Notes from a disappearing island
For the past few years, the island of Nauru has been on a health kick. The concrete walls of public buildings are covered in murals urging regular exercise and healthy eating, and warning against the danger of diabetes. Young people are asking their grandparents how to fish, a lost skill. But there is a problem. As Nerida-Ann Steshia Hubert, who works at a diabetes centre on the island, explains, life spans on Nauru are short, in part because of an epidemic of the disease. “The older folks are passing away early and we’re losing a lot of the knowledge with them. It’s like a race against time – trying to get the knowledge from them before they die.”
For decades, this tiny, isolated South Pacific island, just 21 square kilometres and home to 10,000 people, was held up as a model for the world – a developing country that was doing everything right. In the early 1960s, the Australian government, whose troops seized control of Nauru from the Germans in 1914, was so proud of its protectorate that it made promotional videos showing the Micronesians in starched white Bermuda shorts, obediently following lessons in English-speaking schools, settling their disputes in British-style courts, and shopping for modern conveniences in well-stocked grocery stores.
During the 1970s and 1980s, after Nauru had earned independence, the island was periodically featured in press reports as a place of almost obscene riches, much as Dubai is invoked today. An Associated Press article from 1985 reported that Nauruans had “the world’s highest per capita gross national product… higher even than Persian Gulf oil Sheikdoms”. Everyone had free health care, housing and education; homes were kept cool with air-conditioning; and residents zoomed around their tiny island – it took 20 minutes to make the entire loop – in brand new cars and motorcycles. A police chief famously bought himself a yellow Lamborghini. “When I was young,” recalls Steshia Hubert, “we would go to parties where people would throw thousands of dollars on the babies. Extravagant parties – first, 16th, 18th, 21st, and 50th birthdays… They would come with gifts like cars, pillows stuffed with $100 bills – for one-year-old babies!”
All of Nauru’s monetary wealth derived from an odd geological fact. For hundreds of thousands of years, when the island was nothing but a cluster of coral reefs protruding from the waves, Nauru was a popular pit stop for migrating birds, who dropped by to feast on the shellfish and molluscs. Gradually, the bird poop built up between the coral towers and spires, eventually hardening to form a rocky landmass. The rock was then covered over in topsoil and dense forest, creating a tropical oasis of coconut palms, tranquil beaches, and thatched huts so beatific that the first European visitors dubbed the island Pleasant Isle.
“One dead island that few even knew existed seemed like an acceptable sacrifice to make in the name of the progress represented by industrial agriculture”
For thousands of years, Nauruans lived on the surface of their island, sustaining themselves on fish and black noddy birds. That began to change when a colonial officer picked up a rock that was later discovered to be made of almost pure phosphate of lime, a valuable agricultural fertiliser. A German-British firm began mining, later replaced by a British-Australian-New Zealand venture.
Nauru started developing at record speed – the catch was that it was, simultaneously, committing suicide.
By the 1960s, Nauru still looked pleasant enough when approached from the sea, but it was a mirage. Behind the narrow fringe of coconut palms circling the coast lay a ravaged interior. Seen from above, the forest and topsoil of the oval island were being voraciously stripped away; the phosphate mined down to the island’s sharply protruding bones, leaving behind a forest of ghostly coral totems. With the centre now uninhabitable and largely infertile except for some minor scrubby vegetation, life on Nauru unfolded along the thin coastal strip, where the homes and civic structures were located.
Nauru’s successive waves of colonisers – whose economic emissaries ground up the phosphate rock into fine dust, then shipped it on ocean liners to fertilise soil in Australia and New Zealand – had a simple plan for the country: they would keep mining phosphate until the island was an empty shell. “When the phosphate supply is exhausted in 30 to 40 years’ time, the experts predict that the estimated population will not be able to live on this pleasant little island,” a Nauruan council member said, rather stiffly, in a 60s-era black-and-white video produced by the Australian government. But not to worry, the film’s narrator explained: “Preparations are being made now for the future of the Nauruan people. Australia has offered them a permanent home within her own shores… Their prospects are bright; their future is secure.”
