The small island of Nauru was first sighted by Europeans in 1798 but it was largely ignored until 1886 when Germany intervened to put an end to a raging civil war that was decimating the 12 indigenous tribes.
Extremely rich guano (accumulated bird poop) deposits were discovered in 1900 and phosphate production began in 1907. At the end of W.W. I, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain jointly took over the island to exploit its phosphates reserves. The Japanese took over for three years during W.W. II. A Local Government Council was set up in 1951 but the real power remained in the hands of the British Phosphate Corporation (BPC) until it sold its rights to the national company "Nauru Phosphate Corp." when Nauru became independent in 1968.
The new Nauru Government continued the accelerated exploitation of the deposits, exports reached 2 million tons a year and GDP rose to 21 000 $US per capita. Education and medical services were free for Nauruans but most of the benefits accrued to landowners and to the government who set up trust funds to invest surpluses abroad. Three decades later, most of the phosphate has been shipped out leaving the island's interior a desert of coral pinnacles
In 1989, the Nauru government filed a claim with International Court of The Hague that the phosphate exported before independence by the British Phosphate Corp. to Australia, New Zealand and to a lesser extent to the UK, had been billed at levels far below the world market price thus providing huge subsidies to the farmers of those countries during several decades. After four years of heated legal wrangling, Australia settled out of court for 70 million US plus 1.2 million yearly for 20 years. New Zealand and the UK paid up 8 million each.
Now, production is falling to lower levels and costs are reaching new highs each year as the remaining guano is getting harder and harder to extract. Experts estimate that only five years of economic production remain.
I have the impression of having witnessed the death throes of an island, of a community.
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This is a fine airport for such a small island. It was built when Nauru was one of the most prosperous islands in the Pacific.
There are only two hotels on the island, Hotel Menen which is very expensive and this one, the OD-N-Aiwo Hotel where I was lucky to get a room for only 25 $US a night.
The Civic Center, the large white building on the other side of the street from my hotel, was still buzzing with activity when the economy started its decline a decade ago but it is dead now.
The government supermarket in the civic center is still open but the shelves are bare as you can see. The cashier apologised for not having what I was looking for and sent me to the Chinese convenience store across the street.
The Bank of Nauru next door was also open but it had no Australian dollars (the legal tender here), when I went in to change American Express traveler's cheques.
The Chinese shop was fully stocked with all the consumer goods one might wish. The manager, a nice looking girl, was willing to change a cheque but for a commission only slightly less horrendous than the 25% my hotel requested.
I desperately needed Australian dollars to eat and to pay my hotel room so "they" had me by the tender parts. I was about to give in when I got lucky (again), and met Dr. Epoli Nailatikan who offered to drive me 12 km to Capelle & Partner, the largest retail business on the island. It took some negotiation but finally I was able to change US traveler's cheques at the official rate plus a reasonable commission.
I spent that evening reading a voluminous documentation Epoli lent me outlining the argumentation of the four parties before the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The Nauru case study is particularly interesting for anyone intent on understanding barefaced colonial exploitation because it is simple and there are no side issues.
The following day, I hired a taxi to take me around the island. The cabdriver, who had come from the Philippines 15 years ago, explained to me that the island was dying because it would run out of phosphate before five years. He was hoping to emigrate to Australia but he was not too hopeful because that country has not yet offered to relocate Nauruans when the phosphate runs out.
This is the government owned Menem Hotel where business persons, the U.N. and N.G.O. personnel stay when they visit Nauru (How do you like that "business persons" instead of "business men"?)
Hardly any tourists come here but I suppose this is where the well heeled ones would stay if they came this far off the beaten track.
This red building is where the 18 members of the Nauru Parliament convene. Cynics say that only ministers get rich in Nauru nowadays.
Nauru has been admitted to the United Nations in 1999. Can you imagine that! The vote of the Nauru Ambassador at the General Assembly of the United Nations weighs as much as that of China or of India that each have over 100 000 times more population! Who knows, maybe the value of that vote will replace the phosphate revenues when they peter out.
