Tokelau Profile

Tokelau consists of three atolls located about 483 km north of Samoa. Atafu is the northernmost atoll, 92 km north of Nukunonu, which in turn lies 64 km north of Fakaofo.

Each atoll consists of a number of reef-bound islets (motu) encircling a lagoon. The islets vary in size from 90 m to 6 km in length and from a few metres to 200 metres in width. The largest atoll is Nukunonu at 4.7 sq km. Fakaofo and Atafu are 4 sq km and 3.5 sq km respectively. From Atafu in the north to Fakaofo in the south, the group extends for just under 200 km. The atolls are three to five metres above sea level.

Tokelau has a total land area of approximately 12 sq km. The reef extends only a short distance from the shore then drops sharply into deep waters. Each of the three atolls has its own administrative centre.

Land use

The shortage of natural resources has been the major factor encouraging migration. Practically all land is held by customary title. The Tokelau Islands Amendment Act 1967 provides that Tokelauans may dispose of custom land among themselves but may not alienate land to non-indigenous. Land holdings pass from generation to generation within families, usually being held by the head of a closely-related family group although some land is held in common.


The mean average temperature is 28 deg C. July is the coolest month and May the warmest. From April to November the east-southeasterly trade winds dominate climatic conditions. Rainfall is heavy but irregular.

A daily fall of 80 mm or more can be expected at any time of the year. Severe tropical storms, once rare, have become more frequent in recent years. Cyclones in 1987,1990 and 1991 caused extensive damage to houses and general infrastructure. There is some concern about the possible threat to Tokelau's long-term survival from climatic change.

Flora & fauna

Poor soil quality and rapid drainage result in low fertility except in areas where efforts have been made to improve soil composition. Coconut and pandanus are the most common plant species although other species common to central Polynesia are found in smaller numbers. Staple food crops include bananas, papaya, taro and breadfruit. Migratory seabirds are common visitors to these atolls. Otherwise rats and lizards are common along with domesticated pigs and poultry. Mosquitoes infest the undergrowth.

Culture & Society

To some extent the inhabitants retain cultural ties with Samoa but there are also strong links with Tuvalu where the culture is also distinctly moulded by the atoll environment. There are also linguistic and family ties with both countries. Faka-Tokelau, the Tokelauan way of life, is centred on family and community. There is a complex social and economic order based on the values of community and sharing which remains strong despite the pressure of external influences. Village affairs are conducted by a council of elders consisting of representatives of the families.

The people of Atafu live in one village which occupies part of a motu (reef-bound islet). On Nukunonu the village occupies about half of one motu which is connected by a bridge to a neighbouring motu where some families have settled. The village on Fakaofo is on a small but comparatively high motu. It is overcrowded although emigration to New Zealand alleviates the problem. Fakaofo has a second more recently established village, Fenuafala, on a larger nearby motu where the school, the hospital and other facilities are now located. A government subsidised housing programme operates on all three atolls. The scheme, which encourages the use of imported building materials, is very popular and the number of houses constructed out of traditional materials is diminishing.

Tokelauans are citizens of New Zealand which gives them free right of access to that country. In the 1960s and early 1970s the New Zealand Government operated the Tokelauan Resettlement Scheme to overcome crowding on the atolls. Many families migrated to New Zealand and later sponsored others who wanted to emigrate. The scheme was suspended in 1976 when the population stabilised. Currently some 3000 Tokelauans live in New Zealand; other small communities can be found in Samoa, American Samoa and Hawai'i.

Sports popular in Samoa and New Zealand, cricket and football for example, are also popular in Tokelau. The subsistence lifestyle means that activities regarded as recreation in more developed countries - fishing and gardening - are undertaken more through necessity than choice.


Tokelauan is normally spoken on the atolls. It is related to Samoan and Tuvaluan. English is taught as a second language and is widely understood.


On Atafu the majority of people belong to the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa while on Nukunonu virtually the entire population belongs to the Roman Catholic Church. On Fakaofo both churches are represented with the Congregational Christian Church having the largest following. The Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses are present in small numbers.