June 11, 2012, 7:48 pm
Source: CIA World Factbook
Content Cover Image

Tonga Island Photograph by David Olson

Tonga is a nation archipelago of 169 islands (36 inhabited) in the South Pacific Ocean, about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand, south of Samoa.

Tonga is home to 106,000 people.

Its major environmental issues include:


  • deforestation which results as more and more land is being cleared for agriculture and settlement;
  • some damage to coral reefs from starfish and indiscriminate coral and shell collectors; and,
  • overhunting threatens native sea turtle populations

Tonga is susceptible to  cyclones (October to April); and to earthquakes and volcanic activity on Fonuafo'ou.

Many of the islands are actually volcanoes strung along what is called a subduction zone, where two plates (the Indo-Australian and Pacific) are colliding. The denser oceanic plate is being pushed under the lighter continental plate and is actually sinking into the mantle, the area in between the Earth´s crust and core. Fonualei (elev. 180 m) has shown frequent activity in recent years, while Niuafo'ou (elev. 260 m), which last erupted in 1985, has forced evacuations. Other historically active volcanoes include Late and Tofua

Tonga - unique among Pacific nations - never completely lost its indigenous governance.

The archipelagos of "The Friendly Islands" were united into a Polynesian kingdom in 1845.

Tonga became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900. It withdrew from the protectorate and joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970.

Tonga remains the only monarchy in the Pacific.

The Tonga Islands are a popular tourist destination, known for their white sand beaches, coral reefs, and humpback whales. The islands are also home to several endemics, or species only found locally, as well as two threatened bird species. Like many islands, the biodiversity of the Tongas are under pressure from introduced species, such as rats.


Tonga is an archipelago directly south of Western Samoa. Its 171 islands, 48 of them inhabited, are divided into three main groups--Vava'u, Ha'apai, and Tongatapu--and cover an 800-kilometer (500 mi.)-long north-south line. The largest island, Tongatapu, on which the capital city of Nuku'alofa is located, covers 257 square kilometers (99 sq. mi.). Geologically the Tongan islands are of two types: most have a limestone base formed from uplifted coral formations; others consist of limestone overlaying a volcanic base.

The climate is basically subtropical with a distinct warm period (December-April), during which the temperatures rise above 32oC (90oF), and a cooler period (May-November), with temperatures rarely rising above 27oC (80oF). The temperature increases from 23oC to 27oC (74oF to 80oF), and the annual rainfall is from 170 to 297 centimeters (67-117 in.) as one moves from Tongatapu in the south to the more northerly islands closer to the Equator. The mean daily humidity is 80%.-

Location: Oceania, archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand

Source: NASA

August 2006 brought two new things to the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific. One was a raft of lightweight, frothy volcanic rock—pumice—floating on the ocean surface. The other was a new island emerging out of the water. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) flying onboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured the aftermath of the eruption on August 10, 2006 (top), at 1:30 UTC (2:30 p.m. local time). For comparison, the bottom image shows the same area on September 15, 2005.

In the top image, the emerging volcanic island is partially hidden by its own plume. Volcanic plumes often appear drab gray or beige compared to clouds, and plumes from the emerging island move away from it in different directions, one to the southeast, and some to the north. The bright white spot directly over the island may be cloud cover, or it could be steam resulting from volcanic emissions.

The raft of pumice appears to the northeast of the emerging island, and it actually connects, via a thin thread, to neighboring Late Island. The blue-green color of the water around the raft and the new island is probably fine sediment that is making the deep blue water more reflective. The pumice raft gained international attention when a news report from Tonga Online described the experience of a yacht crew that inadvertently encountered the pumice raft. The “sea of stone” clogged the yacht’s engine-cooling system, forcing the vessel to turn back.

Pumice rafts are not an everyday occurrence, but they have been observed before. In 1986, a pumice raft of unknown origin caused engine trouble for a Dutch vessel in the South China Sea. Biologists have also proposed pumice rafts as a way to explain how plants and animals spread from island to island in marine environments.

Source: NASA. images by Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory, based on data from the MODIS Rapid Response System, Goddard Space Flight Center.

In mid-March 2009, a plume of ash and gas burst out of the ocean as an undersea volcano began to erupt in the South Pacific nation of Tonga. Small sections of the rim of the large volcano had been above water, forming the islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha'apai. The eruption occurred at two vents, one submerged and the other on Hunga Ha'apai. The eruption pumped out enough rock and ash that by March 25, when the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured the top image, the submerged vent was surrounded by new land.

