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Marshall Islands

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Republic of the Marshall Islands
Aolepān Aorōkin M̧ajeļ
Flag Seal
Motto: "Jepilpilin ke ejukaan"
"Accomplishment through joint effort"
Anthem:  Forever Marshall Islands
and largest city
7°7′N 171°4′E
Official languages
Ethnic groups (2006)
  • 92.1% Marshallese
  • 5.9% mixed Marshallese
  • 2% others
Demonym Marshallese
Government Unitary presidential
democratic republic
 -  President Christopher Loeak
Legislature Nitijela
 -  Self-government 1979 
 -  Compact of Free Association October 21, 1986 
 -  Total 181 km2 ( 213th)
70 sq mi 
 -  Water (%) n/a (negligible)
 -  2009 estimate 68,000 ( 205th)
 -  2003 census 56,429
 -  Density 342.5/km2 ( 28th)
885.7/sq mi
GDP ( PPP) 2001 estimate
 -  Total $115 million ( 220th)
 -  Per capita $2,900a ( 195th)
Currency United States dollar ( USD)
Time zone MHT ( UTC+12)
Drives on the right
Calling code +692
ISO 3166 code MH
Internet TLD .mh
a. 2005 estimate.

The Marshall Islands, officially the Republic of the Marshall Islands ( Marshallese: Aolepān Aorōkin M̧ajeļ), is an island country located in the northern Pacific Ocean. Geographically, the country is part of the larger island group of Micronesia, with the population of 68,480 people spread out over 34 low-lying coral atolls, comprising 1,156 individual islands and islets. The islands share maritime boundaries with the Federated States of Micronesia to the west, Wake Island to the north, Kiribati to the south-east, and Nauru to the south. The most populous atoll is Majuro, which also acts as the capital.

Micronesian colonists gradually settled the Marshall Islands during the 2nd millennium BC, with inter-island navigation made possible using traditional stick charts. Islands in the archipelago were first explored by Europeans in the 1520s, with Spanish explorer Alonso de Salazar sighting an atoll in August 1526. Other expeditions by Spanish and English ships followed, with the islands' current name stemming from British explorer John Marshall. Recognised as part of the Spanish East Indies in 1874, the islands were sold to Germany in 1884, and became part of German New Guinea in 1885. The Empire of Japan occupied the Marshall Islands in World War I, which were later joined with other former German territories in 1919 by the League of Nations to form the South Pacific Mandate. In World War II, the islands were conquered by the United States in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign. Along with other Pacific Islands, the Marshall Islands were then consolidated into the United-States-governed Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Self-government was achieved in 1979, and full sovereignty in 1986, under a Compact of Free Association with the United States.

Politically, the Marshall Islands is a presidential republic in free association with the United States, with the US providing defense, funding grants, and access to social services. Having few natural resources, the islands' wealth is based on a service economy, as well as some fishing and agriculture, with a large percentage of the islands' gross domestic product coming from United States aid. The country uses the United States dollar as its currency. The majority of citizens of the Marshall Islands are of Marshallese descent, with small numbers of immigrants from the Philippines and other Pacific islands. The two official languages are Marshallese, a member of the Malayo-Polynesian languages, and English. Almost the entire population of the islands practises some religion, with three-quarters of the country either following the United Church of Christ – Congregational in the Marshall Islands (UCCCMI) or the Assemblies of God.


The Marshall Islands were settled by Micronesians in the 2nd millennium BC. Little is known of this early history. People traveled by canoe between islands using traditional stick charts.

Spanish exploration

Spanish explorer Alonso de Salazar was the first European to see the islands in 1526, commanding the ship Santa Maria de la Victoria, the only surviving vessel of the Loaísa Expedition. On August 21, he sighted an island at 14°N that they named "San Bartolome" (probably Taongi).

On September 21, 1529, Álvaro de Saavedra Cerón commanded the Spanish ship Florida, on his second attempt to recross the Pacific from the Moluccas. He stood off a group of islands from which several natives came off and hurled stones at his ship. These islands, named by him "Los Pintados," may have been Ujelang. On October 1, he found another group of islands where he went ashore for eight days, exchanged gifts with natives and took on water. These islands, " Los Jardines," could be Eniwetok or Bikini Atoll.

The Spanish ship San Pedro and two other vessels in expedition commanded by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi on January 9, discovered an island at 10°N where they went ashore and traded with natives and named it "Los Barbudos" (possibly Mejit). On January 10, they sighted another island that they named "Placeres" (perhaps Ailuk), ten leagues away, they sighted another island that they called "Pajares" (perhaps Jemo). On January 12, they sighted another island at 10°N which they called "Corrales" (possibly Wotho). On January 15, another low island was sighted at 10°N (perhaps Ujelang) where they made a good description of the people on "Barbudos." After that, ships like San Jeronimo, Los Reyes, Todos los Santos also visited the islands in different years.

Other European expeditions

Captain John Charles Marshall together with Thomas Gilbert came to the islands in 1788. The islands were named after the first in the Russian ( Krusenstern) and French ( Duperrey) maps (1820), later in the English maps. However, they were claimed under the Spanish sovereignty as part of the Spanish East Indies. In 1874, the Spanish sovereignty was recognized by the international community. They were sold to Germany in 1884 through papal mediation.

A German trading company settled on the islands in 1885. They became part of the protectorate of German New Guinea some years later.

World War I

Under German Imperial control, and even before then, Japanese traders and fishermen from time to time visited the Marshall Islands, although contact with the islanders was irregular. After the Meiji Restoration (1868), the Japanese government adopted a policy of turning Japan into a great economic and military power in East Asia.

In 1914, Japan joined the Entente powers during World War I, and found it possible to capture German colonies in China and Micronesia. On September 29, 1914, Japanese troops occupied the atoll of Enewetak, and on September 30, 1914 the atoll of Jaluit the administrative centre of the Marshall Islands. After the war, on June 28, 1919, Germany renounced all of its Pacific possessions, including the Marshall Islands. On December 17, 1920, the Council of the League of Nations approved the mandate for Japan to take over all former German colonies in the Pacific Ocean located north of the equator. The Administrative Centre of the Marshall Islands atoll remained Jaluit.

The Japanese were unlike the German Empire, which had primarily economic interests in Micronesia. Despite its small area and few resources, the absorption of the territory by Japan would to some extent alleviate Japan's problem of an increasing population but an ever decreasing amount of available land to house it. During its years of colonial rule, Japan moved more than 1,000 Japanese to the Marshall Islands although they never outnumbered the indigenous peoples as they did in the Mariana Islands and Palau.

The Japanese enlarged administration and appointed local leaders, which weakened the authority of local traditional leaders. Japan also tried to change the social organization in the islands from Matrilineality to the Japanese Patriarchal system, but with no success. Moreover, during the 1930s, one third of all land up to the high water level was declared the property of the Japanese government. On the archipelago, before it banned foreign traders, the activities of Catholic and Protestant missionaries were allowed. Indigenous people were educated in Japanese schools, and studied Japanese language and Japanese culture. This policy was the government strategy not only in the Marshall Islands, but on all the other mandated territories in Micronesia. On March 27, 1933, Japan left the League of Nations, but continued to manage the islands, and in the late 1930s began building air bases on several atolls. The Marshall Islands were in an important geographical position, being the easternmost point in Japan's defensive ring at the beginning of World War II.

World War II

US troops inspecting an enemy bunker, Kwajalein Atoll. 1944.

In the months before the attack on Pearl Harbour, Kwajalein Atoll was the administrative centre of the Japanese 6th Fleet Forces Service, whose task was the defense of the Marshall Islands.

In World War II, the United States, during the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign, invaded and occupied the islands in 1944, destroying or isolating the Japanese garrisons. The US government added the archipelago to the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, along with several other island groups in the South Sea.

