Australian anthropology student Craig Allstop got in touch with a us a while back because he had been studying a small set of Polynesian islands midway between Hawaii and Australia. He said that Tuvalu owns the .tv domain suffix and that, surprisingly, opened up a discussion about the global financial crisis, relationships with Middle Eastern countries, and climate change. Here he explains a bit about how each of these factors are impacting the islands and the people who live on them.
Tuvalu: Small Island, Big Problems
By Craig Allstop
Surely the act of watching a surf clip on korduroy.tv is completely unrelated to anything else going on in the world, right? Well, apparently not, for each time we’re hitting the keys ‘.tv’ we are connecting to a whole lot more than just a website.
The tiny pacific island of Tuvalu, with a population of approximately 10,000, became the rightful owner of ‘.tv’ in 1999 by the International Organisation for Standardisation. It quickly (perhaps a bit too quickly for what it’s now known to be worth) leased the rights to a Californian company for $50 million, instantly boosting an economy that has a gross national income (GNI) per capita of just $5000 (based on 2011 World Bank stats). The royalty payments related to .tv presently account for about 10 percent of the government’s national revenue.
Upon closer look, aside from the localised fishing operations, Tuvalu’s economy mainly relies on remittances (migrant workers sending money back to the island) and a trust fund that was setup in the late 1980’s. Astonishingly, up to 80 percent of a migrant workers’ income is sent back to family members on the island. But because of the global financial crisis, and like many other small Pacific islands, Tuvalu is experiencing trouble in maintaining that flow of income. This is for a variety of reasons, the main one being that there is a tightening of international migration agreements (meaning less opportunities to work abroad), leading to a decrease in the amount of remittance payments seen at home. Some analysts (see Stieglitz 2009) have said that these tiny island nations, far from Wall Street or the shores of Europe, end up being some of the hardest hit by financial crises.
Tuvalu also found itself in the international spotlight last year (garnering the attention of the US Secretary of State) after an astonishing deal with Iran. As the international community imposed tough new economic sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear program, Tuvalu entered an agreement with the largest Iranian shipping company to allow it to operate under the Tuvalu flag. The process of reflagging ships allows countries to mask their ownership and in this case avoid sanctions. The price Tuvalu charged for this act of courtesy is hard to find out. Nevertheless, it experienced some tough threats from international leaders astonished and angered by the tiny pacific nation’s profiteering from a global security agreement.
But the largest troubles facing Tuvalu these days are not just economic ones, nor geopolitical ones, but issues surrounding climate change. With a highest point of just 4.5m above sea level, Tuvalu is often cited as one of the most ‘at risk’ countries in the world. Even the hardest climate change skeptics would admit to being a bit apprehensive in taking residence on an island in the Pacific Ocean 3000km off the coast of Australia with a high point no taller than a 2 story building.
In 2003, addressing the UN general assembly, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu described the climate change threat as nothing short of ‘a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.’ Tough words for a national leader on the international stage, but no doubt necessary as the big emitters continue to ignore the existential impact they have on these low-lying atolls in the Pacific.
Essentially, Tuvalu and our relationship to it through the web suffix .tv, embodies some of the biggest issues of the age we live in. Somehow these two little letters have managed to quickly draw in climate change, the middle east crises, the global financial disaster, international security issues, and the impact of globalism upon remote pacific communities.
But fairly you might ask: so what? Well, I think it’s a stark reminder that as surfers these days we’re often engaging at some level with some hefty global issues. To be clear, I don’t propose that our logging onto Korduroy has a direct impact on Tuvalu or its people. But it’s interesting to see that we can draw parallels from even the most unseemly acts in our surfing lives to issues, people and cultures that are paradoxically far from home and yet also right in front of us.
*Map infographic by Mashell Ewing