Nauru: from the “pleasant island” to an environmental and social disaster

TheJournal x LimesClub

The Republic of Nauru is an island microstate located in the Central Pacific, almost 3,000 kilometres north-east of Australia. It is completely constituted by an oval-shaped island of about 21 square kilometres and has a population of about 10,800 people: it is the smallest republic and island nation in the world, the third smallest country after Vatican City and Monaco, and the second less populated country after Vatican City. The Europeans arrived on the island in the 19th century and the control of Nauru passed through the hands of different countries: at first, it was a colony of the German Empire, afterwards it became a mandate under joint Australian-British-New Zealander control, and finally, after the Japanese invasion during World War II, it was a UN trusteeship until its independence in the 1960s.

The first Europeans who arrived on the island in 1798 called it “Pleasant Island”, but the fate of Nauru was irreparably marked by the discovery, in the year 1900, of large quantities of phosphate. This resource soon gained the attention of Western investors, and the exploitation was started in 1906 by the British in accordance with the German colonial authorities. Excavations and works on the island for the accumulation of larger and larger quantities of phosphate continued through the years and already in the early 1960s Nauru was a completely new reality. The “Pleasant Island” that existed in the previous century had disappeared and had been replaced by an over-exploited and largely inhabitable island, with all the population settled on a tight land-strip on the coast. In those years, Australian authorities proposed to move the population to Australia and grant Australian citizenship to Nauruans. The plan was rejected by the population, which acquired full independence in 1968.

With the independence, the British Phosphate Commission, which until then had the total control over the exploitation of phosphate on the island, had all its assets transferred to the new Republic, which established a state-owned mining company, the Nauru Phosphate Corporation. The revenues from the extraction of phosphate were so high that the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust, a sovereign wealth fund, was created, and the Nauruans became one of the wealthiest people on the globe, with levels of GDP per capita equivalent to those of countries such as the United Arab Emirates. The Nauruan government thus found itself with large economic and financial possibilities, but an efficient plan to allocate these resources in an effective manner was not put in place. The Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust invested in properties and construction of prestigious buildings around the world – such as the Nauru House in Melbourne. The main problem at this stage of the development of the country was that both the population and the political elites did not contemplate the fact that the resource on which they relied was finite.

Indeed, while other countries tried to diversify their sources of income and invest the money that derives from natural resources in useful policies for the whole country, Nauruans were living relying only on the immediate earnings from phosphate. The country became economically wealthy, but was afflicted by social and environmental problems. The exploitation of the quarries made the island mostly uninhabitable, apart from a small strip on the coast: the inland – around 80% of Nauru – was destroyed and only left with visible coral and limestone pinnacles, which make it useless for any human usage. Moreover, both human population and marine biodiversity face intense threats from the uncontrolled exploitation of the land and the acidification of the ocean nearby the island. The lack of vegetation and animals – especially fish – led to the complete change in the nutrition of Nauruans: they started basing their diet on imported “junk food” or instant dishes. This is the main reason why nowadays Nauru has the highest share of obese or overweight population worldwide, and diabetes is widespread even among young individuals.

The mining of phosphate started to decline from the 1980s and the resource was exhausted in the 1990s. As said before, however, the Nauruan government did not deem necessary to invest the money that was acquired in an efficient way, and thus the economic situation became to grow more and more difficult. To solve this, Nauru became a tax haven, offering passports for a financial compensation, and a centre for international illegal money laundry, as recognised by the Financial Action Task Force. This kind of activity was abandoned in the early 2000s thanks to international pressure on the small Pacific state. In 2001, however, a new source of income arrived on the island: an Australian detention centre for immigrants. The Australian government established different detention centres as part of the so-called “Pacific solution”, through which this kind of establishment was set up in many Pacific nations to host illegal immigrants coming to Australia. Two camps were built on Nauru and Australia pays millions of dollars to the local government. The detention centre was closed between 2008 and 2012, and between 2019 and 2021, but is nowadays completely functional.

One final remark on the island regards its international standing and its diplomatic relations. Nauru is obviously very close to Australia in terms of economic dependency, and is one of the few nations worldwide to still recognise Taiwan. Nonetheless, Nauru also recognises the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, under Russian occupation. Thus, the relations with the West are not completely favourable, even though Nauru is described by some as a de facto Australian colony: the currency is the Australian dollar, and the economy relies on Australian investments. Nauru is currently studying the possibility to grant international companies the right to extensively exploit other natural resources, found in recent years on the seabed under its sovereignty.

The future of the country is uncertain, or at least it is difficult to see how the conditions could improve: the biodiversity is destroyed, both inland and marine environments were heavily damaged by the extensive mining, and the rise of the sea level on a global scale could result in a catastrophe, even more without the protection of the no more existing coral reef.

A cura di: Francesco Di Nardo


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