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A Tiny Nation Hopes It's Not Paradise Lost

Tuvalu's laid-back lifestyle and warm Pacific breezes make it an idyllic place. But rising seas threaten to swamp the atoll.

June 27, 2004|Charles J. Hanley | Associated Press Writer

FUNAFUTI, Tuvalu — The 40-odd faithful, Bibles in hand, drive straight onto the prison grounds in pickup trucks. No problem: The fence, more a hint than a hindrance, reaches only halfway around the tiny compound.

They catch the convicts dozing in hammocks beside the beach, on a breezy mid-Pacific morning. In T-shirts and shorts, the six men stumble into place for impromptu prayers, listen politely to the congregation's encouraging words, reply humbly with their own words of thanks.

The good deed done, the inmates line up to shake their departing neighbors' hands -- smiling matrons, little girls in white dresses, burly men in South Seas sarongs.

Then, back to the beach.

"We didn't even know they were coming," confides prisoner Lopatia Iacopo. "This is Sunday. It's our day of rest."

And this is Tuvalu, a place like no other.

A far-flung scattering of islands in a turquoise sea, "Too-VAH-loo" is one of the planet's smallest and most remote nations, just west of the International Date Line, just south of the Equator.

The 9,000 Tuvaluans live on nine islands and atolls comprising 129 islets and adding up to barely 10 square miles of dry land. It's as though half of Manhattan island was sprinkled in pieces over 468,000 square miles of ocean -- a swath the size of France and Germany combined.

Tuvalu has few resources, erratic politics, mounting pollution and a growing fear that the sea, rising because of global warming, will someday drown its flat, palmy profile into oblivion.

"Tuvalu is a very small country with a high degree of vulnerability," the Asian Development Bank observed in a 2003 report.

Even 60 years ago, James Michener found it unpromising. "A truly dismal island," the American author wrote of Funafuti, the main settlement, after passing through during World War II.

But bankers' bottom lines don't tell of the real Tuvalu, of churches full of song and weddings lasting days, of surprise visits to incarcerated sinners, of half an island turning out each dusk to play soccer or volleyball up and down the idle airport runway, their twice-a-week link to the outside world.

As for Michener's dismal time, he must have missed Pole O'Brien's dancing.

Old snapshots show that with her grass skirt and Polynesian beauty, the local nurse charmed American GIs at native performances in 1942 and 1943. Today at 82, shrunken and an invalid, this Irish trader's grandchild knows that her islands, in a world full of strife, are still special.

"The people are happy," she tells a reporter visiting her home. "If you look at them, you can see it in their happy, smiling faces."

Where else, after all, would the prison fence not quite fence the prison in?

"No one tries to escape," Iacopo assures a reporter. "We're fairly treated, and so we do the same."

"Remarkable," U.S. development specialist Gerard A. Finin says of these islands. After a visit from his post at Honolulu's East-West Center, he wrote that Tuvalu "is today among the most economically and socially stable small island states in the Pacific islands region."

The former Ellice Islands colony gained independence from Britain in 1978 and dubbed itself Tuvalu, "Eight Together" in Tuvaluan, signifying the eight main settlements.

Its assets: less than $1 million in cash and a hand-me-down British ship to link the widely separated atolls. The next year, an American swindler dropped by with a tempting tale of investing in Texas real estate and relieved the naive mini-nation of $550,000 in government funds.

The Cold War saved them. In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union offered aid money for fishing rights. To keep Moscow out, Australia, New Zealand and Britain quickly financed a Tuvalu Trust Fund of about $18 million. Those investments, mostly in Australia, prospered and topped $50 million last year, even with regular Tuvalu government withdrawals.

Tuvaluans still subsist in traditional ways: men in little skiffs fishing for tuna; families cultivating breadfruit and pulaka, a taro-like plant; coconut harvested to export its oil. Many families, in their plywood or cinderblock houses, also depend on money sent home by the one in four Tuvaluan men who work as merchant seamen throughout the world.

The islands have found new revenue sources as well. Brightly hued Tuvaluan postage stamps bring in steady income from collectors. The sale of fishing rights to Japan, the United States and other tuna-loving nations brings in even more. The Internet produced the latest moneymaker, with Tuvalu's domain name, ".tv," being licensed to television stations worldwide that want a "dot-TV" Web address.

Tuvalu also relies on direct foreign aid. Japan recently built a new hospital on Funafuti, and the Australians put in a landfill to begin cleaning up piles of island garbage that have nowhere to go.

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