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Dark clouds are said to be gathering over Nauru. The phosphate is almost gone and the national finances are sliding rapidly into the red. However, the flood of asylum seekers is seemingly unquenchable and Nauru may well have found another source of significant income.


Just south of the equator, half way between Australia and Hawaii, Nauru remained in splendid isolation before the first Europeans arrived. On Nauru, the Nauruan language is distinct, and is spoken by most Nauruans. Mixed marriages are uncommon, and ten of the twelve clans represented by the twelve-pointed star on the national flag above still exist.

For many Nauruans, the phosphate mines are up there, on a plateau called "topside", and are out of sight and out of mind. As long as the money keeps rolling in, the environmental damage is shrugged off. There is a little rehabitation undertaken and the dusty badland spread like a nasty skin cancer.

Aerial view of Nauru showing Topside Plateau.

Environmental damage resulting from phosphate mining.

The British whaling captain John Fearn discovered Nauru in 1798, on his way from New Zealand to China, and within a few years European influences had devastated the island. Guns and alcohol and European germs wrought mayhem. Various beachcombers and escaped convicts set up shops, living largely on copra export while the population fell by a third during the next few decades. In 1888, Germany annexed the island, supposedly to protect German traders.

Phosphate was discovered on Nauru eleven years later. This was an extremely valuable find as phosphate was urgently needed to fertilize the tired land of Europe and Australia's dusty croplands. Phosphate mining commenced under the auspices of the British Phosphate Commission.

A Nauruan fisherman.

After World War I, Nauru became a Trust Territory jointly administered by Australia, Britain and New Zealand. Phosphate mining continued to accelerate until the next War when Japan invaded Nauru in 1942. Half the population of 2,400 was shipped to Truk (Chuuk) Island in the Caroline Group and nearly 500 of them died in exile.  

After the War, phosphate continued to be hauled out of the ground at an increasing rate. Finally, several years after the island's independence, Australia, New Zealand and Britain reluctantly handed over control of the phosphate operation to the Government-owned Nauru Phosphate Corporation. In 1993, Nauru's suit against Australia in the International Court of Justice was settled out of court with 107 million Australian dollars being handed to the Nauruan Government over a twenty year period to repair the devastation of the topside plateau.

The devastation of phosphate mining.

As the phosphate proceeds have melted away, life in Nauru has become essentially unsustainable. Indeed, Nauru has no arable land, no permanent crop, no permanent pastures and no forests. Practically everything is imported from cans of spam to fruit and vegetables, cars, fuel and building materials. Even water was imported before a desalination plant was set up.

Supermarket shelves are often empty
awaiting the next shipment of imported goods.

A section of the road that circumnavigates Nauru Island.

Many observers believe that dark clouds are gathering over Nauru. The phosphate is almost gone and the national finances are sliding rapidly into the red. The rising seas of global warming could flood the residential coastal strip. Little that is edible grows, health is poor, and most of the central plateau remains unrehabilitated.

The Nauruan shoreline.

Yet despite all this, Nauru remains a nation where laughter rings out in the most unlikely places. They are a most hospitable people and it is impossible to walk more than ten meters without being offered a lift.

The flood of asylum seekers is seemingly unquenchable and Nauru may well have found a new source of income as a buffer zone in Australia's Pacific solution to its refugee problems. Many Nauruans however seem less concerned with the economics involved than with the dimension of human suffering. They have donated piles of used clothes, hats and toys, and a number of families have asked asylum seekers to lunch. Nauru is a most hospitable nation.


 Commercial centre of Nauru.

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 Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 5th March 2003)