The new land is the dark mass south of Hunga Ha'apai. It was not present when ASTER acquired the lower image on November 14, 2006. In the March 25 image, clouds cover the space between the new land and Hunga Ha'apai, but news reports indicate that the new land connects Hunga Ha'apai with the underwater vent, essentially enlarging the small island. The vent itself is the nearly perfectly circular hole near the southern edge of the new land.

The image reveals some of the other impacts of the eruption. The ocean around the erupting volcano is bright blue, likely colored with ash, rock, and other volcanic debris. The eruption also killed or damaged plants on Hunga Ha'apai. In these false-color images, plant-covered land is red. In 2006, Hunga Ha'apai had supported vegetation, but after the eruption, the island was black. Either the plants were buried in ash or dead in the wake of the eruption. According to a visiting reporter, the eruption destroyed plant and birdlife on the island, leaving blackened tree stumps and dead birds and fish.

Source: NASA.  NASA image created by Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team. Caption by Holli Riebeek.

Geographic Coordinates: 20 00 S, 175 00 W

Area: total: 747 sq km (land: 717 sq km; water: 30 sq km)

Coastline: 419 km

Maritime Claims:

territorial sea: 12 nm
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm
continental shelf: 200 m depth or to the depth of exploitation

Natural Hazards: cyclones (October to April); earthquakes and volcanic activity on Fonuafo'ou

Terrain:  most islands have limestone base formed from uplifted coral formation; others have limestone overlying volcanic base. The highest point is an unnamed elevation on Kao Island (1,033 m).

Climate: tropical; modified by trade winds; warm season (December to May), cool season (May to December)

Ecology and Biodiversity

Ecologically, Tonga is included within the Tongan tropical moist forests ecoregion (along with Niue).

Tropical moist forest is usually subdivided between lowland broadleaf rain forest below 500 meters (m) and a subtropical rain forest above 500 m.

Tonga supports 419 angiosperm plants and fern species with approximately 3 percent endemism, including some spectacular Hibiscus spp. Plant diversity on individual islands ranges from 340 species on Tongatapu and 300 species on ‘Eua, to 145 species on Late, and 107 on Vava’u.

The herpetofauna of Tonga, consisting of 20 known species, is considered depauperate. There is one iguanid, nine geckos, nine skinks, and the Pacific boa (Candoia bibroni). The iguanid, the South Pacific banded iguana (Brachylophus fasciatus), is also found in Fiji and is believed to have rafted from the Americas. The species is endangered. The skink Tachygia microlepsis is considered extinct.

The volcanic islands of Late (17 km2) and Tofua (55.4 km2) have some of the best remaining high diversity native forest and still support large populations of birds and reptiles.

Habitat destruction, poaching for food and feathers, and introduced species are the principal threats to remaining Tongan and Niue biodiversity. Introduced black rats (Rattus rattus) and Norway rats (R. norwegicus) can have catastrophic impacts on breeding seabirds and passerines. They are currently found on most inhabited islands, and preventing their spread to other islands is essential for the protection of bird populations and perhaps some plant populations. A number of native species have been extirpated from most inhabited islands by a combination of poaching and rat predation. Captive breeding of the Niuafo’ou megapode, red shining parrot (Prosopeia tabuensis), and blue-crowned lorikeet (Vini australis) has begun as have efforts to establish populations of these species on uninhabited islands.

There are no national parks in Tonga or Niue. Perhaps the greatest potential for conservation lies in the protection of uninhabited, forested, and predator-free islands that are stocked with threatened flora and fauna from inhabited islands. Paleoecology studies suggest many of the target species once occurred on these refuge islands and this approach may offer the best chance for conservation of many threatened species.

People and Society

Population: 106,146 (July 2012 est.)

Tongans, a Polynesian group with a very small mixture of Melanesian, represent more than 98% of the inhabitants. The rest are European, mixed European, and other Pacific Islanders. There are also about a thousand Chinese immigrants.

More than two-thirds of the population of the Kingdom of Tonga live on its main island, Tongatapu. An increasing number of Tongans have moved into Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital and only urban and commercial center, where increasingly Western and indigenous Polynesian cultural and living patterns have blended. For instance, the extended family lifestyle is declining, with young couples choosing to live on their own. Nonetheless, village life and kinship ties continue to be important throughout the country. The Christian faith that has dominated Tongan life for almost 2 centuries is still influential. All commerce and entertainment activities cease on Sunday from midnight, and the constitution declares the Sabbath to be sacred, forever. Attempts to amend the Sunday law in recent years have been unsuccessful.

Primary education between ages 6 and 14 is compulsory and free in state schools. The state owns and operates 99% of the primary schools and 44% of secondary schools. Higher education includes teacher training, nursing and medical training, a small private university, a women's business college, and a number of private agricultural schools. Most higher education is pursued overseas.

Ethnic Groups: Polynesian, Europeans

Age Structure:

0-14 years: 37.2% (male 20,023/female 19,393)
15-64 years: 56.7% (male 30,125/female 29,959)
65 years and over: 6.1% (male 2,986/female 3,430) (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 0.192% (2012 est.)

Birthrate: 24.7 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Death Rate: 4.88 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)

Net Migration Rate: --17.9 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth: 75.38 years 

male: 73.98 years
female: 76.83 years (2012 est.)

Total Fertility Rate: 3.55 children born/woman (2012 est.)

Languages: Tongan (official), English (official)

Literacy (can read and write Tongan and/or English)98.9% (1999 est.)

Urbanization: 23% of total population (2010) growing at an annual rate of change of 0.8% (2010-15 est.)


The word Tonga means "south" in numerous Polynesian languages. Some scholars believe the inhabitants originally came from the islands now known as Samoa. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Tonga islands have been settled since at least 500 B.C., and local traditions have carefully preserved the names of the Tongan sovereigns for about 1,000 years. The power of the Tongan monarchy reached its height in the 13th century. At the time, chieftains exercised political influence as far away as Samoa.

During the 14th century, the King of Tonga delegated much of his temporal power to a brother while retaining the spiritual authority. Sometime later, this process was repeated by the second royal line, thus resulting in three distinct lines: the Tu'i Tonga with spiritual authority, which is believed to have extended over much of Polynesia; the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua; and the Tu'i Kanokupolu. The latter two had temporal authority for carrying out much of the day-to-day administration of the kingdom.

Dutch navigators in 1616 were the first Europeans to sight the Tongan archipelago. The main island of Tongatapu was first visited by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1643. Continual contact with Europeans, however, did not begin until more than 125 years later. Captain James Cook visited the islands in 1773 and 1777 and gave the archipelago the name "the Friendly Islands" because of the gentle nature of the people he encountered. He, of course, was never aware of the acrimonious debate that raged among contending nobles over who should have the honor of attacking Cook's tiny fleet and killing its sailors. In 1789, the famous mutiny on the British ship, Bounty, took place in the waters between the Ha'apai and Nomuka island groups.

Shortly after Captain Cook's last visit, warfare broke out in the islands as the three lines of kings contended for dominance. At about the same time, young Tongan nobles serving as mercenaries took Tongan culture to Fiji's most eastern island group, the Lau group. The first missionaries, attached to the London Missionary Society, arrived in Tonga in 1747. A second missionary group followed in 1822, led by Walter Lawry of the Wesleyan Missionary Society. They converted Taufa'ahau, one of the claimants to the Tu'i Kanokupolu line, and Christianity began to spread throughout the islands.

At the time of his conversion, Taufa'ahau took the name of Siaosi (George) and his consort assumed the name Salote (Charlotte) in honor of King George III and Queen Charlotte of England. In the following years, he united all of the Tongan islands for the first time in recorded history. In 1845, he was formally proclaimed King George Tupou I, and the present dynasty was founded. He established a constitution and a parliamentary government based, in some respects, on the British model. In 1862, he abolished the existing system of semi-serfdom and established an entirely alien system of land tenure. Under this system every male Tongan, upon reaching the age of 16, was entitled to rent--for life and at a nominal fee--a plot of bushland (called "api tukuhau") of 8.25 acres, plus a village allotment of about three-eighths of an acre for his home (‘api kolo).

Tonga concluded a treaty of friendship and protection with the United Kingdom in 1900 and came under British protection. It retained its independence and autonomy, while the United Kingdom agreed to handle its foreign affairs and protect it from external attack.

During World War II, in close collaboration with New Zealand, Tonga formed a local defense force of about 2,000 troops that saw action in the Solomon Islands. In addition, New Zealand and U.S. troops were stationed on Tongatapu, which became a staging point for shipping.

A new treaty of friendship and protection with the United Kingdom, signed in 1958 and ratified in May 1959, provided for a British Commissioner and consul in Tonga who were responsible to the Governor of Fiji in his capacity as British Chief Commissioner for Tonga. In mid-1965 the British Commissioner and consul became directly responsible to the U.K. Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs. Tonga became fully independent on June 4, 1970, an event officially designated by the King as Tonga's "reentry into the community of nations." On August 1, 2008, King Siaosi Tupou V, who ascended the throne in September 2006, was formally crowned as Tonga's king.

