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Tuvalu, the world's fourth smallest country, is a group of nine coral islands in the western Pacific Ocean (half-way between Australia and Hawaii, just to the west of the International Date Line), covering just 26 square kilometres of low-lying land (the highest point in the island chain is five metres above sea level) with a population of just over 10,000, mainly farmers and fishermen.

A Brief History of the Islands

From studies of the local language, it has been deduced that the natives of Tuvalu have been there for around 2,000 years and that they are distantly related to the people of Samoa and the Wallis Islands.

However, in 1986, a group of scuba divers discovered an underwater cave, with evidence of human occupation dating back some 8,000 years.

The evidence provided by this cave blatantly contradicts the widely-held view that human life first colonised the Pacific some 4,000 years ago. However, studies of past climatic changes have pointed to a massive rise in sea levels, starting some 18,000 years ago, which could well have wiped out all traces of earlier civilisations.

Despite having been sighted by European explorers on two occasions in the 16th Century and again in the 18th Century, the first person with European connections to actually set foot on one of the islands was an American, Captain Arent de Peyster, in 1819. He named the small group of Islands 'Ellice's Group' - after the owner of his ship's cargo, the British MP and merchant - Edward Ellice.

The remoteness of the group of islands meant that they were left pretty much to themselves for many years; however, in the late 19th Century the Islands were made part of the British Protectorate of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands as an attempt to forestall possible German expansion in the Pacific.

Despite the construction of several American airbases during the Second World War, the islands remained under British control until 1974, when the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders were granted self-government rights. However, the Ellice Islanders themselves were not too pleased at being governed by their neighbouring Gilbert Islanders1 and a survey carried out later that year by the British resulted in just 293 of the Ellice Islanders voting to remain as part of the group and 3799 voting for complete independence. As a result, the Ellice Islands were granted full independence on 1 January, 1976 and renamed Tuvalu. In 1978 Tuvalu became a member of the British Commonwealth, and, in 2000, the 189th member of the United Nations.

Tuvalu and Global Warming

As the highest point on the islands is just five metres above sea level, global warming and its possible effect on sea level have become an important issue for the islanders.

In 2000, the Tuvaluan government appealed to Australia and New Zealand to accept the islanders as refugees should sea levels rise and render the islands uninhabitable. In addition, in 2002, the country's government started to look into the possibility of launching a lawsuit against both the USA and Australia via the International Court of Justice in The Hague - as both countries are not only amongst the largest producers of Greenhouse gases in the world but have both refused to sign the Kyoto Treaty.

Tuvalu Today

As the islands are too remote for a tourist industry to have developed, the islanders live on what little money is made from the exploitation of the coral reefs around the islands and foreign aid, as well as by granting permits for foreign vessels to fish within their territorial waters.

Until recently, a fair percentage of the country's income came from a thousand or so Tuvaluans working in the phosphate industry on a neighbouring island, Nauru and sending money back home. However, as the industry declined this source of income dried up and many of the Tuvaluans returned home.

However, in 1996, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA)2 assigned this group of islands the International Domain Name bigram - .TV.

This quirk of fate instantly started a bidding war for the rights to market the country's domain, and eventually, the government signed a contract with a Canadian company worth $5million per year for a decade.

Although that may not seem a lot of money on an international scale, considering that - even taking this figure into consideration - the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the Island group in 2000 was just $12 million, this one contract virtually doubled the national wealth.

Whether this is considered the exploitation of a population living a simple life or a lucky lifeline, the islanders themselves have used this income to build and staff hospitals on each of the inhabited islands and pay for a ferry service between the outlying islands. As one of the island's MPs said, 'We were very, very, very poor, but now we are getting some money from the marketing of assets like .tv. We are very lucky to have struck such a deal and I know there are some countries here in the South Pacific that are very jealous'.

Other Information

The islanders, despite having virtually no Internet access themselves, have an extensive website giving more information on the islands here.

And as a perfect example of the use of this domain name, just click on this link... www.bbc.tv.

Finally, for more information on Tuvalu, you might want to read the information available via the American CIA World Factbook.

1After independence, the Gilbert Islands were renamed Kiribati.2Now the ICANN - The Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers.

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