Nauru, in other words, was developed to disappear, designed by the Australian government and the extractive companies that controlled its fate as a disposable country. It’s not that they had anything against the place, no genocidal intent per se. It’s just that one dead island that few even knew existed seemed like an acceptable sacrifice to make in the name of the progress represented by industrial agriculture.
When the Nauruans themselves took control of their country in 1968, they had hopes of reversing these plans. Toward that end, they put a large chunk of their mining revenues into a trust fund that they invested in what seemed like stable real estate ventures in Australia and Hawaii. The goal was to live off the fund’s proceeds while winding down phosphate mining and beginning to rehabilitate their island’s ecology – a costly task, but perhaps not impossible.
The plan failed. Nauru’s government received catastrophically bad investment advice, and the country’s mining wealth was squandered. Nauru continued to disappear, its white powdery innards loaded onto boats as the mining continued unabated. Meanwhile, decades of easy money had taken a predictable toll on Nauruans’ life and culture. Politics was rife with corruption, drunk driving was a leading cause of death, average life expectancy was dismally low, and Nauru earned the dubious honour of being featured on a US news show as “the fattest place on Earth” (half the adult population suffers from type 2 diabetes, the result of a diet comprised almost exclusively of imported processed food).
“During the golden era when the royalties were rolling in, we didn’t cook, we ate in restaurants,” recalls Steshia Hubert. And even if the Nauruans had wanted to eat differently, it would have been hard: with so much of the island a latticework of deep dark holes, growing enough fresh produce to feed the population was pretty much impossible. A bitterly ironic infertility for an island whose main export was agricultural fertiliser.
By the 1990s, Nauru was so desperate for foreign currency that it pursued some distinctly shady get-rich-quick schemes. Aided greatly by the wave of financial deregulation unleashed in this period, the island became a prime money-laundering haven. For a time in the late 1990s, Nauru was the titular “home” to roughly 400 phantom banks that were utterly unencumbered by monitoring, oversight, taxes, and regulation. Nauru-registered shell banks were particularly popular among Russian gangsters, who reportedly laundered a staggering $70 billion of dirty money through the island nation (to put that in perspective, Nauru’s entire GDP is $72 million, according to most recent figures). Giving the country partial credit for the collapse of the Russian economy, a New York Times Magazine piece in 2000 pronounced that “amid the recent proliferation of money-laundering centres that experts estimate has ballooned into a $5 trillion shadow economy, Nauru is Public Enemy #1”.
These schemes have since caught up with Nauru too, and now the country faces a double bankruptcy: with 90 percent of the island depleted from mining, it faces ecological bankruptcy; with a debt of at least $800 million, Nauru faces financial bankruptcy as well. But these are not Nauru’s only problems. It now turns out that the island nation is highly vulnerable to a crisis it had virtually no hand in creating: climate change and the drought, ocean acidification, and rising waters it brings. Sea levels around Nauru have been steadily climbing by about five millimetres per year since 1993, and much more could be on the way if current trends continue. Intensified droughts are already causing severe freshwater shortages.
Speaking to the 1997 UN climate conference that adopted the Kyoto Protocol, Nauru’s then-president Kinza Clodumar described the collective claustrophobia that had gripped his country: “We are trapped, a wasteland at our back, and to our front a terrifying, rising flood of biblical proportions.” Few places on earth embody the suicidal results of building our economies on polluting extraction more graphically than Nauru. Thanks to its mining of phosphate, Nauru has spent the last century disappearing from the inside out; now, thanks to our collective mining of fossil fuels, it is disappearing from the outside in.
In a 2007 cable about Nauru, made public by WikiLeaks, an unnamed US official summed up his government’s analysis of what went wrong on the island: “Nauru simply spent extravagantly, never worrying about tomorrow.”
