Nauru: From Rags to Riches to the Brink of Extinction

Old mining structures in the central part of Nauru Island. Most of them have now been abandoned. Nauru's economy peaked in the early 1980s and has always been almost completely dependent on phosphate.
Nauru is the tiny island nation that’s seen it all. Measuring just 21 square kilometers and with a population of almost 9,600, it’s the kind of place people dream of buying or escaping to when they win the lottery.

It’s also a place that’s served as a colony for Australian prisoners in exile and has been stripped of natural resources to the brink of being almost uninhabitable.

Paradise it’s not.

The island’s geology is due in large part to rock phosphate created from guano (that’s science-talk for bird poo), with mineral deposits covering two-thirds of the island. There’s a fertile ring around the outer edge of the island and encircling the Buada Lagoon, with peaking coral cliffs to a height of 65 meters in some places.

An aerial view of the cantilevers that were used to load phosphates from the mining site onto ships. Nauru's economy peaked in the early 1980s and has always been almost completely dependent on phosphate. Image by Vlad Sokhin
An aerial view of the cantilevers that were used to load phosphates from the mining site onto ships. Nauru’s economy peaked in the early 1980s and has always been almost completely dependent on phosphate. Image by Vlad Sokhin

The soil is especially rich in minerals, namely bauxite, an aluminum ore. In the 1980s, when mining was at its peak, the economy of the tiny island went through the roof. As one of three Pacific islands known for having rich and deep phosphate deposits, opportunistic companies came in to mine the land and nearly stripped it to death.

In the 70's Nauru was flying high from it's phosphate riches. This image shows a Rolls Royce and the devastated landscape from mining on Nauru. From the National Geographic Magazine September 1976 .
In the 70’s Nauru was flying high from it’s phosphate riches. This image shows a Rolls Royce and the devastated landscape from mining on Nauru. From the National Geographic Magazine September 1976 .

All through the 80’s Nauru was featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as the richest country in the world (per capita GDP). In 1995, the New York Times wrote that the island’s population were “among the richest in the world, at least on paper, because of phosphate mines that bring in tens of millions of dollars a year.” The phosphate mined there was exported, namely to Australia, which had sovereignty over Nauru from 1947 until 1966. The ore removed from Nauru was used as fertilizer.

People watch an Australian rules football game in front of the Phosphate processing factory. The sport is very popular in Nauru and, along with weightlifting, is the national sport of the island nation. Image by Vlad Sokhin
People watch an Australian rules football game in front of the Phosphate processing factory. Image by Vlad Sokhin

Still, what the land gives it can quickly take away.

Because of the gold, er, bauxite mining, the island is considered one of the most environmentally ravaged places on the planet. “So much of the island has been devoured by strip-mining…that Nauruans face the prospect that they may have to abandon their bleak, depleted home,” New York Times reporter Philip Shenon wrote in 1995. His prediction was on point: as much as 80% of the country’s land has been stripped bare, left uninhabitable.

An abandoned vehicle stands by the side of a road. Many cars have been abandoned along Nauru's roads and in backyards. With an unemployment rate of around 90%, much of the population is dependent on government handouts which are becoming increasingly unaffordable with the sharp reduction in phosphate output on the island. Image by Vlad Sokhin
An abandoned vehicle stands by the side of a road. Many cars have been abandoned along Nauru’s roads and in backyards. Image by Vlad Sokhin

There are other tragedies found on Nauru in addition to the environmental ravages. When the bauxite mining started to slow down, the once incredibly wealthy tiny country floundered, once again becoming dependent on foreign aid as it was before the mining started more than 100 years ago. The country turned to Australia for help and agreed again to house refugees trying to find asylum in Australia but refused entry there. Australia, on the one hand, agreed to pay the citizens of Nauru what amounts to reparations for mismanaging the mining that stripped Nauru in the 1980s, when the country was a protectorate of Australia. Nauru is left no choice but to act as a giant (relatively speaking) waiting room for those hoping to find a safe place to live in Australia.

And by the way? The mining returned in 2005. Reserves might allow mining to continue for 30 years.

Then there’s the population of Nauru.

