Paradise Lost: a cautionary tale

If you’ve never heard of the Republic of Nauru, don’t worry: you’re not alone. The smallest republic in the world has fewer than 9,400 citizens. Globally, there’s just one state with a smaller population, and that’s the Vatican City.

If you choose to visit Nauru (about 200 tourists make the journey each year) you’ll find yourself on an island so small that you can walk all around it in the course of a day. By the vast scale of the Pacific it’s a flyspeck, notable only for its geographical remoteness. A virtually featureless ocean stretches 970km northeast to the Marshall Islands; 1260km southwest to the Solomons and beyond that, just under 5000km to Australia. Checking it out with Google Earth, the only points of interest I found in the vicinity… were shipwrecks.

Still, as an island with no disease, no mosquitoes, a benign tropical rainforest climate, a fresh water lagoon, birds to hunt, fish to catch and fruit to eat, Nauru was everything we look for in a tropical island paradise. It was settled by Micronesian and Polynesian people some 3,000 years ago. Before that, the only inhabitants had been seabirds.

Lots and lots of seabirds. For millions of years.

Along with Banaba in Kiribati and Makatea in French Polynesia, Nauru had extraordinarily rich phosphate rock deposits, originating as bird droppings in ancient times. This was discovered just as the 20th century began.

The more developed nations of the world had an insatiable appetite for phosphates, to be used in fertilisers. Throughout the 20th century (other than a few years of Japanese occupation during WWII) just about the only reason to go to Nauru was for the phosphates.

Nauru spent much of the 20th century as a trusteeship administered jointly by Australia, New Zealand and the UK, first on behalf of the League of Nations and then the United Nations. Independence came in 1968… at which point Nauru faced its greatest challenge: not poverty, but the opposite. Mining operations brought in a staggering A$100-120 million per year… for a small island nation with a population the size of a modern English village. For a time, in the 1970s and 80s, the residents of Nauru had the highest per-capita income in the world. Luxuries were imported, and Nauruan people acquired a taste for Western food… with the health consequences you might expect, including an epidemic of diabetes.

It was recognised that the phosphate deposits wouldn’t last forever, and that some of the income must be invested to secure a long-term future for the islanders. A number of government projects were initiated, and Nauru took its place on the world stage. Most notably, they built the 52-floor Nauru House office block in Melbourne, but they acquired real estate all over the world.

It didn’t work out. On some of their international investments the Nauruans were robbed blind, and there are also questions about corruption within the tiny nation’s government, as this documentary shows. Billions of dollars that should have secured a future for the islanders have disappeared, but while the money was flowing in, few noticed that it was leaking away at an alarming rate.

Even the richest mine in the world must be exhausted eventually. Since independence, some 43 million tonnes of phosphate rock had been shipped out, and as the 21st century began, the former rainforest interior of the island had been replaced by open-cast mining. The locals call it ‘Topside’, a bizarre moonscape of limestone pillars, left behind once the valuable phosphates had been hauled away. Something like eighty percent of the tiny island is nothing but played-out mine workings that also serve as a rubbish dump.

‘Topside’, Nauru.

‘Topside’, Nauru: former rainforest. (Photo: ‘jazzdinant’)

And for what?

I’ve heard that one of the major landowners bought himself a Lamborghini. That seems a little excessive, but perhaps an island that has just one set of traffic lights is sports car heaven? Albeit with only two choices of route for your twenty-minute drive: clockwise or anticlockwise.

Probably the most obvious symptom of the Republic’s haemorrhaging money was Air Nauru: at its peak, they operated seven aircraft (some sources say nine), with routes to Hong Kong, Taipei, Honolulu, Auckland, Sydney and elsewhere… often with a load factor of just 20%. In the 1990s its operations were occasionally suspended due to airworthiness and safety concerns, or insolvency. Piece by piece, the fleet was disposed of until just a single aircraft remained: then that one was seized by creditors seeking repayment after defaults on foreign loans. For Nauru, the fairytale of rags-to-riches had just about come to an end. The overseas investments were sold off, and the government of the day sought new ways to raise money.

