Sophie Andersen '21
Nauru is a tropical island country in Oceania in the Central Pacific. It is the third smallest country in the world: eight square miles of raised coral. 10,670 people inhabit this tiny area, 25 miles south of the Equator. Its landscape is characterized by a fertile belt, a shallow inland called the Buada Lagoon, and coral cliffs.
It has had a surprisingly eventful history for such a small country: It was first settled in 1000 BC by people from Micronesia and Polynesia. 12 clans lived in relative peace until the Nauruan Civil War, which took place from 1878 to 1888. Deserters from European ships began to live on the island and introduced firearms to the people, which they traded for food. These firearms were used between the forces that were loyal to King Aweida and those who wanted a different leader. After 10 years and 500 deaths (a third of the population), the German Empire intervened and confiscated 791 rifles from the Nauruans. Germany then proceeded to claim it as a colony. It was occupied by Japanese troops during World War II, which led to a bombing and deportation of Nauruans to work in the Chuuk Islands. After being liberated by the Australian and the Royal Australian Navy, Nauru entered the United Nations trusteeship. In 1968, Nauru gained independence and became a member of the Pacific Community.
The plateau is composed of mineral deposits of rock phosphate, which is leached from bird droppings. Upon discovering the phosphate, Nauru’s economy flourished, but this unprecedented success was short lived as phosphate is a finite resource. The mining of phosphate, which was Nauru’s sole export for decades, decimated the majority of the island: four-fifths of it are inhabitable. While the phosphate was once the highest quality in the world, the remainder is not economically viable for strip mining, leaving the country with no consistent source of income. Furthermore, “cadmium residue, phosphate dust, and other contaminants” pollute the island and only 10% of the island is suitable for farming. The once beautiful nature of the island is now a wasteland.
In order to earn income and save its floundering economy, Nauru became a tax haven and a center for illegal money laundering for a brief period. It has accepted aid from the Australian government, and in return become an offshore Australian immigration detention facility, the “Nauru Regional Processing Centre.”
Wealth distribution and inequality is significant on Nauru: “only one in 10 Nauruans who are classified as poor, have access to basic household items, such as a refrigerator.” It is hard to believe that Nauru was once the second richest nation by GDP per capita. Nauru also suffers from the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in the world: 40% of the population is affected, while 71% of the population is obese. So how exactly did this happen? When phosphate was discovered and the citizens became unexpectedly very wealthy, they stopped exercising as much, and the exposure to the Western world meant they started consuming processed foods. While this lifestyle was once one of luxury, it is now due to necessity: the collapse of their economy and lack of access to fertile land has left cheap processed food as the only option.
So what will happen to this tiny island? The future is seemingly bleak, but the locals are “upbeat as they can be.”