Prior to November 2010 elections, the unicameral Legislative Assembly was dominated by the royal family and nobles. Increasing educational opportunities, expanded media penetration, and foreign influences via the country's extensive diaspora raised the political awareness of Tonga's commoners and stimulated dissent against the system of government. An increasingly popular pro-democracy movement began articulating a rising demand for more rights for the common people and curbs on the influence of the nobility. Over 2 decades, calls for political reform gained wide-ranging support and momentum.

For most of the 20th century Tonga was quiet, inward-looking, and somewhat isolated from developments elsewhere in the world. The Tongans, as a whole, cling to many of their old traditions, including a respect for the nobility. Tonga's complex social structure is essentially broken into three tiers: the king, the nobles, and the commoners. Between the king, nobles, and commoners are matapule, sometimes called "talking chiefs," who are allied with the king or a noble, and who may also hold estates. Obligations and responsibilities among the groups are reciprocal, and although the nobility are able to extract favors from people living on their estates, they likewise must extend favors to their people. Status and rank play a powerful role in personal relationships, even within families.

Tongans have begun to confront the problem of how to preserve their cultural identity and traditions in the wake of the increasing impact of Western technology and culture. Migration and the gradual monetization of the economy have led to the breakdown of the traditional extended family. Some of the poor, traditionally cared for by the extended family, are now being left without visible means of support. The rapidly increasing population is already too great to provide the constitutionally mandated 8.25-acre plot of land or ‘api tukuhau due each male at age 16. Population density reached 132 persons per square kilometer in 2002, fueling the growing population shift from farm and village to urban centers, where traditional societal and political structures are undergoing steady change.

Historically, political reform was slow in the kingdom. In a departure from this, the then-king announced in late 2004 that he would henceforth include people's representatives in the 12-member appointed cabinet. Following elections in March 2005, the king appointed two of nine elected people's representatives and two nobles' representatives as cabinet ministers. In April 2005, Tonga's first official political party, the People's Democratic Party, was formed, and its candidate was one of those elected to parliament in special May by-elections held to fill the two people's representational seats vacated by the king's cabinet appointments. The by-election also resulted in the election of the first woman to sit in the Tongan parliament in 24 years. When the princely prime minister resigned from office in early 2006, the king appointed People's Representative Feleti Sevele as the first commoner prime minister in modern times.

In November 2006, days of political demonstrations deteriorated into a riot, leaving the central business district of Nuku'alofa in ruins. The government declared a state of emergency to restore law and order to the capital. The state of emergency was repeatedly extended.

In August 2007, a tripartite committee of cabinet, nobles', and people's representatives issued a report on reforms to the Legislative Assembly, which endorsed the committee's report "in general," prior to adjourning in October 2007. In July 2008, the Assembly passed legislation to establish a Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission (CEC) charged with undertaking preparatory work for 2010 political reforms. The CEC was established on January 5, 2009 and had 10 months to report to the Privy Council and parliament with recommendations on constitutional and electoral reforms for consideration. On November 5, 2009, the CEC presented its final report. Parliament endorsed approximately two-thirds of the CEC’s recommendations in December 2009. Constitutional and legislative amendments were made to facilitate the implementation of the endorsed reforms. The reforms included increasing the number of people’s representatives in the legislature from nine to 17 and a new electoral system under which 17 electoral constituencies were drawn by a newly established Electoral Commission. The electoral reforms for the first time prepared for a majority of the parliament, 17 of the 26 elected seats, to be directly elected.

First elections under the political reform process took place on November 25, 2010. The elections were observed by officials from the Australian and New Zealand governments, and were deemed to be free and fair. Of the 17 people’s representative seats, the Friendly Islands Democratic Party (FIDP) won 12. Although directly-elected members formed the largest segment of parliament, they were unable to form a majority government. Based on a coalition of nobles and elected members, a nobles’ representative, Lord Tu’ivakano, became prime minister, the first person to hold the job as a result of being elected by the legislature. The state of emergency that had been declared following the 2006 Nuku'alofa riot was lifted in January 2011, soon after the newly elected prime minister took office.