There followed a turbulent time in which the government on Nauru tried just about everything… but what can you sell when you’re thousands of kilometres from everybody else? Nauru set up a completely unregulated offshore banking industry, and it’s said to have facilitated all kinds of money-laundering, including the squirreling away of perhaps $70bn that should have gone to Russia when the USSR broke up. Terrorist suspects started turning up with Nauruan passports, too. It’s not so much that the former tropical paradise became a clearing-house for international evil: it was really just desperation. Nauru played Taiwan off against the People’s Republic of China by first recognising one and then the other, in its capacity as a member of the United Nations – securing millions of dollars in aid from each. It was quick to recognise the Georgian breakaway Abkhazia, and received aid from Russia in return… and so on. Then in 2001, Nauru found a new way to trade on its isolation, permitting Australia to construct two detention centres for refugees, in order to keep them out of Australia – part of Aussie Prime Minister John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’. Substantial aid payments were received in return. Unlike every other community I’ve ever heard of, the Nauruans were very welcoming towards the new arrivals. Perhaps they recognise something of their own situation in the plight of migrants and refugees.

It’s a terrible thing to contemplate, that one of the wealthiest peoples on Earth can become wholly dependent upon foreign aid. Nauru has no farming or forestry industry, and no pastureland. Despite phosphates leaking into the sea, fishing still delivers some good seafood, but virtually everything else must be imported. This leaves the formerly wealthy Nauruans in a very tenuous position where goods are very expensive (since everything must cross those thousands of kilometres of open sea) and unemployment stands at around 90%. (Something like 95% of those in jobs work for the government.)

Even without the problem of bankruptcy, Nauru would be in a desperately precarious position, facing up to not one but two environmental catastrophes: the toxic ruin of the interior of their own island, and rising sea levels that threaten the coastline.

Calamity is nothing new to Nauru. 1878, a tribal war broke out, fuelled by imported firearms and strong drink. Astoundingly, on such a small island (just 21 km2), the conflict went on for ten years, ending only when Germany annexed the island, incorporating it as part of the Marshall Islands Protectorate. Then the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20 killed between sixteen and eighteen percent of the population (reports vary). Every October 26th the Nauruans celebrate Angam day, remembering when in 1932 the 1,500th citizen was born, this being felt to be a bare minimum for the survival of the community.

The island was shelled by the Germans in December 1940, and invaded by the Japanese in August 1942. The Japanese deported 1,200 Nauruans to labour elsewhere within their territory, and only 737 survived to return home. Not until 1949 did the island’s population reach 1,500 again.

Nauru has always been close to ceasing to exist, but that the greatest threat to its survival should come from wealth, rather than privation, ought to be a lesson to us all. My own country bears vivid scars from wealth creation and extractive industry, but Britain is large. It had the advantage of centuries of parliament, and a much greater pool of people from which to draw policymakers – and an effective opposition. Our progress towards industrialisation occurred not in a pyrotechnic burst, but a centuries-long smoulder. I’ve never had the option of buying a Lamborghini, but neither has anybody sold my country out from under me.

The height of these limestone deposits gives some ideas of the extent of mining on Nauru.

The height of these limestone deposits gives some idea of the extent of mining on Nauru. (Photo: ‘jazzdinant’)

In miniature, Nauru demonstrates the same issues that humanity faces everywhere else. On such a small island, the effects are easier to see, but we are all dealing with the consequences of industrialisation. There’s just one difference: we only get one Earth, but the people of Nauru might get another island. Australia has offered to re-settle the people of Nauru (and, presumably, any detainees it may have at that time) on one of the islands of the Great Barrier Reef. That’s preferable to death on the ruined island… but it’s a stark prospect: a sovereign nation ceasing to exist, abandoned by its people.

The first Westerner to sight Nauru was the British captain of a whaler, John Fearn, in 1798.

He named it Pleasant Island.

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