The battle in the Marshall Islands caused irreparable damage, especially on Japanese bases. During the American bombing, the islands' population suffered from lack of food and various injuries.

U.S. attacks started in mid-1943, and caused half the Japanese garrison of 5,100 people in the atoll Mili to die from hunger by August 1945. In just one month in 1944, Americans captured Kwajalein Atoll, Majuro and Enewetak, and in the next two months the rest of the Marshall Islands except Wotje, Mili, Maloelap and Jaluit.

Shipping Lane Patrol Kwajalein Island (Marshall Islands-April 1945)

Nuclear tests after World War II

Mushroom cloud from the largest nuclear test the United States ever conducted, Castle Bravo.

From 1946 to 1958, as the site of the Pacific Proving Grounds, the U.S. tested 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, including the largest nuclear test the U.S. ever conducted, Castle Bravo. In 1956, the Atomic Energy Commission regarded the Marshall Islands as "by far the most contaminated place in the world".

Nuclear claims between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands are ongoing, and health effects from these nuclear tests linger. Project 4.1 was a medical study conducted by the United States of those residents of the Bikini Atoll exposed to radioactive fallout. From 1956 to August 1998, at least $759 million was paid to the Marshallese Islanders in compensation for their exposure to U.S. nuclear testing.

With the 1952 test of the first U.S. hydrogen bomb, code named " Ivy Mike", the island of Elugelab in the Enewetak atoll was destroyed.


In 1979, the Government of the Marshall Islands was officially established and the country became self-governing.

In 1986, the Compact of Free Association with the United States entered into force, granting the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) its sovereignty. The Compact provided for aid and U.S. defense of the islands in exchange for continued U.S. military use of the missile testing range at Kwajalein Atoll. The independence procedure was formally completed under international law in 1990, when the UN officially ended the Trusteeship status.


The Marshall Islands Capitol building

The government of the Marshall Islands operates under a mixed parliamentary-presidential system as set forth in its Constitution. Elections are held every four years in universal suffrage (for all citizens above 18), with each of the twenty-four constituencies (see below) electing one or more representatives (senators) to the lower house of RMI’s bicameral legislature, the Nitijela. ( Majuro, the capital atoll, elects five senators.) The President, who is head of state as well as head of government, is elected by the 33 senators of the Nitijela. Four of the five Marshallese presidents who have been elected since the Constitution was adopted in 1979 have been traditional paramount chiefs.

Legislative power lies with the Nitijela. The upper house of Parliament, called the Council of Iroij, is an advisory body comprising twelve tribal chiefs. The executive branch consists of the President and the Presidential Cabinet, which consists of ten ministers appointed by the President with the approval of the Nitijela. The twenty-four electoral districts into which the country is divided correspond to the inhabited islands and atolls. There are currently three political parties in the Marshall Islands: Aelon Kein Ad (AKA), United People's Party (UPP), and United Democratic Party (UDP). Rule is shared by the UDP and the UPP. The following senators are in the legislative body:

