Imagine an island lost in the middle of an Ocean where people have lived in peace and harmony with the local nature and wildlife for centuries. Then imagine the damages of colonialism and the exploitation to exhaustion of the local natural resource. Then what? Well, everything, from the local culture, wildlife, source of revenues and chance for a bright future have disappeared. This is what happened to several isolated places around the world. The most extreme case is, however, that of Nauru. This little island of 21 square kilometers located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Australia and Hawaii, has been through it all, from peace to war, from a quiet traditional life to extreme westernization, and from wealth to poverty.
Discovered in 1789 by a British Captain who nicknamed it ‘Pleasant Island’, Nauru was then colonized by Germany in 1888 and taken over by Australia after World War I. The Japanese occupation during World War II dramatically reduced the local population by deporting two-thirds of them to Micronesia for force labour, or because of starvation and bombings during the war. After the conflict, Nauru became a trust territory administered by Australia. The island finally seized its independence in 1968, thus becoming the world’s smallest sovereign entity of the time.
From ‘Heaven’ to Hell
In 1900, it was discovered that Nauruans were sitting on large amounts of phosphate, a highly demanded natural resource used as fertilizer for agriculture. The exploitation of the mineral thus started. The production became more intense with the development of new means of transportation and the modernization of the industry. Australia was the main importer of the resource. The entire economy of Nauru adapted to the wealth of their soil: all traditional occupations disappeared and everyone reconverted into the production of phosphate. As the local population was not sufficient, foreigners arrived on the island, mainly from neighboring islands but also from Asia. At the end of the 1990s, it was estimated that “out of a total population of 12,000, some 4,000 are foreigners. Australians serve as managers, doctors and engineers, Chinese run the restaurants and shops, while other Pacific islanders do the dirty work in the mines.”
Phosphate made Nauru extremely rich: in the 1970s, the island even became the second largest country in the world, with three times the GDP of the United States. The island quickly developed, and the newly founded sovereign state took it upon itself to offer the best services to its population, possible thanks to the revenues generated by the mining. With the feeling that the wrongs of the past had been corrected, namely that the local resources were finally in the hands of the local population after decades of foreign rule, the Nauruans were now able to consume to their liking, and did not need to work to enjoy a high quality of life. The government could indeed provide free health care and education to everyone without imposing taxes.
This situation lasted as long as there was phosphate left: being a finite resource, phosphate eventually ran out. The ‘resource curse‘ had stricken.
A Series of Poor choices
Nobody was oblivious: it was clear from the very beginning that the phosphate would not last forever. A series of measures to continue benefiting from the revenues of the mineral were put in place such as a diversity of investments abroad. Most of them, contracted by the Australian authorities and the Nauruans government both seemed to have met misfortune, thus shrinking the long term revenues for the island. In addition, eager to enjoy their wealth, the Nauruan governments made some poor choices which cost them later on: the creation of a local airline, Air Nauru, was clearly not adapted to the needs and size of the island with its 7 planes even though the local population was around 10,000 inhabitants. When the revenues came to lack, Nauru was no longer able to pay for all the services it had previously offered, and accumulated large amounts of debt it tried to cover by asking for loans from the Asian Central Bank, but also by trying to become an offshore banking center, and tax haven for the Russian mafia, without success as the G7 quickly put an end to it. Nauru even sued Australia in 1989 in front of the International Court of Justice asking for repair for the destruction of one third of the island during the colonial era. Australia settled the suit for about $75 million. The fall of the price of phosphate in the 90s only worsened the situation, until it ran out in the early 2000.
Beyond the impact on the local economy, the exploitation of phosphate irreversibly affected numerous aspects of Nauru’s life. First, the local population seems to have forgotten how to do anything with is not linked to mining; fishing has long been forgotten and replaced by imported processed food and the excavation of the phosphate has destroyed all possible arable land. As a result, the island entirely depends on imports for its food and the population presents high levels of obesity and diabetes and high blood pressure, and the life expectancy has dramatically dropped to 50 for men and 55 for women. It is estimated that 95% of the population is overweight.
The consequences for the local climate are also worth mentioning: the deforestation on 90% of the islands have induced a continuous drought and is struck by heat waves. In addition, the local population lives on the coast, which is only 10 meters above the sea level, making them very vulnerable in the face of climate change and the rising of the oceans. For that reason, Nauru has joined 44 other small countries like Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) who fight together to ensure the survival of their threatened nations. The Maldives are on the forefront of the battle, hoping to put pressure on the big countries to halt the already ongoing global warming process which is already harming many in small islands around the globe.
Finding Something Else To Do
The phosphate age is over and Nauru has needed to find new sources of revenue, which it has found by working with Australia. “Under former Prime Minister John Howard, the nation introduced the now-infamous Pacific Solution, a policy of diverting asylum seekers to detention centers on nearby Pacific islands.”
As a result, Nauru has become a refugee camp for all those got caught while trying to reach Australia by the seas. Since 2001, the Nauru Regional Processing Center has been hosting around 650 refugees at a time in unsanitary barracks. “In addition to the unnecessary and excessive processing period for asylum seekers, the camp has been singled out as substandard and inhumane by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees” which corroborates with the numerous cases of violence and rape which have become public.
Although it does not come close to the revenues once generated by phosphate, supporting ‘Solution Pacific’ is what Nauru has found to get some revenues. Who knows what will happen when the UNHCR will finally act and close those camps and Australia addresses their refugee crisis…
More about Nauru
I recently finished reading a novel taking place in Nauru titled “J’ai entraîné mon peuple dans cette aventure” (I led my people in this adventure) by Aymeric Patricot. Based on the history of the island, the story shows through the eyes of the main character how he experienced the changes the island was confronted to, how the local life evolved and how the local authorities, Australian than Nauruans exploited the phosphate and led the country to its loss. Although romanticized, the book appears to give a clear image of what happened in Nauru and how the local population who were eager to have access to more led their country to their doom.