Thursday, June 23, 2011

The tragedy of Nauru

The remote Pacific island of Nauru is the world's third-smallest independent nation by land area (it is 8.1 square miles in size; only Monaco and Vatican City are smaller). It's also a nation with a very tragic story, as musician - turned - CNN iReporter Johnny Colt writes:
Nauru is battling a failed economy, widespread poor health and a natural environment ruined from the inside. They're the kinds of things that aren't altogether different from what's facing many of the rest of us, but they're magnified in a place that's only a tenth the size of Washington, D.C.
Nauru is a phosphate rock island. The island's economy has historically relied on the mining of phosphate, which is used to make fertilizer and other products. However, these phosphate sources have now been virtually depleted:
Not long ago, Nauru was one of the wealthiest nations on Earth: The phosphate mines, before they dried up, gave the nation the second-highest per-capita GDP in the world. But today, 90% of its residents are unemployed and the nation's economy sags under enormous debt. The phosphate mineral money that brought Ferraris to the island in the 1970s and '80s has dried up, leaving all those sports cars to rust. Today, most Nauruans live on about 90 to 100 Australian dollars a week.
As small as Nauru is, only about 20% of the island is actually inhabitable. The other 80% has been rendered uninhabitable and unarable due to mining operations:

Nauru's topography looks kind of like a top hat. The center of the island jumps up in elevation. A small band of greenery about a thousand feet wide and a coral-laden beach create the perimeter, and most of the population lives in the brim.

The middle is called the topside. That's where the phosphate is -- or was, before most of it was mined and shipped off. From the descriptions, getting excited to see this place is like getting excited when your friend smells something totally disgusting and hands it to you to smell. You just have to smell it.


Mining for phosphate is a simple process: You dig it straight up out of the ground while leaving the jagged pinnacles of coral behind. No need for an underground railway. No phosphate miners see a doctor for black lung.

But a hundred years of strip mining -- first by a parade of foreign administrators of the island and eventually by Nauru itself after it gained independence in 1968 -- have left two-thirds of the island uninhabitable and killed about 40% of the surrounding marine life, according to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In Nauru's mining history, no one has bothered to rehabilitate the post-mined topography. So much of the island's green skin has been peeled back and left raw and exposed to the elements. It looks like a moonscape. And like the moon, people can neither live nor grow food there.

The lack of sufficient space for agriculture, as well as the island's remoteness and the grinding poverty of its people, has created yet another problem:

Nothing here is fresh. Phosphate mining has left nowhere to produce food. A head of lettuce costs $18 Australian.

So most of what people eat is low-cost and fried to make up for in taste what it lacks in freshness.

Today, about 40% of the population is diabetic, owing at least partly to poor nutrition.

And then there is the issue of climate change, which could possibly result in rise of ocean levels. Nauru's population, as was explained previously, lives along the island's low-lying peripheral ring. If sea levels rise, there's no place for them to escape.

One particularly heartbreaking aspect of Nauru's plight that Colt didn't mention in his report is the manner in which the island's profits from its phosphate mining were squandered. A percentage of the island's phosphate mining earnings were placed into the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust, which was intended to support the island's citizens once the phosphate reserves were mined out. However, the trust was very poorly managed; dubious investments were made in everything from real estate to a now-defunct Australian Rules football team to a failed London musical. The Trust has now been decimated and the country is destitute.

I've always found the story of Nauru to be fascinating, not only because I find small countries to be inherently interesting but also because I am endeared to the tragic situation that the people of this island find themselves in. I don't know how Nauruans are going to overcome the myriad problems they currently face, but I follow their plight and hope for the best.

I'd love to visit one day, even though getting there isn't easy and tourist facilities are minimal.

No comments: