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Sailors Steady Island Economies


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AS the dawning day paints mauve clouds, and roosters cackle, two bleary-eyed Kiribati (kir-uh-BAS) boys stand in a sentry box at the gate of the Marine Training Centre. Night watch is part of a sailor-to-be's regimen. It's obviously not one of the attractions of signing on. ``It's for the money,'' says Autin, one of the sentries. ``The main idea is for a new fishing boat for my family.''

``No jobs, except here,'' says fellow sentry Beria.

Kiribati now has more than 1,000 seamen abroad who send home some A$4 million (US $3.05 million) annually, a pittance for most nations. But it amounts to 12 percent of this tiny central Pacific country's gross domestic product.

As decolonization spreads across the Pacific, emerging island micro-states are seeking not just political, but economic independence. Weaning ``coconut'' economies off foreign aid is difficult, however. Vast distances to export markets, high freight charges, unskilled workers, poor communications and transport links are formidable hurdles to development.

To date, successes are few. In the early 1980s, Tuvalu and Kiribati made tidy sums by selling stamps, until the market collapsed. Tourism is reaping substantial, if fluctuating, returns in some island countries. And Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, and now Western Samoa are generating a modest income by setting up corporate tax havens.

Still, one of the most enduring and offbeat successes here is the training of islanders, mostly from Kiribati and Tuvalu, as sailors for international cargo ships.

The Marine Training Centre has been operating since 1967. Set up with aid money from the United Nations and Britain, it's now run by a consortium of nine German shipping companies.

Dressed in numbered uniforms of blue shirts and shorts, the current crop of 130 students have nine months of both classroom and hands-on instruction.

On campus, there's a ship's bridge simulator, plus engine, electrical, and welding shops. Also on the grounds is the deck of a ship complete with crane and cargo doors to practice loading techniques. And a brilliant red ship superstructure is a ``live'' classroom for fire fighting instruction. By the lagoon is a lifeboat and hoist, where lifesaving drills are practiced. Before they officially go to sea, the lads spend three months working on ``Nei Mataburo,'' an inter-island trading vessel.


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