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Map of Tokelau

Map of the Tokelau Islands.
flag of the Tokelau Islands.


Key facts


Official Name - Tokelau

Land Area - Approximately 12 sq km (3-5 metres above sea-level)

Population - 1411 (Oct 2011 Census), Atafu 482, Fakaofo 490, Nukunonu 397, Samoa 42

Capital City - To the extent that Tokelau can be said to have a capital, this rotates between atolls and is the village of the Ulu

Status - Tokelau is a non-self-governing territory of New Zealand

Religion - Christian (Congregational Christian, Roman Catholic)

Language - Tokelauan and English, Samoan is also widely used

Currency - New Zealand dollar

Exchange Rate - N/A

Political System - Tokelau is a non-self-governing territory and has been administered by New Zealand since 1926.

National Government - - Council for the Ongoing Government of Tokelau - three Faipule (village leaders) and two Pulenuku and an elected member of the General Fono make up the Council for the Ongoing Government 2014 – 2016.

Faipule rotate duties as Ulu-o-Tokelau (leader of Tokelau)

National Legislature - General Fono

Last election - January 2014

Next election due - January 2016

Head of State - The Queen in Right of New Zealand is the Head of State of Tokelau. The Queen’s Representative is the Governor-General of New Zealand

Key Ministers

Aliki Kuresa Nasau, Ulu o Tokelau 2014 (Atafu)** - Minister for Economic Development and Natural Resources (including Agriculture and Fisheries)
** the portfolios of Foreign Affairs, Justice, Sports and Women belong to the position of the Uluship and are transferred when the Uluship rotates

Pulenuku, Panapa Sakaria (Nukunonu) – Minister for Support Services

Aliki Faipule, Foua Toloa (Fakaofo) - Minister for Energy, Minister for Transport

Pulenuku, Mose Pelasio (Fakaofo) - Minister for Telecommunications (Teletok)

Aliki Faipule, Sio Perez (Nukunonu) - Minister for Health, Minister for Transport

Hon. Saili Patea Peau (Council Representative for Atafu) - Minister for Education

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Tokelau consists of three small coral atolls, Atafu, Fakaofo and Nukunonu. In the case of Fakaofo, villages are set over two neighbouring islets. In Nukunonu and Atafu, the population of each atoll is concentrated in a single village on one islet. As Tokelau does not have air services, transport is by sea with fortnightly services from Apia, Samoa, located 500km from the southernmost atoll of Fakaofo.

Tokelau operates a system that has been described as 'coral up' government. In this system, Taupulega (village councils of elders on each atoll) are the ultimate source of authority. The Taupulega direct village activities and in turn delegate their authority on national issues to the General Fono. The General Fono is made up of delegates from each atoll including three Faipule (Village Heads) who rotate the leadership of the country, a position known as the Ulu-o-Tokelau.

Although it remains a territory of New Zealand, in the last decade Tokelau has taken on increasing levels of responsibility for its own administration. In 2003 it began to take full responsibility for managing its national budget. In 2004 the Administrator formally delegated his administrative powers to the Council of the Ongoing Government of Tokelau. The Administrator remains responsible for oversight of assistance as well as political developments on or affecting the atolls.

New Zealand assistance provides the majority of Tokelau's recurrent budget as well as funds for major projects such as infrastructure and shipping. In 2010 the General Fono decided on the Tokelau National Strategic Plan for –2010 - 2015. The arrangement focuses on priority areas such as Good Governance; Infrastructure Development; Human Development and Sustainability.

New Zealand’s development support for Tokelau for 2012/13 is NZ$20.3million.

Support to Tokelau is provided in accordance with New Zealand's constitutional obligations outlined in the 2003 Joint Statement of the Principles of Partnership between New Zealand and Tokelau (Principles of Partnership).

The New Zealand and Tokelau governments have signed a Joint Commitment for Development (JCfD) and draws from the Tokelau National Strategic Plan (2010-15) and establishes a shared vision for achieving long-term outcomes.

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Archaeological evidence indicates that the atolls of Tokelau were settled around 1000 years ago. Oral history traces local traditions and genealogies back several hundred years and details the origins of the social and political order that was in place by the 19th century. According to oral sources, the three atolls functioned largely independently while maintaining social and linguistic cohesion. Tokelauan society was governed by chiefly clans, and there were occasional inter-atoll skirmishes and wars as well as inter-marriage. Historically, Fakaofo held some dominance over Atafu and Nukunonu. Life on the atolls was subsistence-based, with reliance on fish and coconut. There is no soil on Tokelau, and therefore the vegetables and fruit that provided staples elsewhere in the Pacific (such as taro and bananas) were not available.

Contact with Europeans led to some significant changes in Tokelauan society. Trading ships brought new foods, cloth and materials, and exposure to new information and ways of doing things. In the 1850s, missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church and the London Missionary Society, with the assistance of Tokelauans who had been introduced to religious activities in Samoa, introduced Christianity, which was readily embraced. Currently, the majority of the Atafu population are Congregational Christians and most of the Nukunonu population are Catholic. On Fakaofo the majority of the population (around 70 percent) are Congregational Christians and most of the remainder are Catholic.

In the 1860s, Peruvian slave ships visited the three atolls and forcibly removed almost all able-bodied men (253) to work as labourers in Peru. The men died in the dozens of dysentery and smallpox, and very few ever returned to Tokelau. The impact of the slave ships was devastating, and led to major changes in governance. With the loss of chiefs and able-bodied men, Tokelau moved to a system of governance based on the Taupulega, or Councils of Elders. On each atoll, individual families were represented on the Taupulega (though the method of selection of family representatives differed among atolls). Village governance today is squarely the domain of the Taupulega.

Tokelau became a British protectorate in 1877, a status that was formalised in 1889. The British Government annexed the group (which had been renamed the Union Islands) in 1916, and included it within the boundaries of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (Kiribati and Tuvalu). In 1926 Britain passed administration of Tokelau to New Zealand. There has never been a residential administrative presence on Tokelau, and therefore administration has been ‘light-handed’ and impinged to a relatively small extent on everyday life on the atolls. Formal sovereignty was transferred to New Zealand with the enactment of the Tokelau Act 1948. While Tokelau was declared to be part of New Zealand from 1 January 1949, it has a distinctive culture and its own political, legal, social, judicial and economic systems.

Over the past three decades Tokelau has moved progressively towards its current advanced level of political self-reliance. It has its own unique political institutions, including a national legislative body and Executive Council. It runs its own judicial system and public services. It has its own shipping and telecommunications systems. It has full control over its budget. It plays an active role in regional affairs and is a member of a number of regional and international bodies.

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Political system

Tokelau is a non-self-governing territory and has been administered by New Zealand since 1926. The Administrator of Tokelau, a statutory position, is held by a New Zealand senior public servant and is appointed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Administrator has technical responsibility for the administration of Tokelau's executive government as set out in the Tokelau Act 1948 (as amended) and the Tokelau Administration Regulations 1993. In practice, however, through a progressive transfer of authority and responsibility over the past decade, Tokelau is largely self-governing with a system of government based on traditional village leadership.

The position of Ulu-o-Tokelau, the Titular Head of State, is rotated among the leader of each atoll (the Faipule) on an annual basis. The General Fono (national assembly) meets three times a year and is made up of elected representatives from each atoll. Executive authority rests with the Council of the Ongoing Government of Tokelau which is based in Apia, Samoa. Tokelau does not have opposition parties.

Government the Tokelauan Way:Every three years sees the election of a Faipule (Political leader-Foreign Affairs) and a Pulenuku (elected Mayor) who directs village activities. Members of the General Fono or National Assembly are also elected at three-year intervals to deal with national issues. The authority of the General Fono is granted by the Taupulega which remain the ultimate source of authority in Tokelau. Between the General Fono meetings, the three Faipule and three Pulenuku (mayors) or representatives of Taupulega meet as the Council for the Ongoing Government of Tokelau which forms the tie between the traditional village governing structure and the national government.

