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Doomed Is landNauru's s hort-sighted n es s an d re s ultin g de cl in e are an urgen twarnin g to the res t of the plan e t.
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HEY SIT BEMUSED under the equa tor i a lsun, like the victims of natural catastrophe,an earthquake perhaps , the second shockimminent and inescapable. The young menand women of Niuiru.Theirs is the first nation in a hundred years toplummet from "Firs t World" to "Third World" s tatusin a single decade. Suddenly, shatteringly, theirs is not adeveloping n ation - it's an unravelling one . And they'restill falling. Obiivion awaits.
Generally, shifts that have taken place under the globalumbrella ot capitalism have been in the othe r direction, ascoun tries have moved from "developing" to "developed"nation status. Singapore, South K orea, the United ArabKmirates and Chile come to mind. Recently, at the rateof a mil l ion ci t izens a month, China has joined thiscategory.But Nauru (pronounced: now-rue), a phosphate rockisland in the Micronesian South Pacific, is unique sinceEaster Island's implosion a millenniu m past. Often calledthe Saudi Arabia of pho sphate, it was ranked from 1968
to around 1993 as one of the world's riebest countrieson a per capita inco me basis. This wealth, created alm ostentirely by the export of phosphate - the tiny islandnation's primary economic activity - was short lived.Situated 42 kilometres south of the equator and 3000kilometres northeast of Australia, Nauru tossed awaywhat may have been 100 years (locals claim 3000years) of isolation and self-sufficiency in just a fewgenerat ions .Today, Nauru Is the most ecologically devastatednation on Earth. Its 21 square kilometres host 12,000inhabitants, perched atop a volcanic column that pitches
4300 metres to the ocean floor. As for the part of thecolumn abovesealevel,youcan thinkof it asa layer cakeon a plate. The exposed rim of the plate is, on average,200 metres wide ar oun d the base, with the "cake" risingsteeply 50 metres into the air.Now picture bulldozers slicing off the cake's icing:the metre-thick topsoil and roughage, along with theindigenous tomano forest it supports. Next, visualizetront-end scoops scraping away the cake's top layer:several metres of the world's richest phosphate at almost39-per-cent purity. Imagine the machines trundling away,leaving the bottom layer of the cake a pitted and greyecological war zone of dolomitic limestone p inn ac les -astone forest. Left behind, the inhabitants of the .sinallest
island nation in the world are crowded onto the narrowplate rim, praying that the seas won't rise two me tres andseize their last centimetres of habitable land.In 1968, when the Nauruans took over the countryand the phosphate mine from an Australian-British-NewZealand consort ium, only one-third of the " topside"had been mined. In the ensuing years , the Nauruansexcavated the remaining two-thirds , amid much talkof rehab ilitating the ravaged land. Estimates of thetotal reclamation cos ts ranged from $58-mil l ion toSl69-mil l ion at one t ime. Studies by outs ide experts ,recomm ending rehabilitation, abou nd. The rehabilitationof f i ce , a l a rge , a i r -condi t ioned, cor ruga ted- i ronstructure near the govern men t-owned Meneng Hotel ,was established in 1999. But nary a scrap of rehab hashappened."We are trapped , a wasteland at our back , and to o urfront a terrifying, rising flood of biblical proportions,"then-Pres ident Kinza C lodumar to ld the KyotoConference on Climate Change in 1997.The Nauruans must have seen i t coming. Yet in
heady, pre-in dep end ence 1963, they rejected p eniten tAustralia's offer of Curtis Island and citizenship off theQueensland coast. Instead, they bet on their offshoreNauru Phosphate Royalties Trust Fund, which by 1970had swollen to $1.35-billion. The trust was intende d toreplace revenue from the mine with annual dividends.Included in its holdings was Me lbourn e's tallest bu ilding,the 52-s torey Nauru House. By 2004, however, themismanaged t rus t had shpped into receivership andwas drained.In the 1990s, as the mine ran down, the governmenttr ied a new motherlode: money laundering. Nauruanpassports went on sale under the table. Some $56-billonin shady Russian funds funnelled tbrough Nauru beforeinternational police cracked down in 2003.