  • Ailinglaplap Atoll – Christopher J. Loeak (AKA), Ruben R. Zackhras (UDP)
  • Ailuk Atoll – Maynard Alfred (UDP)
  • Arno Atoll – Nidel Lorak (UPP), Gerald M. Zackios (UDP)
  • Aur Atoll – Norman Matthew (UPP)
  • Ebon Atoll – John M. Silk (UDP)
  • Enewetak Atoll – Jack Ading (UPP)
  • Jabat Island – Kessai H. Note (UDP)
  • Jaluit Atoll – Rien R. Morris (UDP), Speaker Alvin T. Jacklick (UDP)
  • Kili Island – Tomaki Juda (UDP)
  • Kwajalein Atoll – Michael Kabua (AKA), Tony A. deBrum (AKA), Jeban Riklon (AKA)
  • Lae Atoll – Rellong D. Lemari (AKA)
  • Lib Island – Jerakoj Jerry Bejang (AKA)
  • Likiep Atoll – Donald F. Capelle (UDP)
  • Majuro Atoll – Wilfred I. Kendall (UDP), David Kramer (IND), Brenson S. Wase (UDP), Vice Speaker Alik J. Alik (UDP), 'H.E. President Jurelang Zedkaia' (UDP)
  • Maloelap Atoll – Michael Konelios (UDP)
  • Mejit Island – Dennis Momotaro (UPP)
  • Mili Atoll – Kejjo Bien (UPP)
  • Namdrik Atoll – Mattlan Zackhras (UDP)
  • Namu Atoll – Kaiboke Kabua (AKA)
  • Rongelap Atoll – Kenneth Kedi (IND)
  • Ujae Atoll – Frederick H. Muller (UPP)
  • Utirik Atoll – Amenta Matthew (IND)
  • Wotho Atoll – David Kabua (AKA)
  • Wotje Atoll – Litokwa Tomeing (UPP)

Foreign affairs and defense

The Compact of Free Association with the United States gives the U.S. sole responsibility for international defense of the Marshall Islands. It allows islanders to live and work in the United States, and establishes economic and technical aid programs.

In international politics, Marshall Islands has often voted with the United States with respect to United Nations General Assembly resolutions.


Map of the Marshall Islands
Beach scenery at Laura, Majuro.

The islands are located north of Nauru and Kiribati, east of the Federated States of Micronesia, and south of the U.S. territory of Wake Island, to which it lays claim.

The country consists of 29 atolls and 5 isolated islands. The atolls and islands form two groups: the Ratak Chain and the Ralik Chain (meaning "sunrise" and "sunset" chains). 24 of them are inhabited (see above section). The uninhabited atolls are:

  • Ailinginae Atoll
  • Bikar (Bikaar) Atoll
  • Bikini Atoll
  • Bokak Atoll
  • Erikub Atoll
  • Jemo Island
  • Nadikdik Atoll
  • Rongerik Atoll
  • Toke Atoll
  • Ujelang Atoll

A majority of the islands' land mass is at sea level.

Shark sanctuary

In October 2011, the government declared that an area covering nearly 2,000,000 square kilometres (772,000 sq mi) of ocean shall be reserved as a shark sanctuary. This is the world's largest shark sanctuary, extending the worldwide ocean area in which sharks are protected from 2,700,000 square kilometres (1,042,000 sq mi) to 4,600,000 square kilometres (1,776,000 sq mi). In protected waters all shark fishing is banned and all by-catch must be released. However, the ability of the Marshall Islands to enforce this zone has been questioned.

Territorial claim on Wake Island

The Marshall Islands also lays claim to Wake Island. While Wake has been administered by the United States since 1899, the Marshallese government refers to it by the name Enen-kio.


Average monthly temperatures (red) and precipitation (blue) on Majuro.

The climate is hot and humid, with a wet season from May to November. The islands occasionally suffer from typhoons. Many Pacific typhoons start in the Marshall Islands region and grow stronger as they move west toward the Mariana Islands and the Philippines.

Climate-related emergencies

In 2008, extreme waves and high tides caused widespread flooding in the capital city of Majuro and other urban centres, located at 1 metre (3 ft 3 in) above sea level. On Christmas morning in 2008, the government declared a state of emergency.

The Marshall Islands are threatened by the potential effects of storm surges as well as sea level rise. According to the president of Nauru, the Marshall Islands are the nation ranked as the most endangered due to flooding from climate change.


Graphical depiction of Marshall Islands's product exports in 28 colour-coded categories.

The islands have few natural resources, and imports far exceed exports.


In 2007, the Marshall Islands joined the International Labor Organization, which means its labor laws will comply with international benchmarks. This may impact business conditions in the islands.


The income tax has two brackets, with rates of 8% and 14%. The corporate tax is 11.5%. The general sales tax is 6%. There are no property taxes.

