How a small island in the South Pacific sold its soul
A phosphate loading station off the coast of South Pacific island Nauru
Pacific Islands can’t help themselves. They inspire primal if not mawkish emotion. Gauguin went to one and started compulsively painting images of Eden. James Michener wrote the novel Hawaii, unable to resist putting down some of the most elemental (and dreadful) prose in history. “Master of life, guardian of the shorelines, regulator of temperatures and heaving sculptor of mountains, the great ocean existed,” writes Michener as he proceeds with scores of pages of typing to chronicle the geologic formation of an island out of volcanic eruption and slow coral accretion until there pops out of the sea, like a plate on a stand, a coral atoll.
Recently I returned from one of those tiny places conjured out of the ancient chaos of the sea. There I witnessed something rare and mysterious, even terrifying: The people have dug up and sold off the interior of their homeland in order to compete in the new global economy. What’s left is strange to see and elemental to visit.
Called Nauru, the island is one of those tiny nations scattered like crumbs across the Pacific. It’s just 26 miles south of the Equator, 1,200 miles northeast of Papua New Guinea—in the center of an expanse of the world named Oceania. This island may be as far away from everywhere as you can get and still be somewhere. For millions upon millions of Michenerian years, the coral atoll matured into a fully fledged Pacific island by a unique process. Eons of birds landed at the remote site to take a bathroom break, and what existed by the time the first Micronesians arrived was an island whose core was composed almost entirely of perfectly composted phosphate.
Near the turn of the millennium, I was sent there by the New York Times Magazine to look into accusations of money laundering. Since then, I’ve continued to check in on my little Pacific island as if it were an old acquaintance whose self-destructive ways have made me perversely eager for fresh gossip. Nauru was my introduction to the harsh reality of the Pacific: Like Tonga (plagued with the world’s worst obesity rate) and Tuvalu (international purveyor of porn) and Tahiti (wracked by poverty), Nauru was once a lovely place. Whalers in the 19th century referred to it on charts as Pleasant Island. But like a runaway innocent, she has spent her beauty too easily, and now she’s lost her only asset. The options are grim. The end is coming quickly, and it’s impossible not to watch.
Between the rock of ecology and the hard marketplace of the global economy, Nauru is not merely being squeezed, but is coming undone.
When I was first assigned to write about Nauru, I called the Nauruan Mission to the United Nations in New York to make arrangements to visit the island. I was told to call Nauru’s publicity agent. How’s that? An entire nation has a PR flack? This was my first encounter with Helen Bogdan, spokesperson for nations, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia. I called and told her I wanted to visit the island.
She didn’t buy a word of it. She told me the seventh Nauruan president in three years had been forced out, and though she would ask the new one, Bernard Dowiyogo, about my request, she was fairly certain it wouldn’t work out. On a subsequent phone call, she told me that under no circumstances would I be permitted on the island.
I booked a flight at once.
On board the plane to Nauru—Air Nauru’s only aircraft—I began to get a deeper sense of the country’s desperation. The flight was full, mainly of Nauruans and a few Aussies. The back third of the plane’s seats were taken over by huge crates. Nothing is made in Nauru, so everything must be flown or shipped in—which, given the failure rate of the island’s desalination plant, includes even water. Soon after arriving and checking in to the island’s only hotel, I decided I would walk up the road about two miles to a knot of a dozen or so official buildings, which locals grandly call the “capital city.” It’s as if everyone on the island has decided to play a child’s game called “nation-state.” The country is ringed by a single circular paved road, so nothing’s hard to find. On the way, I passed the Nauruan golf course, which must rank as one of the world’s oddest. Because of the drought, there is no grass on the nine holes. The course is an enormous rectangular sand trap marked by a few struggling trees. But, then, all the trees on the island were struggling. The shore was lined with the usual tall palms, but many of the trees were obviously moribund from drought—coconutless, frondless, slightly obscene poles curving upward to a pale blister against a paler sky.