The Ulu-o-Tokelau, is the titular head of the national government. The Ulu chairs the Council for the Ongoing Government of Tokelau while the Chairman of the General Fono is elected by Fono members. Aliki Faipule, Kuresa Nasau of Atafu is Ulu in 2014. The General Fono meets in three sessions of approximately four days during the year. Elections for General Fono representatives are held every three years. In the January 2002 elections, the General Fono adopted a population-based pattern of representation which in 2008 entitled Atafu to seven members, Fakaofo seven and Nukunonu six - making a total of 20 seats.

The Tokelau Amendment Act passed by the New Zealand Parliament in 1996, which came into force on 1 August of that year, conferred on the General Fono the authority to make rules for the peace, order and good government of Tokelau, including the power to impose taxes. The Rules of the General Fono have legal effect in Tokelau. Although Rules may be disallowed by the Administrator within a particular period of time, in practice this power has never been exercised.

New Zealand statute law does not apply to Tokelau unless it is expressly extended to Tokelau. In practice, no New Zealand legislation is extended to Tokelau without Tokelauan consent.

Political and Constitutional Development:In 2003 New Zealand and Tokelau developed a Joint Statement on the Principles of Partnership between the two entities. The document is of a political rather than legal nature and addresses the responsibilities of each party in managing their close partnership. This includes maintenance of language and culture, New Zealand citizenship, economic and administrative assistance, and the Tokelauan community in New Zealand. The document was signed in Tokelau in November 2003, in the presence of the Governor-General. The former Prime Minister of New Zealand made an official visit to Tokelau in August 2004.

In November 2005 New Zealand and Tokelau approved the text of a Draft Treaty of Free Association which formed the basis of a formal act of self-determination by Tokelau in February 2006. The referendum rules set by the General Fono required a two thirds majority of valid votes for a change of status to self-government in free association with New Zealand. The referendum was monitored by a United Nations team. Although the referendum did not reach the required two-third’s majority, Tokelau asked that the draft Treaty and supporting documents remain ‘on the table’ as Tokelau debated its political future.

At the General Fono in August 2006 it was decided to hold a second referendum the following year. Extensive consultations took place in Tokelau prior to this second vote. In addition, Tokelau's Council for Ongoing Government met with Tokelauan communities outside Tokelau - in New Zealand, Hawaii, American Samoa, Samoa and Australia. From 20-24 October 2007, Tokelau held its second referendum and again did not reach the two-thirds majority required for a change of status.  The result is that Tokelauans have exercised their right to self-determination on both these occasions by voting to remain members of a non-self-governing territory within the Realm of New Zealand.

Following these two referenda Tokelau’s leaders, in February 2008, met with New Zealand’s Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. In the discussions held during this period it was agreed that Tokelau would benefit from increased effort and attention being directed to the improvement of services and infrastructure on the atolls. This shared commitment has continued to inform programmes within Tokelau and those directed at supporting the quality of living on the atolls.


Foreign relations

Tokelau does not have an international legal personality separate from that of New Zealand. New Zealand may extend treaty obligations which it enters into to Tokelau, if Tokelau expressly requests to be included. New Zealand supports Tokelau's aspirations to enter into arrangements with other countries or join regional or international organisations in its own right, where such participation is consistent with Tokelau's status as a non-self-governing territory.

Multilateral linkages

With New Zealand's support, Tokelau has sought and obtained the entitlement to participate fully and in its own right in regional organisations such as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the South Pacific Regional Environmental Programme, the Forum Fisheries Agency, SOPAC and the Council of the University of the South Pacific. Observer status was granted to Tokelau by the Pacific Islands Forum in October 2005. Tokelau is also an associate member of the World Health Organisation and UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

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Bilateral relationship

Tokelau, as a non-self-governing territory, remains on the list of such territories compiled by the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation. Increasingly, Tokelau has expressed a desire to run itself to the greatest extent possible. Much thought has been given in Tokelau and New Zealand as to the best path to achieve some kind of sustained autonomy. This is also consistent with New Zealand’s obligation, in terms of Article 73 of the UN Charter, to work with Tokelau towards an act of self-determination.