In the past decade Nauru has become a dumping ground of another sort. In an effort to raise much needed revenue, it agreed to house an offshore refugee detention centre for the government of Australia. In what has become known as ‘the Pacific Solution’, Australian navy and customs ships intercept boats of migrants and immediately fly them 3,000 kilometres to Nauru (as well as to several other Pacific islands). Once on Nauru, the migrants – most from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan – are crammed into a rat-infested guarded camp made up of rows of crowded, stiflingly hot tents. The island imprisonment can last up to five years, with the migrants in a state of constant limbo about their status, something the Australian government hopes will serve as a deterrent to future refugees.
The Australian and Nauruan governments have gone to great lengths to limit information on camp conditions and have prevented journalists who make the long journey to the island from seeing where migrants are being housed.
But the truth is leaking out nonetheless: grainy video of prisoners chanting “We are not animals”; reports of mass hunger strikes and suicide attempts; horrifying photographs of refugees who had sewn their own mouths shut, using paper clips as needles; an image of a man who had badly mutilated his neck in a failed hanging attempt. There are also images of toddlers playing in the dirt and huddling with their parents under tent flaps for shade (originally the camp had housed only adult males, but now hundreds of women and children have been sent there too).
“Nauru has spent the last century disappearing from the inside out; now, thanks to our collective mining of fossil fuels, it is disappearing from the outside in”
In June 2013, the Australian government finally allowed a BBC crew into the camp in order to show off its brand-new barracks – but that PR attempt was completely upstaged one month later by the news that a prisoner riot had almost completely destroyed the new facility, leaving several prisoners injured.
Amnesty International has called the camp on Nauru “cruel” and “degrading”, and a 2013 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees concluded that those conditions, “coupled with the protracted period spent there by some asylum seekers, raise serious issues about their compatibility with international human rights law, including the prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
Then, in March 2014, a former Salvation Army employee named Mark Isaacs, who had been stationed at the camp, published a tell-all memoir titled ‘The Undesirables’. He wrote about men who had survived wars and treacherous voyages losing all will to live on Nauru, with one man resorting to swallowing cleaning fluids, another driven mad and barking like a dog. Isaacs likened the camp to “death factories”, and said in an interview that it is about “taking resilient men and grinding them into the dust”. On an island that itself was systematically ground to dust, it’s a harrowing image. As harrowing as enlisting the people who could very well be the climate refugees of tomorrow to play warden to the political and economic refugees of today.
Reviewing the island’s painful history, it strikes me that so much of what has gone wrong on Nauru – and goes on still – has to do with its location, frequently described as “the middle of nowhere” or, in the words of a 1921 National Geographic dispatch, “perhaps the most remote territory in the world”, a tiny dot “in lonely seas”. The nation’s remoteness made it a convenient rubbish bin – a place to turn the land into trash, to launder dirty money, to disappear unwanted people, and now a place that may be allowed to disappear altogether.
These days, Nauru is in a near constant state of political crisis, with fresh corruption scandals perpetually threatening to bring down the government, and sometimes succeeding. Given the wrong visited upon the nation, the island’s leaders would be well within their rights to point fingers outward – at their former colonial masters who flayed them, at the investors who fleeced them and at the rich countries whose emissions now threaten to drown them. And some do. But several of Nauru’s leaders have also chosen to do something else: to hold up their country as a kind of warning to a warming world.
In The New York Times in 2011, for instance, then-president Marcus Stephen wrote that Nauru provides “an indispensable cautionary tale about life in a place with hard ecological limits”. It shows, he claimed, “what can happen when a country runs out of options. The world is headed down a similar path with the relentless burning of coal and oil, which is altering the planet’s climate, melting ice caps, making oceans more acidic and edging us ever closer to a day when no one will be able to take clean water, fertile soil or abundant food for granted.” In other words, Nauru isn’t the only one digging itself to death; we all are.
Naomi Klein is the author of ‘No Logo’ and ‘The Shock Doctrine’. This is an extract from her latest book ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate’, published by Allen Lane.
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