Nauru’s downfall from rich nation to poverty
THE inhabitants of this tiny island used to be so wealthy, they used money as toilet paper. But today it’s a decaying wasteland in financial crisis.
Kate [email protected]
news.com.auSeptember 29, 201410:14am
IT’S a deeply troubled nation that has been plunged into a nightmare scenario, struggling with a failed economy, health crisis and the destruction of its natural beauty. But life wasn’t always like this in Nauru.
At just 21 square kilometres, it’s the smallest island nation in the world and has a population of just over 10,000. Yet this former British colony, which lies approximately 4000km from Sydney in the Pacific Ocean, was once so prosperous that it was the envy of the entire world. And it was all thanks to bird poo. We’re not kidding. The discovery of huge deposits of fossilised bird poo that had accumulated for over 1000 years changed this nation forever. It made for an excellent fertiliser and sparked a huge mining effort, first by foreign companies, then by the islanders themselves in 1968 when they achieved independence from Britain. By 1980 Nauru had become the wealthiest nation on the planet, per capita. A monumental achievement for such a tiny, remote island. Rolling in riches, the locals abandoned their traditional lifestyles and turned to unhealthy food, alcohol and cigarettes. It wasn’t long before a health crisis hit, and hard. Life expectancy plunged to just 50, while rates of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses skyrocketed along with their waistlines. In 2007, 94.5 per cent of its residents were identified by the World Health Organisation as overweight, and 71.7 per cent obese — the highest rate in the world. It was overtaken in the obesity stakes by Mexico in 2013. These days, Nauru has the highest prevalence of type-two diabetes in the world, affecting 31 per cent of adults. That was just the start of their problems. The phosphates ran out in the early 1980s, along with the nation’s primary income source. With so much of the island mined, all that was left was an environmental wasteland riddled with decay. The damage is so severe that 75 per cent of the country is uninhabitable. While Nauru was formerly known as “Pleasant Island” due to its lavish tropical vegetation, it’s a harsh reality that it no longer lives up to this name. ‘The effects of mining are very distinctive, because the phosphate develops within coral pinnacles, so you have to scoop the phosphate out from within the pinnacles themselves,” Professor John Connell, head of the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney told the ABC. “So those scooped areas descend about three metres … So it produces an extraordinary landscape which is visually quite dramatic and is totally useless for anything else.” Locals were devastated at the loss of their once-stunning scenery. “I wish we’d never discovered that phosphate,” Rev. James Aingimea, 84, the minister of the Nauru Congregational Church told the New York Times at the time. “I wish Nauru could be like it was before. When I was a boy, it was so beautiful. There were trees. It was green everywhere, and we could eat the fresh coconuts and breadfruit. Now I see what has happened here, and I want to cry.” Many residents had quit their jobs and went on huge spending sprees including expensive holiday and shopping trips, and importing sports cars – even a Lamborghini. So there was little cash left. “Hardly anyone thought of investing the money. Dollar notes were even used as toilet paper,” a local told the BBC. “It was like every day was party day.” In the years that followed, the island went virtually bankrupt. The government, who had made a series of bad investment choices, froze wages and started borrowing heavily from trusts. “A lot of money was invested in things which never actually turned out to work,” Professor John Connell, head of the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney told the ABC. ‘For example, buildings in overseas countries, like Nauru House in Melbourne, hotels in some countries, phosphate factories, curiously, in countries like India and the Philippines, most of which never really survived.” Now, many homes are run down, and those sports cars are rusted wrecks. With little financial options, in 2001 Nauru entered into an agreement with Australia to house a detention centre in return for foreign aid, of which they became reliant. As of this year, that amount Australia provides is $27.1 million. These days, for many Australians, the first thing we think of when Nauru is mentioned is the plight of asylum seekers there. But all that could soon change; the more than 1000 asylum seekers in Nauru could soon be moved to Cambodia under a new deal. At least there is still some beauty left in Nauru: