Pleasant Island No More – A Cautionary Tale from the End of the World
by Tom Harrison
At 21 km2 Nauru is one of the smallest countries in the world. Nestled in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from its nearest neighbour and with a population of around 10,000, it truly is at the end of the earth. The first colonists called it Pleasant Island.
For decades, it had the richest citizens in the world, richer per capita than Finland, Canada and the UK. After gaining independence, the nation boomed on the proceeds from extensive phosphate mining, required as fertilizer across the world. Nauru was described by many as the Kuwait of the South Seas.
Even at the time this came at a cost. The vast open cast mines were inescapable – locals had a saying that if you weren’t looking at the sea, you were looking at a mine. Even today you can’t look across the island without seeing one, and the runoff from the mines still poisons the sea.
But the price of phosphate soared, the inhabitants barely had to work for their wealth, and many could still remember the backbreaking subsistence lives they had led before. No one wanted to return to that time of not knowing if you’d have food the next day.
The people grew lazy, the government grew corrupt, the phosphate ran out.
Even during the good times, they knew it couldn’t last forever. The government set up the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust, but it was horribly mismanaged and many investments failed abysmally; They financed a musical about the life of Leonardo da Vinci, which is considered one of the biggest disasters in the history of London theatre. They built the Nauru Tower in Melbourne, the second tallest building in Australia, but it was never filled.
To the government’s credit, their investments at home were not excessive. They built a hospital and schools, they invested in infrastructure; paved the roads, built sewers and, perhaps most importantly for an island 4,000 km from the Australian mainland, built an airport, cutting the journey time from 20 days to 5 hours. But there was no income tax, no corporation tax, no VAT; the only revenue came from the mines.
Politicians spent millions on excessive overseas travel and the government set up embassies all over the world, at one point employing nearly 10% of the population. Year after year the government blew the budget, believing the phosphate would last for centuries.
By the early 1990s it was becoming increasingly apparent that the country had vastly overestimated its reserves, as all over the island they began to reach the bottom of the mines that were expected to have decades of use left in them. The country had an annual deficit of AUD $10 million on a GDP of AUD $20 million and debts of AUD $240 million. But another very real problem was becoming increasingly apparent, and it was really the most obvious consequence of exporting vast quantities of rock from a small island: they were running out of usable land. The island was literally disappearing from beneath their feet. Nauru had to import almost all the food and over half the population left for a better life in one of their bigger neighbours. As one government minister described it, they were “getting rich in a trash can”.
“One day when
they have salted
their last field,
killed the last
beast and burned
the last tree
these people will
realize you can’t
eat money” –
Nauru also had an increasing public health issue. In the course of fifty years the local diet has changed from fish and vegetables to one of high fat, high sugar, heavily processed food, which could survive the long boat ride to the island. This, combined with people moving from the life of a hunter and farmer to the increasingly sedentary lifestyles of people who no longer had to work for a living, meant that the people got fat.
It is by far the fattest country in the world. 95% of the people are overweight, which is combined with a culture that views obesity as a sign of wealth. Life expectancy is falling and has been for 38 years. No other country has witnessed such a stark decline.
This is a problem across the Pacific. Small islands only get resupplied roughly once a month, so fresh vegetables aren’t practical, and on the more densely populated islands there isn’t enough land to grow enough food for everyone. This is combined with the infamous ‘lamb flaps problem’; Australia and New Zealand produce vast quantities of lamb, but the primary markets demand leaner cuts, so the cheaper, fattier cuts are sold to the Pacific islanders, leading to a public health crisis, as 8 out of the 15 fattest countries in the world are in the Pacific, all with obesity rates of at least 70%. Many countries have had to bring in laws specifically banning sale of certain cuts of meat, in an effort to save their creaking health care systems.
In 2005, things came to a head. Mining had all but ceased, and confronted with a massive public health care bill, Nauru ran out of money. The Nauru Tower was sold off, the island’s only plane was seized, and the country’s main power station was impounded, meaning it could no longer supply the desalination plants, the only source of fresh water on an island with only one, now heavily polluted river.
With the island cut off, without power and running out of food and water, Australia stepped in and saved the country from oblivion. They provided Nauru with aid, paying off its debt.
This came at a heavy cost: the Australians built an immigration detention camp on the old national stadium, initially to house the 438 Afghan refugees rescued in international waters by the crew of MV Tampa but refused entry to Australia. Soon there were over 1,200 asylum seekers living in the tented encampment, part of Australia’s Pacific Solution whereby they will not accept any refugees onto Australian territory, instead housing them in remote camps in camps in Nauru and Manus, a distant island of Papua New Guinea.
Brought in by the Howard government with bi-partisan support, the conditions have been compared to a concentration camp; there is almost no healthcare provision, there are regular water shortages and there is no education for the over 300 children held there. Amid hunger strikes, allegations of sexual abuse and stalled promises of closure, the camp erupted into rioting in July of 2013. This was met by a rolling back of the policy by Kevin Rudd’s Labour government, but Julia Glillard’s election saw a return of the policy, with all maritime arrivals being detained indefinitely with no hope of Australian residency, in direct contravention of international law.
Award winning cartoonist, Ali Dorani has been subject to beatings, starvation and over three years of illegal detention at one of the camps. The fact that this was all after fleeing 7000 miles across the Indian Ocean, from abuses by the Iranian government in a boat no longer than a cricket pitch should be a stain on Australia’s national conscience. Being withheld healthcare and almost bereft of hope, Ali has been on hunger strike since the 31st of January.
He is by no means the only case of abuse. There have been almost innumerous reports of inhumane treatment by Broadspectrum staff, brought in to run the camp on the government’s behalf. There have been allegations of both forced and withheld abortions, at least 20 cases of rape in 2016 alone, and even deaths. To this day, nearly 1,000 people remain unlawfully detained on the island with no end in sight, some detained for as long as eight years, with no idea of their release date.
Aid from Australia now accounts for 90% of Nauru’s economy, almost entirely predicated on the continuation of the euphemistically named ‘Regional Processing Centre’. Nauru’s industrialization and isolation means that it is unlikely that tourism can revive the country’s crippled economy. 40% of the marine life has been destroyed, so fishing can’t help either, and even if it could, the island is so remote that any export would likely be unprofitable. The government attempted to become a tax haven, but international condemnation and threatened sanctions meant they quickly backtracked amid concerns that the Russian mafia laundered AUD $70 million in one year.
Nauru is not the only Pacific state dependent on aid; almost all the small islands are dependent on aid to remain afloat – Kiribati, Niue, Tuvalu, Palau; too isolated, too small, too vulnerable, too beautiful. They prompt the question: do humans have to live in every corner of this world?
With the depleted phosphate mines leaving a desolate, near Martian landscape, it is difficult to see how Nauru can get its economy back on track. This monument to unsustainable development is simply too small and too far gone. I believe one day the island will have to be abandoned, left as a warning of human foolishness and greed, a festering wound in the great Pacific.
Nauru. Pleasant Island no more.