P is the periodic symbol for Phosphorus.
We don’t often think of Phosphorus.
And yet, it’s one of those amazing little things that make life possible. Plants need Phosphorus to photosynthesis. Nowadays, agriculture depends on phosphorus excavation, found in almost all fertilizers around the world.
Nauru is a 21-square-km island, halfway lost between Australia and Hawaï.
We don’t often think of Micronesia.
Nauru is like an old alcoholic diva, a former glory who hasn’t had the decency to die in its young years. We could almost look its fall in glossy magazines, like Lindsey’s or Tara’s.
After a paternalist 50 year-long Australian colonisation, Nauru acceded to independence in 1968 in order to benefit from the exploitation of huge reserves of the precious phosphate, made from fossilized bird shit.
The birds must have used the little piece of land as a restroom stop in their Pacific migration, thousands of years ago.
Amazing how one little thing…
Its first decision as an UNO-approved state was to buy the Australian out from the phosphate industrial excavation, and to nationalize it.
From poor, the Nauru suddenly became rich. Very rich. Amazingly Rich. Rich like what you imagine when you dream you win the lottery. All you needed was a piece of land on the island, and Bingo ! You were an auctioneer of the National Phosphate Corporation !
Actually, imagine you win the lottery when all you’ve ever known is a quiet pacific life, fishing and enjoying what mother nature has to give.
I see in their destiny an analogy with the kakapo bird, also an habitant of the Pacific Islands. Without any predators, the kakapo stopped flying and became very fat.
Without any guidance, the Nauru people became greedy. Greedy for what represented la creme de la creme of consumerism. During the seventies, every family had air-con in every room, several tv sets and two to three cars. As one habitant recalls : you got money ? Spend it.
The peak of this crazy fortune was in 1975, during which the GDP per capita was $50,000 high. The 2nd highest in the world, right after Saudi Arabia.
If ever one car broke, or had a minor technical problem, it was left on the side of the street by its owner, who would just buy another one.
The Nauru people imported everything from Australia, even what could be found on their very island, like fresh water. They became meat-dependent.Hey, a salad could cost up to $7.
Let me remind you, this was the 70’s. The average per capita GDP in the US was way under $10,000. Which means the average American was very well-off living on a monthly $1,000 of today’s value.
An habitant confides she saw people wiping their ass with money, at some drunken party.
Another one says : « We just loved Bingo ». They didn’t even need to work in the mines : the same workers, imported back then by Australia – from China and neighbor islands – kept on pouring for easy cash.
The government set up a « Trustees’ Trust », which was filled up with part of the benefits. And methodically searched the worst ways to spend it.
Helen Hughes was a Nauru economics specialist. She fought amongst them for a fairer share of phosphorus benefits, back in the 1960’s. She explains in her work that such sudden money, between the hands of an inexperienced state, would soon become the prey of pacific predators.
I’m not so sure about that. They did produce a musical on Leonardo di Vinci. In London. The entire government (some 10 secretaries, 18 deputies, and the president for a population of 10,000) flew in from Nauru, in one of the six Boeings of the brand new Air Nauru.
It’s good some people actually used the company, as it was said to loose between 30 and 40 million dollars a year.
The musical was a flop.
It kind of feels good to imagine an entire island winning the golden ticket, even though they did an horrific job with it. It never happens. Alas, the fairytale does not last long.
As the people grew hungrier and hungrier – and fatter – their need in cash became colossal. The Trustee’s Trust was redistributed several times to the entire population. In cash. The first time, some 23 million.
And that’s where the shit cuts the crap and hits the fan.
As the primary phosphorus sources dry up, it is discovered that The Trustee’s Trust, is, well, empty. That the government pockets are also, well, empty. That the numerous properties bought all around the world are, well, on loans. Bad loans, with interest rates up the roof.
The Nauru government starts selling. Farewell, Melbourne’s highest tower Nauru House! Farewell, land, planes, companies! Farewell the big fat check for Christmas. Farewell everything.
There was some hope, however, with money laundering and passeport sales. It is said that the Russian mafia washed some 70 billion through Nauru’s offshore company (a mailbox on a beach). But as Nauru was – and still is – depending on importations and international aid relief, it had to cut that crap too.
Nowadays, the average GDP per capita is $1,000 a year. Australia pays some bills in exchange for refugees detention camps.
It’s actually a brilliant idea : caught in Australia’s international waters, the boat people never set one toe of a foot on the country and thus never obtain the refugee status.
Take that, all poor people fleeing your country for political and/or economical reasons and risking your life on dodgy boats in the sterile hope of if not a better life, a less intolerable one !
Viktoria Vibhakar, a former aid worker for Save The Children Australia, (…) was hired to work in Nauru in 2013, and spent a year coming and going to the island.
“One of the first things I got, which was the most striking, was a deed of confidentiality, which was a couple pages and it basically said, you cannot say anything about what goes on in this facility and if you do, you are liable for two years in jail for each disclosure.” (download the interview here)
And everything you would expect to find at your arrival in hell.
To the question : does it get worse ? The answer is : hell yeah.
94,5% of Nauru population is overweight, and 70%, obese. They’ve forgotten how to live off their land. All shops and restaurants are owned by the descendants of the immigrant mine workers. I’ve read they are sending youngsters to Fidji in order to relearn domestic skills.
I could choose many, many endings to this article.
I could end up saying they are currently being crooked into excavating secondary phosphorus pockets (But with their national debts, they won’t see a flick of a dollar bill in years. The money should go into Australia’s pockets). I could end up saying they don’t seem to have learned the lesson.
Or I could quote their surprisingly philosophical first Nauru Millenium Development Goals brochure, on the first goal, eradicate poverty and hunger: progress is uncertain. It surely is.
I will end up saying this. The world today’s exploitable phosphate reserves are, according to a U.S. Geological Survey, 15 billion tons. Modern agriculture needs around 165 million tons a year to feed the world. You know, it being indispensable to life and used to fertilize crops all around the world. I’ll let you do the math.
Amazing how one little thing…