Government Type: constitutional monarchy

Tonga is the South Pacific's last Polynesian kingdom. Its executive branch includes the prime minister and the cabinet, which becomes the Privy Council when presided over by the monarch. In intervals between legislative sessions, the Privy Council makes ordinances, which become law if confirmed by the legislature. The governors of Ha'apai and Vava'u are appointed to their offices and serve as ex officio members of the cabinet.

The 26-seat Legislative Assembly includes 9 nobles elected by the country's nobles and 17 members elected by popular vote. The Legislative Assembly sits for 4 or 5 months between approximately May and October each year.

Tonga's court system consists of the Privy Council, the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court, the Magistrates' Court, and the Land Court. Judges are appointed by the monarch.

The only form of local government is through town and district officials who have been popularly elected since 1965. The town official represents the central government in the villages; the district official has authority over a group of villages.

Capital: Nuku'alofa

Administrative divisions: 3 island groups; Ha'apai, Tongatapu, Vava'u

Independence Date:  4 June 1970 (from UK protectorate)

Legal System:   English common law. Tonga has not submitted an International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction declaration; and, is a non-party state to the International criminal court (ICCt).

International Environmental Agreements

Tonga is party to international agreements on: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Marine Life Conservation, Ozone Layer Protection, and Ship Pollution.


Natural Resources: fish, fertile soil

Land Use:

arable land: 20%
permanent crops: 14.67%
other: 65.33% (2005)


Tonga has a small, open, South Pacific island economy.

It has a narrow export base in agricultural goods. Squash, vanilla beans, and yams are the main crops. Agricultural exports, including fish, make up two-thirds of total exports.

The country must import a high proportion of its food, mainly from New Zealand.

The country remains dependent on external aid and remittances from Tongan communities overseas to offset its trade deficit.

Tourism is the second-largest source of hard currency earnings following remittances. Tonga had 39,000 visitors in 2006.

The government is emphasizing the development of the private sector, especially the encouragement of investment, and is committing increased funds for health and education. Tonga has a reasonably sound basic infrastructure and well developed social services.

High unemployment among the young, a continuing upturn in inflation, pressures for democratic reform, and rising civil service expenditures are major issues facing the government.

Tonga's economy is characterized by a large non-monetary sector and a heavy dependence on remittances from the more than half of the country's population that lives abroad, chiefly in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Much of the monetary sector of the economy is dominated, if not owned, by the royal family and nobles. Many small businesses, particularly in the retail sector on Tongatapu, are owned by recent Chinese immigrants who arrived under a cash-for-passports scheme ended in 1998. Royal-owned and Chinese businesses were among those targeted in the November 2006 rioting.

The manufacturing sector consists of handicrafts and a few other very small-scale industries, which together contribute only about 7% of GDP. Commercial business activities are to a large extent dominated by large trading companies found throughout the South Pacific. In September 1974, the country's first commercial trading bank, the Bank of Tonga, opened. Following the destruction of the capital's commercial center in the November 2006 riots, government, business, and international donors combined forces to support the reconstruction of Nuku'alofa.

Rural Tongans rely on plantation and subsistence agriculture. Root crops such as cassava and yams, kava, vanilla beans, and squash are the major cash crops. Pigs and poultry are the major types of livestock. Horses are kept for draft purposes, primarily by farmers working their api; horses are also used as food at certain ceremonial events. More cattle are being raised, and beef imports are declining. Fisheries are also a growing export sector, with tuna, beche de mer, and seaweed being the major marine export products.

Tonga's development plans emphasize a growing private sector, upgrading agricultural productivity, revitalizing the squash and vanilla bean industries, developing tourism, and improving the island's communications and transportation systems. Substantial progress has been made, but much work remains to be done. A small but growing construction sector is developing in response to the inflow of aid monies and remittances from Tongans abroad. Government, international development agencies, and major donor nations have together identified a number of promising means to diversity the Tongan economy. One hope is seen in fisheries; tests have shown that sufficient skipjack tuna pass through Tongan waters to support a fishing industry. Another potential development activity is exploitation of forests, which cover 35% of the kingdom's land area. Plantation coconut trees past their prime bearing years also provide a potential source of lumber.

GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $816 million (2011 est.)

GDP: (Official Exchange Rate): $400 million (2011 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $7,500 (2011 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: 20.8%
industry: 18.1%
services: 61.1% (2011 est.)

Agricultural products: squash, coconuts, copra, bananas, vanilla beans, cocoa, coffee, ginger, black pepper; fish

Industries: tourism, construction, fishing

Currency: Pa'anga (TOP)




Agency, C., & Fund, W. (2012). Tonga. Retrieved from


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