands. The practice of blackbirding continued throughout the 19th century.

Colonial Rule in Vanuatu

By the late 1800s British and French planters had acquired vast tracts of land in the New Hebrides. In order to protect their respective interests and maintain order, Britain and France created a joint naval commission in 1887 composed of naval officers from both countries. However, the commission had no authority to intervene in matters such as land disputes between settlers and native islanders, and thus failed to achieve its purpose. In 1906 the two countries established a unique political body, the British and French Condominium. Each country had authority over its own nationals, and a joint administration was established to govern non-European islanders. Although the arrangement proved to be cumbersome and largely ineffective, it remained in place until 1980.

Shortly after the United States entered World War II in 1941, American military forces established bases at Port-Vila and Luganville. The visible wealth and power of the Americans, along with the apparent equality among soldiers of different races, undermined the islanders’ willingness to obey colonial rule. Many ni-Vanuatu began to feel that the colonial rulers were intentionally denying them the wealth that seemed to exist in the outside world. Several anti-European social and religious movements emerged on the islands after the war ended in 1945.

Independence in Vanuatu

In the 1960s and 1970s political parties formed in opposition to colonial rule and began working with activists to prevent further sales of land to foreigners. In 1975 the colonial government agreed to the formation of a local legislative body, the Representative Assembly. However, while Britain was eager to rid itself of colonies and thus willing to grant the New Hebrides full independence, France was reluctant to leave. English-speaking and French-speaking islanders became increasingly divided along political lines, and secessionist movements emerged on Espiritu Santo and Tanna. Nevertheless, with military assistance from Papua New Guinea, the New Hebrides’ assembly managed to restore order. French, British, and local government officials reached a final independence agreement in mid-July 1980. On July 30 the islands became the sovereign and independent nation of Vanuatu, under a constitution that had been drafted the previous year.

Relations with France improved in the mid-1990s, and Vanuatu was one of the few countries that did not condemn France’s resumption of nuclear testing in the Pacific. In October 1996 a paramilitary unit, the Vanuatu Mobile Force (VMF), briefly kidnapped President Jean-Marie Leyé to highlight its two-month strike over unpaid back pay and allowances. All 138 VMF officers were arrested and not released until they had sworn an oath of allegiance.

In November 1997 President Leyé dissolved parliament and announced new elections in early 1998. The government, which had been elected in 1995, had changed four times. Its leaders were continuously involved in cases of corruption and maladministration. A rivalry between two politicians vying to be prime minister added to the political crisis.

In March 1998 Donald Kalpokas was chosen as the new prime minister of a coalition government. His party, Vanua’aku Pati (VP), emerged with the largest vote in the election, but failed to secure an overall majority. John Bernard Bani became the new president in March 1999. In November 1999 the national assembly of Vanuatu elected Barak Sope of the Melanesian Progressive Party (MPP) as prime minister, replacing Kalpokas. In the same month an earthquake and tidal wave hit the country, killing ten and rendering thousands of people homeless. Sope was forced from office in a vote of no-confidence in April 2001; Edward Natapei of the Vanua’aku Pati was voted in as the new prime minister and began a second term in May 2002. In March 2004 Roger Abiut became acting president.

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