For the last few years, refugees have been Nauru's newphospha te. In 2001, Australia began warehou sing refugeeclaimants at a detention centre on the island. The projectearned $6.4-mllion a year and generated a few jobsfor locals, though the security guards were Australian."Boomerang aid," the locals called it . Situated on thetopside perimeter, the beige, corrugated-iron com pou ndstares out across the dead land. It has room for 500, but by2008 it housed just one refugee, and the new AustralianPrime Minister Kevin Rudd had announced its closing.Most recently, ano ther new industry has been initiated;
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When the mining was done, all that was left on Nauru was a pitted and grey ecologicalwar zone ofiiolomitic limestone pinnacles - a stone forest - and rusting machin ery.
exporting crushed coral for saltwater aquariums.Faced with the necessity of going back to traditional
ways of scrounging from the sea and the soil, Nauruansrealize that they have forgotten how lo paddle an ou triggercanoe, much less build one with tom ano trees - if therewere any. So the Food and Agriculture Organizationsent in a team of Fijians and a Cook Islander to teachthe Nauruans how to grow bananas. And papaya. Andbackyard veggie gardens.
Rebuilding the society's structure will not be asimple process. As assistant educa tion dire ctor BernardGru ndler says,"We have to start in the homes and schoolsto change the hand-out mentality." Last year, gardeningentered the curriculum and this year canoe building isslated. Asked if high school students are aware of theirparents' profligacy, however, he adds, "We do not teachhistory. We should, but we don't."
In his 1992 book, Nauru: Environmental Damage UnderInternational Trusteeship, Chris topher Weeraman t rylaments, "Gone forever were the habits of self-relianceof the past." In the days he refers to, Nauruans madefishing line from fibres of hibiscus bark or c oconut husk.After a month buried in the sand, the coconut flesh fallsaway, exposing the to ugh fibres und erne ath. According toNauru One Hundred Years Ago, a booklet of the writingsof missionary Alois Kayser who arrived on the island in1902, the best fishhooks for small fish were filed fromthe hum an forehead bone just above the eye socket. "Th e
island appears like an oasis, surrounded hy a desert otwater," he wro te. "N ot an island is to be seen withinreaching distance for hundreds of miles surroundingit. The natives, therefore, rely on themselves and theirs u p p l i e s - I they are] self-suppliers to the very extent ofthe word."
Today, Nauru's only bank is insolvent, freezing thesavings of the prudent. There is electrical power onlyhalf the time and diesel fuel is as scarce as fresh veggies.Freighters used to queue up off Nauru. In 1985-86, theyshipped 1.5 million tonnes of pho sphate . In 2001-02 , theywere down to 147,000 tonne s. In some thing of a last gasp,modest amounts of phosphate were excavated in 2008.1 hrough a process called "secondary mining," minersfound phosphate in lesser amounts under the dolomitepinnacles that bristle across the barren topside.
There are no n ewsp apers to relay news to the locals. Asporadic newsletter published by an ano nym ous citizenand rife with libellous prose takes its place. "W hat doyou get when you cross a fisherman and a politician?" itasks. "A slimy liar."
Even in the good times, when money sloshed aboutthe island, the elected parliament balanced its budgetonly 12 times in 38 years. Once they had a shortfall of$l()O-miili(m, which adds up to an astounding $8000per N auruan . According to one source, the govcrimicntbacked a London theatre production called Leonardoto the tune of $4-niillion. The cabinet ilew to the UK
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for the opening night and the play closed after a week.Government minis ters t ravel ing abroad could claimup to $20,000 per day in living expenses. As one sourceput it, "Every carpet bagger took a bagful. In the goodtimes, they'd have three-day parties. You'd go from oneparty to the next, collect a T-shirt at each." Nauru'scurrent national debt is 2500 times its Gross DomesticProduct .
"The government is truly broke," says Australianconsul-general Robyn Jenkins. She and the Taiwaneseambassador are the only diplomats stationed in Nauru.The Taiwanese hope the Nauruans will vote to recognizetheir nationhood at the United Nations. The ambassadorrides in a black Mercedes. The Aussies, nursing a badconscience over their earlier depredations, strive for alow profile. Ms. Jenkins tootles about on a 50-cc scooter,tho ugh a white pic kup tru ck is also at her disposal tomeet arrivals on the weekly Our Airline Boeing 737-300.
On the mined -ou t tops ide , a hundre d thousanddolomitic limestone plinths - the Nauruans call thempinnacles - rear six metres high in serried dark ranksto the horizon. It is a terrain that would stop a tank.Vegetation sp routs riotously along the edges of the gravelmining roads. Small white terns swoop from the skywhile brown lizards dart and rustle. Yellow and purpleblossoms sparkle from the roadside greenery. Penetrateand the mosquitoes rise in welcome. Penetrate 10 pacesfurther and the land gives way to jagged limestonecanyons, an immense grey graveyard.
The Nauruans have dumped their trash everywhere,duplicating the practice of the miners whose rusting andaba