Foreign assistance

United States government assistance is the mainstay of the economy.

Under the terms of the Amended Compact of Free Association, the U.S. will provide US$57.7 million per year to the Marshall Islands (RMI) through 2013, and then US$62.7 million through 2023, at which time a trust fund, made up of U.S. and RMI contributions, will begin perpetual annual payouts.

The United States Army maintains its Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll. Marshallese land owners receive rent for the base, and a large number of Marshallese work there. The main airport was built by the Japanese during World War II.

The only tarmac road of the capital was built partly by the Taiwanese and partly by the Americans.


Agricultural production is concentrated on small farms. The most-important commercial crops are coconuts, tomatoes, melons, and breadfruit.


Small-scale industry is limited to handicrafts, fish processing, and copra.


Fishing has been critical to the economy of this island nation since its settlement.

In 1999, a private company built a tuna loining plant with more than 400 employees, mostly women. But the plant closed in 2005, after a failed attempt to convert it to produce tuna steaks, a process that requires half as many employees. Operating costs exceeded revenue, and the plant's owners tried to partner with the government to prevent closure. But government officials personally interested in an economic stake in the plant refused to help. After the plant closed, it was taken over by the government, which had been the guarantor of a $2 million loan to the business.


On September 15, 2007, Witon Barry (of the Tobolar Copra processing plant in the Marshall Islands capital of Majuro) said power authorities, private companies, and entrepreneurs had been experimenting with coconut oil as alternative to diesel fuel for vehicles, power generators, and ships. Coconut trees abound in the Pacific's tropical islands. Copra, the meat of the coconut, yields coconut oil (1 liter for every 6 to 10 coconuts). In 2009, a 57 kW solar power plant was installed, the largest in the pacific at the time, including New Zealand. It is estimated that 330 kW of solar and 450 kW of wind power would be required to make the College of the Marshall Islands energy self-sufficient. Marshalls Energy Company (MEC), a government entity, provides the islands with electricity. In 2008, 420 solar home systems of 200 Wp each were installed on Ailinglaplap Atoll, sufficient for limited electricity use.


There are 68,000 people living in the Marshall Islands. Most of these are Marshallese. The Marshallese are of Micronesian origin and migrated from Asia several thousand years ago. A minority of Marshallese have some recent Asian ancestry, mainly Japanese. Two-thirds of the nation's population lives on Majuro, the capital, and Ebeye, a densely populated island. The outer islands are sparsely populated due to lack of employment opportunities and economic development. Life on the outer atolls is generally traditional.

The official language of the Marshall Islands is Marshallese, but it is common to speak the English language.


Major religious groups in the Republic of the Marshall Islands include the United Church of Christ (formerly Congregational), with 51.5 percent of the population; the Assemblies of God, 24.2 percent; and the Roman Catholic Church, 8.4 percent. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 8.3 percent; Also represented are Bukot Nan Jesus (also known as Assembly of God Part Two), 2.2 percent; Baptist, 1.0 percent; Seventh-day Adventists, 0.9 percent; Full Gospel, 0.7 percent; and the Baha'i Faith, 0.6 percent. Persons without any religious affiliation account for a very small percentage of the population. There is also a small community of Ahmadiyya Muslims based in Majuro, with the first mosque opening in the capital in September 2012.


The Marshall Islands Ministry of Education operates the state schools in the Marshall Islands. There are two tertiary institutions operating in the Marshall Islands – the College of the Marshall Islands and The University of the South Pacific.


The Marshall Islands are served by the Marshall Islands International Airport in Majuro, the Bucholz Army Airfield in Kwajalein, and other small airports and airstrips.

In 2005, Aloha Airlines canceled its flight services to the Marshall Islands.


Nuclear tests at Enewatak have left islanders there suffering from cancer and birth defects.


Marshallese fans

Marshallese is used by the government. Although the ancient skills are now in decline, the Marshallese were once able navigators, using the stars and stick-and-shell charts.

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