Ministers might get rich, but someone has to do the work and no self-respecting country can be without a bureaucracy so here are the administrative offices of the government just next to the Parliament Buildings.
The Japanese invaded Nauru during W. W. II for strategic reasons. They deported 1200 Nauruans to the state of Chuuk in Micronesia, which they also controlled. Only 700 survived long enough to come back home after the war. The pillbox guarding the rocky beach on this photo is one of the last traces of the Japanese occupation.
Mining shovels destroyed 90 percent of Nauru's surface but a small area around Buada Lagoon was preserved as a reminder of what the island looked like a long time ago.
Most houses around the island are modern and appear to be comfortable but they are all more than 10 years old.
The only new construction since the economy went sour a decade ago has been the erection of "holding" camps by the Australian government to isolate Afghan refugees captured while trying to land illegally in that country.
The two camps, one in the North and one in the South, are out of bounds. The number of "guests", "detainees" or "captives" is a well kept secret. Many of the guards and camp personnel live in the OD-N-Aiwo Hotel where I stayed but none would talk about their work. I would have liked to take some pictures of these places but the approaches to the camp gates were too well guarded and my curiosity remained unsatisfied.
Nauru is nominally an independent country but that Australia be able to operate secret camps there instead of expanding its Woomera facilities on its own territory speaks volumes as to the real relationship between the two countries.
In spite of the flowers you can see that this once fine house is beginning to look rundown.
Some are more advanced. The neglect is not surprising for the economy has been going downhill for more than 10 years.
Finally, after this long preamble, this is what the phosphate mining operation looks like. The light brown stuff is accumulated bird poop containing a high percentage of calcium phosphate that came from the bones of the fish the birds ate.
A dragline removes the upper layers of the deposit that are easy to reach. It breaks off the tips of the coral pinnacles when it can and a bulldozer pushes them out of the way.
Then, a backhoe digs out as much as it can of the guano that remains between what is left of the coral pinnacles. Some phosphate is left in the crevices but taking it out by hand shovel would not be economic.
Then, small trucks bring the phosphate to the stockpile from which it is transported to the concentration plant in big trucks like the one you can see on the left.
This is part of the plant where the guano is cleaned and treated to increase the phosphate content. Then, it is moved by conveyor belts to large storage sheds near the export cantilevers.
From the storage sheds, the phosphate is once more transported by conveyor belts to a cantilevered structure that loads it into ships for export.
Here's a better view of one of these cantilevers.
Nothing grows on the hard coral that is left after the guano has been removed. With time, the coral gets covered with lichen but no plants grow as this white lunar scene becomes a gray and then a black lunar scene.
Reclaiming this land would entail crushing the remaining pinnacles so as to be able grade the land and importing some topsoil in which to grow food. I think that the cost to do that would be prohibitive and that those who talk about reclaiming this desert are fooling themselves and/or their audience.
Moreover, the removal of the guano and the destruction of vegetal cover have eliminated the capacity of the island to accumulate rainfall. The rain that falls in the wet season now, drains directly into the sea.
Water for the phosphate plant and for the islanders is provided by this plant that removes the salt from seawater. Personally, I don't think it probable that this plant will be kept running indefinitely when all the phosphate is gone. The economics are just not there!
Even if the reclamation of the land were economically possible, today's Nauruans who have become used to imported industrial foods, would be absolutely incapable of adapting to subsistence farming even if they could learn to grow taro.
As I see it, this island will soon be a ghost island!
The death of a mining town is a tragedy anywhere in the world but it is not uncommon. Boom towns that exist only because of a mine become ghost towns when the mine runs out. There are ghost towns everywhere in the world. When that happens, the miners and their families pick up their gear and move to another town.
The tragedy here is that is not only a town, it is the whole country and the people have nowhere to go!
What will happen to these people?
Will the Nauru landowners and politicians share with them some of the money they have salted away in foreign banks and real estate?
Will the Australian and and New Zealand farmers who have prospered thanks to cheap Nauru phosphate fertilizer make room for them?