Tewira (19, left) and Lusia (14, right) sit on the stairs in front of their family house in the Location Block. Their parents came to Nauru from Tarawa, Kiribati looking for work and a better future for their children. Soon after Nauru started having economical problems in the early 2000s, they and many other people lost their jobs and became squatters in the Location Block Area. Location Block was a residential area for foreign miners who came to Nauru to work on the phosphite mine. After the closure of the mine in the early 2000s most of the miners left Nauru and the Location Block became a squatters settlement, mostly populated by locals. Image by Vlad Sokhin
Tewira (19, left) and Lusia (14, right) sit on the stairs in front of their family house in the Location Block. After the closure of the mine in the early 2000s most of the miners left Nauru and the Location Block became a squatters settlement, mostly populated by locals. Image by Vlad Sokhin

The unemployment rate is around 90%. The education system collapsed along with the economy. The vast majority of residents suffer from serious health issues, including diabetes, obesity, heart disease and, most likely, depression, because any prospects for a long and healthy life on the island are, for all intents, obliterated. The average life expectancy of people who live on Nauru is not much beyond 60 years. This, too, is linked to the country’s previous life as a mining haven: the population used to be avid fishers and lived largely off the fresh fruit and vegetables that grew on the island, but when the economy perked up in the 1980s as the country gained its independence and the money was rushing in, residents turned to favour processed foods as an expression of newfound wealth.

A Nauruan family sits outside their house in the Location Block Area. Location Block was a residential area for foreign miners who came to Nauru to work on the phosphite mine. After the closure of the mine in the early 2000s most of the miners left Nauru and the Location Block became a squatters settlement, mostly populated by locals. Image by Vlad Sokhin
A Nauruan family sits outside their house in the Location Block Area. Image by Vlad Sokhin

It’s been noted that explorers sailing the globe in the 18th century were so taken by the lush, isolated and tropical island they called it Pleasant Island. Fate has a cruel sense of humour sometimes.

Some travel websites are still trying to encourage tourism, despite the difficulties in getting to Nauru. One points to glimpses of the island’s past as a lovely place without the exploitation of constant visitors, noting the “wild surrounding ocean and sea birds swooping and dipping over the green inland cliffs” and calling on history buffs to visit the vestiges of structures built by Japanese forces during WWII when the island was occupied. But there’s only one registered air carrier with five registered crafts taking turns using the single airport on the island.

Nauru is a member of the United Nations after joining in 1999, holding the distinction of the world’s smallest independent republic.

Much of Nauru's tiny island now looks like this. The landscape has been devastated by phosphate mining leaving a pitted landscape unusable for human habitation. Source: Wm Adams at billtrips.com.
Much of Nauru’s tiny island now looks like this. The landscape has been devastated by phosphate mining leaving a pitted landscape unusable for human habitation. Source: Wm Adams at billtrips.com.

There’s one other claim to fame for Nauru. In an attempt to take control of its financial situation and re-establish a strong economy, for a few years it served as a tax haven, or a place through which shady businessmen could launder funds.

Not only was currency hidden and moved through Nauru, there were operations on the island to sell passports and transfer diplomatic favours, including the acknowledgement of the independence of two nations—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—for $50 million in aid from Russia in 2008.

Any attempts to save Nauru economically have another challenge to consider: climate change. A report by Newsweek in late 2015 noted that the island is sinking, ill-equipped to deal with the rising waters around it and, because the land is only habitable in a thin ring around the island’s exterior, there’s no place to hide.

People play Bingo in the abandoned building of a Tea Shop in Arijejen District. Bingo is one of the most popular betting games in the country and many Nauruan people spend their evenings and weekends playing and trying to make some money. 90% of the population is unemployed. Image by Vlad Sokhin
People play Bingo in the abandoned building of a Tea Shop in Arijejen District. Image by Vlad Sokhin

Koko Warner, a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, indicates the island is not only incredibly vulnerable to severe storms, “a one-degree change in the path of the cyclone could make all the difference” in the island’s ability to survive. Add to that a lack of clean ground water, severe drought and lack of an escape route, it’s unclear how much longer the island’s residents can stay on their homeland.

 

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