In the late-19th-century heyday of colonialism, when every European nation with a boat charged open-throttle to the Pacific to claim tiny islands, Germany was the first to put its boot on Nauru’s shore. According to island legend, an early colonial officer noted a rock being used as a doorstop and realized that it was made of pure phosphate, a valuable ingredient in fertilizer. Right away the Germans built a small-gauge railroad into Nauru’s interior and began carrying off, shipload by shipload, the island’s soil.
Australia later seized the island, and during World War II the Japanese conquered it easily and moved the Nauruans to a Micronesian island north of New Guinea called Chuuk. At one point during the Chuuk exile, a Japanese commander asked the leader of Nauru to kindly send out some Nauruan girls to work as “tea mistresses” aboard his ship. The leader replied that the commander would have to cut his throat first. The Japanese found their tea mistresses elsewhere. This proud moment, when Nauru’s leader defended his people’s virtue, is a story that still gets told more than half a century later. Maybe because it’s the last time it happened.
After the war, Australia restarted the mining operation and earned enormous profits before the island managed to achieve independence in 1968 and take control of its finances. The Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust raked in the cash over the subsequent decades. Health care and education were guaranteed for Nauruans. The quality of life, from a Western perspective, soared. Cars, electrical appliances, air-conditioning, and imports of every kind were available to nearly all. The Chinese arrived to provide backup labor. In the early ‘90s the trust had an estimated principal of $800 million, making Nauru, per capita, one of the richest countries in the world. Nauru’s leaders made some smart investments and became absentee landlords for luxury apartments in Australia and the United States.
But in that volatile decade, some extremely bad investments were made, too. Maybe you were in London in the early ‘90s and caught a musical based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci called Leonardo: A Portrait of Love. It was a major flop, and its primary backer was the country of Nauru. The Nauruan government officials flew themselves, their families, and their friends to London first class to catch the show. They booked the front rows of the theater for opening night, which was smart, since closing night was soon to follow. The fiasco cost $4 million.
In 1992 Nauru lost $8.5 million in a bogus scheme of “prime bank notes,” a scam that convinced naive investors that the superrich secretly traded these notes for enormous, fast profits.
Now that the scams are over and the bubble has burst, Nauru’s entire national endowment is estimated (that is, exaggerated) to be $130 million. And there is no other economy in waiting. Unlike on other tropical islands, tourism is nearly an impossibility. The beaches are raked with small razorlike coral formations, making swimming dangerous. There is no natural harbor. Even the phosphate container ships are loaded via a cantilever-piping system that reaches out into deep water. The work creates a huge phosphate cloud that often hovers just offshore, a frightening industrial phantom.
Oh, and there is one other problem—the elephant sitting in the room, and certainly the most profound explanation for Nauru’s contemporary interest in money laundering: A century of phosphate mining has denuded roughly 80 percent of the island.
Early one hot morning, I wandered the island’s perimeter. Most of the houses on Nauru are made of cinder blocks. The yards are squares of talc. Everyone has a car. Trash, which is apparently too expensive to export, is simply piled in yards. There is an Appalachian quality here. Few yards lack a dog, a pig, or some critter of unknown phylum.
As I walked, a car pulled over, and the driver offered me a ride. He said his name, which I couldn’t understand, but he had the same eyes as a childhood friend of mine named Brian, so that is how I remember him. Brian offered to take me on a tour of the island.
For 20 minutes we drove the circumference of Nauru, stopping once in a small store to buy the only item it had for sale: processed white bread. The tour occurred in complete silence. Nothing was noted or pointed out. The eerie, persistent silence of Nauru exists because there is only one thing anyone really wants to see, and people are loath to talk about it. Brian eventually pulled up beside the giant factory where huge, stony clumps arrived from the interior to be roasted and processed into refined, powdery phosphate. “You want to see Topside, right?” he asked, using the local nickname for the interior of the island.
Brian turned up a dirt road. As we slipped behind the outer scrim of trees, shrubs, and ground cover, all things green disappeared to reveal a sight at once both terrible and spellbinding. The road became a kind of levee laid atop a frightening expanse of pure ruination. On we drove to the very center of what’s left of the interior mound of the atoll, where we could see in one sweeping view the belly of the island.
