Getting to Know Little Brother – Nauru

When you look at the state of international current affairs it’s easy to start believing there are only a handful of countries on the Earth. When watching a half hour segment of BBC World it’s common to see only three categories of item: 1. The State of the EU 2. The temperature in the Middle East (I mean political temperature) and 3. What’s happening Stateside. With this in mind it is easy to forget there are more than two hundred nations on the planet and so many of them are regularly overlooked. As a Geographile (I think that’s a word), I want to change the perspective.

Forget about the G8 summit or even those G20 wannabees. What I want to do is talk about those countries and or nations that never get a say much less a seat on the UN  Security Council. There are corners of the earth worth knowing about even if you have no intention of visiting or regard as insignificant. So here is the start of a series that brings some little known facts to the table. Let’s start with the world’s smallest independent republic.

Nauru - Formerly known as Pleasant Island...

Nauru – Formerly known as Pleasant Island…

Nauru lies in the Pacific Ocean. It is 60 kilometres south of the equator and is 21 square kilometres in area (That is 0.1 times the size of Washington DC – Thanks CIA Factbook, we needed that). Formerly known as Pleasant Island when whaling was big and everyone was doing it, Nauru was soon seen by the colonials as an ideal location for mining (phosphate). Mining began in the 1900’s and in that heyday I would say a number of locals and many others made it big. In 1921 an issue of National Geographic carried an article named: “Nauru: The Richest Island in the South Seas.” And they were for a time. But where did all this phosphate come from?

Located halfway between Australia and Hawaii, it seems like every seabird in the central Pacific must have stopped there for a bathroom break creating a virtual mountain of ‘guano’. While that did happen and those droppings are rich in nitrogen and phosphates, it was actually a high grade rock phosphate (not attributed to seabirds) that was discovered in 1900 that started the industry. An industry that has ultimately led the island to an image and future that is anything but pleasant. That primary deposit was all but mined out by 2005 and a secondary deposit was found which has merely a three decade lifespan. The once lush, green island has been strip-mined from one end to the other and it is only subsidies from the Australian government that now seem to balance the books year on year.

The Nauru interior has a rather lunar quality these days.

The Nauru interior has a rather lunar quality these days.

Why should Australia bail them out? Well there is no getting away from the fact that every farmer from Perth to Invercargill has benefited from Nauru’s phosphate over the last century (being the most important ingredient in high grade fertiliser). There is no doubt that there is ‘colonial guilt’ and the history of the island smacks of irresponsibility from both visitors and locals alike. If you were to believe this from the Economist then you would say that the Nauruans have not always been wise whether they had a choice or not.The article, although dated, pointed to a potentially sustainable industry for Nauru although it was no less corrupt. For 25,000 dollars you could set up a bank in Nauru and hundreds had done so before intergovernmental agencies got involved. In 1998 an estimated 70 billion of Russian mafia money found its way to the tiny island. But we are talking about Nauru here and not Nassau. Under pressure from the Financial Action Task Force, new legislation soon had the hot money off the island just as fast as it came. So where to?

Right now things look bleak. Nauru is only behind American Samoa in terms of it’s national obesity rate. It’s unemployment figures are barely better than Zimbabwe and it’s export value in a given year is a mere 64,000 dollars. I’m pretty sure my Mum makes more than that.

So you’ve read about Nauru and it’s all a bit sad. It feels a bit like reading The Lorax. You might say you’d rather watch BBC World news, at least some of those stories have a better ending but I say it’s a bigger world than that and you should know about it. I’m not suggesting for a minute you fly to Nauru and find an old phosphate crater, fill it in and plant a tree but why not read some more about it and if you do find yourself there well then you will be supporting the country with one of the world’s most sustainable industries – Tourism.

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