From the 1960s, following the path of many Pacific countries, New Zealand worked with Tokelau to establish a model of government (based on a national legislature and a national public service). In recent years Tokelauans made it clear that they would prefer the source of authority on Tokelau to be the Taupulega (village councils of elders - the traditional governing authority). The desire to return to a system of self-government based on the village led to the decision to transfer the Administrator’s authority to the three Taupulega, which now manage all services at the village level and have delegated authority to the General Fono and Council for Ongoing Government to decide issues of national and international significance. This approach is distinct from the Westminster system, and is more suited to the Tokelauan context.


Under the Principles of Partnership New Zealand retains responsibility for the defence and security of Tokelau. Tokelau benefits from the maritime surveillance programmes of the New Zealand Defence Force and is also supported wherever possible through other defence programmes.


Tokelauans, as New Zealand citizens, have full rights to enter and live in New Zealand and receive the same benefits as other New Zealanders. Tokelauans travel on New Zealand passports.

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Official Development Assistance

For the 2012/13 financial year, New Zealand's projected official development assistance to Tokelau is $20.3 million. New Zealand was the largest bilateral donor to Tokelau, with its economic support amounting to around 75% percent of Tokelau's recurrent budget. An International Trust Fund was established in 2004 to provide Tokelau with an independent source of revenue and now stands at $70 million.

Shipping services

Tokelau relies on shipping to connect with the world. New Zealand and Tokelau are working to ensure reliable, adequate and efficient transportation for residents on the three atolls.  In May 2012 an agreement was signed a two with PB Sea-Tow to provide an interim safe and reliable ferry service for Tokelau.  The PB Matua is now operating on the Apia-Tokelau route. 

New Zealand is now working with Tokelau to build a new long term ship to service the Apia – Tokelau route, suitable for the next twenty five years.

New Zealand and Tokelau are also working to ensure safe ship to shore operations, including suitable equipment, wharf infrastructure and maritime safety planning.


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Culture and heritage

New Zealand and Tokelau recognise that Tokelau's unique language and culture are a source of strength and identity both in Tokelau and among Tokelau communities in New Zealand.

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Economic and social

Primary production

The physical characteristics of the atolls allow limited scope for economic development and the few natural resources are sufficient only to meet the needs of the people. Agricultural products are of a basic subsistence nature. Food crops consist of coconuts, pulaka, breadfruit, taamu, papaya, edible padanus fruit and bananas. Many other seeds have been tested but because of the poverty of the soil very poor results have been achieved. Crops, particularly coconut trees, must be protected from the Polynesian rat and the rhinoceros beetle.

Livestock consists of pigs, and poultry. Attempts to improve the local pig stock have achieved some positive results. Exotic breeds have been interbred with local pigs to produce new bloodlines.

Trust Fund

Although it is currently heavily dependent on New Zealand for economic support, Tokelau has its own Trust Fund (now standing at $70 million in 2012) and is looking at ways of increasing its own revenue earning capacity in areas such as fisheries licensing, handicrafts, tourism and stamps and coins.


Ocean and lagoon fish and shellfish are readily available and are part of the staple diet. Fisheries licence fees are expected to contribute substantially to Tokelau's budget now that the Administrator of Tokelau is managing Tokelau's EEZ as a result of new regulations.

Manufacturing and commerce

Copra production has declined significantly in recent years due to falling international requirements. Tokelauan handicraft, particularly woven items such as mats, hats, bags and fans, are renowned throughout the Pacific for their detail. Stamps and coins also generate revenue for Tokelau.

Each village has co-operative stores run by village management committees. The public service administration works closely with these committees to assist with management and to reduce the costs of goods arriving in Tokelau.


Accommodation is available by request on all villages.


Each atoll has one school - Matauala (Atafu), Matiti (Nukunonu) and Tialeniu (Fakaofo). The schools provide education for pre-schoolers and Years 1- 10 (Primary to Form 5). Some students are awarded scholarships to attend schools in Samoa and, if successful, enrol in tertiary institutions in Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand. Privately funded students also attend schools in Samoa, New Zealand and Australia.
The University of the South Pacific (USP) has an outpost on each atoll that is electronically linked to USP (Fiji). The potential of this facility to provide tertiary education and training for Tokelau has yet to be fully explored.

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Travel advice

The Safe Travel website provides a travel advisory for travellers to Tokelau [external link].

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Page last updated: Friday, 14 March 2014 13:57 NZDT