There are no words or pictures that can adequately capture what mining has wrought in Nauru. The small atoll has essentially been tonsured. The sickly collection of water-starved vegetation on the periphery—the dead palms, the pandanus trees with black crowns, the greenless golf course—is the good news. It masks the horror that lies just inside that ring of scrub: The entire interior has been clear-cut and the underbed of phosphate strip-mined so deep that the only things left are the coral bones of the atoll as it might have existed a million years ago. With all the topsoil and phosphate gone, what’s left are sinuous canals marked by sun-bleached limestone towers and coral outcroppings. One would be hard-pressed to find a place that has been more wasted by the global economy. The winding, dug-out channels among these coral spires are lined with an appallingly silky dirt. Old trash blows around this blistering desert, the shredded plastic bags snagging on bits of coral, the weightier garbage eventually sinking into the ruts, where the rot manages to service the root systems of a few brave weeds. If there is a speck of nutrient to be found there, it is hunted by feral dogs that long ago fled the domesticated life on the shore for a brutal, dystopian existence in the coral channels.
One environmental theory that explains why Nauru’s natural periodic droughts have grown so much worse in recent years is called the “oven effect.” Under the equatorial sun, the exposed white hotplate of Nauru’s interior creates a column of scorched air that rises fast enough to blow away rain clouds.
Brian pointed to a place—it seemed almost hypothetical—out in the powdery distance and said it was his. I later found out that every Nauruan owns a piece of the island. There are thousands of these tracts of land, some not much bigger than a double bed. I have seen a map that breaks up the entire island into micro-parcels. Despite the fact that most of the island has been exported to fertilize crops in the West, almost every Nauruan knows precisely where his or her designated splinter of homeland can be found.
Brian drove slowly with the windows down, then stopped at another place and we got out and scanned the skeletal landscape. He told me how, when he was a boy, all this had been dense tropical forest. He and his friends would hunt the black noddy bird and then bring their kill home to prepare it in the traditional Nauruan style. The population of the country’s signature bird had since collapsed, as had those of the once-populous frigate bird and tern. So Nauruans no longer ate the noddy bird. We sat in a hissing silence for a while. There was no breeze, just fine talc, airborne and stagnant, like particulate suspended in the stillness of a laboratory vacuum. It seemed to crackle and pop in the heavy, birdless air. The emotional sensation of standing there was one of intense, primal fear, as if I could be murdered. Have you ever found yourself alone after hours in a cathedral or a stadium? There is an uneasy feeling of immense absence—of a congregation, of 50,000 fans. Here, on Topside, what was missing was the very life force of nature. It was stripped clean, literally to the bone; all that was left was a silence that scared me in a way I hadn’t been scared since childhood.
Brian sat still and stared ahead. Perhaps more unnerving than the landscape was his stoic face—absent of all affect, tensed by some unnamable sadness. He held himself immobile, as if his chiseled profile were part of the tour: an expression of shame I had never before seen.
He and his people, perhaps unknowingly, had sold off their motherland. It had been done gradually, by accretion, and amid the joy of sudden wealth. There are probably rationalizations and explanations, yet it’s an incomprehensible thing to see it and feel it. Imagine destroying the 40 states from West Virginia to Nevada so the remaining 10 could be temporarily wealthy. Imagine France paving Bordeaux, Israel salting Jerusalem. Brian said he hoped one day I’d get the chance to eat a noddy bird, and then, in a spent silence, he drove me back to the post office and dropped me off.
After I returned from Nauru in 2000, I learned that the president would be visiting New York City to address the United Nations during the Millennium Summit. Bernard Dowiyogo had served in this office four times in the previous decade (and would serve a few more times in the new millennium). He’d been tossed out of power in 1999 after he’d told his constituents that they would have to rein in their lifestyle. His replacement was a phosphate-mining executive named Rene Harris. Since then the politics of Nauru had essentially revolved around these two men. Harris tolerated the most brutal form of capitalism: Sell anything and everything. Dowiyogo had tried to steer the country toward some sort of moral economic reform, hoping the West would reward him for his virtue. So far, he’d been disappointed.
