Published: June 2nd 2007June 2nd 2007
Ha! This travelblog doesn't even list Nauru as a country! So, where shall I start? I think, the first thing to know is that this is the smallest independent country in the world, covering just 21 square km and with just 10,000 inhabitants. On a single island rock. And it has a vote in the UN. It is also the only country in the world without an official capital (well, it is a single island, with only one town, which basically covers the whole island, so what's the point?)
I spent a week there and discovered a very unique place. The history of Nauru does not make for very pleasant reading. I am no expert, so please bear with me while I give you a brief breakdown. I wouldn't normally do a historical overview(!) for a country I was visiting but in Nauru's case understanding anything about the place depends on knowing a little of the history, so here goes.
Initially inhabited by Micronesian peoples, Nauru was, of course, 'discovered' by European nations (sometime in the early 19th century I think) and eventually annexed and designated a 'colony' by Germany in the late 19th century. Following the defeat of
Germany in World War I it became a mandate territory administered jointly by Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. The island was occupied by Japan during World War II. The Japanese were not particularly nice to the locals, and transfered half of the island's population to the island of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia to make space for workers from Japan and other countries during the war! After the war, these people were brought back to Nauru and the island entered into trusteeship again. Nauru achieved independence in 1968 but in the meantime Australia and Britain made sure they took full advantage of the huge phosphate reserves on the island.
Nauru is a phosphate rock island (coral plus lots and lots of bird poo!), and its primary economic activity since 1907 has been the export of phosphate mined from the island. This was minied by a British and then an Austrlian company, who also set up a trust fund to compensate the people of Nauru for use of their land and sale of the phosphate. So far so good. On independence in 1968, thanks to the royalties from mining deposited in this trust fund, Nauru actually
had the highest per capita income in the world! But that's where it all started going horribly wrong.
Somehow all the money in the trust fund managed to be spent or just simply disappear within just two decades. By the 1990s, there was nothing left (or nothing to be found) and the life of relative opulence that the Nauran population had grown accustomed to started to crumble and collapse. In the period of propserity all aspects of traditional life had been practically wiped out. No traditional housing remained, only large concrete houses mainly with steel corrugated roofs. No traditional agriculture or fishing. All food had been imported, that is how much money there was to spend. The people in Nauru simply lost the knowledge of how to fish, how to grow vegetables, basically how to survive on their own island without external assistance. As the money ran out, they were no longer able to buy new things to replace that which broke and had no idea how to maintain any kind of equipment. Slowly everything started falling into disrepair and decay. Also with the phosphate drying up, so did the jobs at the mining operations. These days there is
about 30% unemployment in Nauru and the main employer is the government. However, there is not enough currency available (national currency is Australian dollars) to pay government personnel, who receive only part of their salary in cash and the rest as a 'cheque' of the Bank of Nauru. However, tha Bank of Nauru went into insolvency a few years ago so these cheques are effectively worthless.
In short, with the exhaustion of phosphate reserves, the environment severely degraded by mining, the trust fund established to manage the island's wealth disappeared and the country practically bankrupt, the government of Nauru has had to resort to unusual measures to obtain income. In the 1990s, Nauru briefly became a tax haven and money laundering center. Since 2001, it has accepted aid from the Australian government; in exchange for this aid, Nauru houses an offshore detention centre that holds and processes asylum seekers trying to enter Australia. Apart from that income generating activities on Nauru are pretty limited and the country is heavily reliant on Australia for its survival.
Related to my line of work, the most obvious example of dependence on Australian benevolence is the purchase of diesel every year for
running the generators which power the electricity grid of the country. Australia not only pays for the diesel fuel but has also actually provided some of the generators. It's hard to explain the circumstances in Nauru. When the mining company was in full swing it ran all of the energy services, providing fuel and electricity to the population of the country for free. Now that there is no mining company, the people still do not pay for electricity and feel that free electricity is their right for the damage done to their land by the mining. With electricity being free, noone cares about how much they use, resulting in Nauru consuming the most electricity per capita of all the islands states in the Pacific! In fact double the next highest per capita consumer (Palau). This is all very closely related to my work since I am going to try to organise the first real energy efficiency campaign for the island but best to not go into that here.
I feel I am not conveying adequately the situation I found in Nauru. It is very hard to describe. Driving around the island, there are abandoned Land Rovers in the drive
of almost every house. Sometimes two or three Land Rovers. Just sitting there, gathering rust. Relics of a past era, which wasn't all that long ago. The view from the balcony of my hotel room is also typical of the problems with waste and rubbish. Nothing seems to quite be working properly. Even the cars that are actually moving are doing so while slowly falling apart.
On the other hand, I found the island had a natural beauty. I have rarely seen an ocean so blue. Day after day brought bright beautiful sunshine and magnificent long drawn out sunsets where I really felt that I was losing myself in the pink clouds and rays of dying sunlight overhead. Now that it is being left to its own devices the vegetation has also been growing back at a fantastic rate, or so it seemed to me. Helped by a good amount of rain in the last few years, the abandonned mining areas have greened significantly. What I found looked to me like a field of menhirs growing in vast fields, the protruding coral stone having darkened from exposure to the sun. In areas where the mining is still going on
Big machine for loading the phosphate onto ships
however, one can imagine what a moonscape the island must have been not that long ago. The whole centre of the island was mined and all vegetation removed but now that mining activities have slowed down it seemed like the plants are fighting back courageously.
I could go on and on but there is little point. I just can't explain it all. But I did have a good time there. Which included tasting authentic local take away (sea snails - yum yum!), swimming in the small harbour (water bluer than the sky and clearer than a swimming pool!) and witnessing the unique landscape of rock 'plantations' created by the reclaiming of the mining lands by the natural vegetation. I also met a lot of interesting and friendly people, who shared some fascinating, funny and sometimes slightly depressing stories about Nauru. The pool table in the hotel bar also provided hours of fun ...and a few drinks were had on Friday night to round of a week of discovery and more than a little disbelief.
There are more photos below