A courtly man, Dowiyogo invited me up to his Park Avenue hotel room for breakfast. We were joined by the country’s ambassador and two other officials. Dowiyogo greeted me with the solemnity of a man whose acquaintance with smiling seemed as remote as Brian’s.
As we ate, he explained that the plan to rehabilitate the interior of the island would take 20 years and $300 million. It wouldn’t be easy. Geologists who had studied the limestone pinnacles said they were so hard that knocking them over to fill in the labyrinth of channels on the island (which is the bulk of the rehab plan) would require bringing in the most powerful land mover in the world. But since there is no topsoil left, their plan to reforest the island couldn’t possibly work.
“One of the ideas we have in mind,” Dowiyogo said, “is that part of the dug-out area should be left as it is, so that future generations can see what it was like.”
“Like a museum,” added the ambassador.
So maybe there is a new economy ahead: reverse ecotourism. Instead of seeing the environment at its most lush, you’d see it at its most debauched. Which is why I keep up with Nauru. The details arrive as pathos and then quickly turn into bathos.
At breakfast, for instance, I asked President Dowiyogo what other money-making ideas were kicking around Nauru. He said they were “studying” a proposal to slice the limestone pinnacles into cross sections, polish them, and offer them for sale in the West as coffee tables. When I asked what other business opportunities his country was contemplating, he took a bite of toast.
Nauruan natives now exceeded 10,000, and with the hope for the future balanced on coffee tables, I gingerly asked the president what might happen to the people on Nauru in the next 10 years.
“That’s not a problem,” he said, explaining that there were at least two more years of full mining, and engineers were studying how to extract “residual phosphate” from the limestone pinnacles when they get knocked down. He explained that early estimates of the remaining potential added up to another eight years of income for the island.
“What do you see as the future in 20 years?” I replied.
“That may be a problem,” the president of Nauru said quietly. I had other questions, but I no longer had the guts to ask them. By now, the awkwardness had reduced the breakfast interview to little more than the sound of forks scratching plates.
Critics of Nauru in the U.S. government have long held that Nauru is an example of what happens when a country steps too far outside the banking and regulatory codes of the new global marketplace. Other observers have seen the island nation as a symbol of a larger problem. “Nauru is the tip of the iceberg,” says Professor Carl N. McDaniel, a biologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, whose book Paradise for Sale, written with John M. Gowdy, examines the nation’s collapsing biosystems. “Nauru is what happens when you treat natural resources as economic resources,” they write. “You can’t sell off your own habitat for long, but this is what we’re all doing everywhere. Nauru is only the canary in the mine shaft.”
Could it be that Nauru will become the first nation-state of the modern age simply to go out of business? Once, Australia offered to give the Nauruans a new island off the Great Barrier Reef. The Nauruans declined, since it would have meant completely surrendering their sovereignty. But it does seem likely that some future leader will have to plan for such a contingency.
Should economics not finish off the country, it seems that nature will. Few scientists disagree about the inevitability of rising ocean levels. New environmental studies suggest that the ocean’s waters will engulf the meager inhabitable outer ring of the island. Soon enough, we’ll be out of the realm of metaphor. Nauru will return to the mercy of our guardian of the shorelines, regulator of temperatures, and heaving sculptor of mountains. Topside’s bleached and bony labyrinth, scarcely visible in the high water, will be the sole proof that people once lived there before it was abandoned, bare and alone at sea, available once again only to the birds for millions upon millions of years.
Entering the new millennium, Nauru began earning money by taking in hundreds of Australia’s unwanted refugees, most of whom were fleeing violence in Iraq. International shame forced Australia to find better conditions for them, although one Iraqi man, Muhammad Faisal, remains on the isolated, dying island. According to Australian newspapers, Faisal is ”'on 24-hour watch because of fears of suicide.”
Jack Hitt has also reported on Nauru for the Public Radio International show This American Life. A longer version of this essay originally appeared in the anthology Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth (Four Walls Eight Windows), edited by Susan Zakin. Reprinted from the Sun magazine. www.thesunmagazine.org.