Idle No More: Why the Island Nation of Nauru is an Important Lesson for Wisconsin

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Phosophate Mine on Nauru

IDLE NO MORE: Phosphate Mining in the Pacific Island of Nauru

The Most Outrageous Example of the Exploitation of an Environment and A Culture

As our poorly educated Republican Legislature led by our college drop-out Governor continues to “carry water” for the out-of-state mining interests and plan to destroy the environment in Northern Wisconsin while ignoring the treaty rights and cultural interests of the indigenous people of the region, it is appropriate to look at other tragedies of exploitation.

One of the many tragedies of colonial extraction economies is the Pacific Island of Nauru which was depleted of all of it's Phosphate during the latter part of the 20th Century. In her 2005 Paper “Nauru: An Environment Destroyed and International Law” Mary Nazzal describes Nauru of the past and Nauru in the present, after the Phosphate mining was completed. The following are her words.

Paradise Island Transformed

Nauru was once an idyllic palm-encrusted isle overflowing with lush greenery,

coconuts, tropical fruits, flowers, birds, all enveloped by coral reefs teeming with

underwater life. As the smallest nation in the world, Nauru’s landmass is shaped like an

inverted saucer with a circumference of under twenty kilometres. Located just south of

the equator and halfway between Hawaii and Australia, Nauru is particularly remote.5

The absence of nearby islands coupled with the strong westerly flowing equatorial

current prevented the Nauruans from exploratory travel and limited them to their island.

Fortunately, they could satiate themselves with fish as well as mangos, breadfruit, and

pineapples, which grew on the Buada Lagoon southwest of the island. The coastal belt

flourished with coconuts, pandanus, and wild almond trees while hibiscus coloured the

island’s central plateau. Isolated from the outside world, the Nauruans conversed in their

own language and developed a self-contained, durable society. In the words of biologist,

Carl N. McDaniel, “Year in and year out they lived intimately connected to the other

inhabitants, real and imagined, that shared their world of palm trees, noddy birds, sand,

sea, and sky.”6 Indeed, Nauru’s breathtaking beauty led an English whaler to name it

Pleasant Island” in 1898. Unlike other Pacific Islands however, Nauru was remote,

small and lacked the treasures of the time, such as pearls or tortoiseshell and was thus

largely ignored by Western explorers. For time immemorial, Nauruans were left alone to

fill their days with singing, dancing, storytelling, string figures, and other traditional


The Nauruan lifestyle began to transform as colonial powers assumed power

over vast areas of the world. The need for raw materials and new markets fuelled an

expansionist agenda and was to forever change the lives of most all indigenous peoples,

such as the Nauruans. In 1886, England and Germany reached an agreement

establishing each country’s dominion in the Western Pacific.”

Phosphate and Environmental Damage

Nauru’s insides were literally ripped out by extensive mining due to the fact that

phosphate mining is notably destructive. Mined land is transformed into coral-limestone

pinnacles and Nauru today is mostly dusty arid barren wasteland. This terrain is clearly

uninhabitable and the resulting pillar and pit landscape combined with the loss of

vegetation has created a very hot interior. This rising hot air has prevented rain clouds

from settling over the island contributing to frequent droughts. Plus, the natural forest

microclimates have been transformed into new microclimates increasing sunlight and

lowering humidity. As Weeramantry points out, scientists have always been attracted to

the uniqueness of the Pacific Islands and they have observed “the disastrous effects and

almost total disruption of island ecosystems that resulted from inappropriate

development projects and land use,” such as widespread phosphate mining.22 All of

these changes have served to greatly alter patterns of vegetation and endanger a

number of indigenous plant species. The Nauruan diet was immediately affected by such

drastic changes in vegetation. Under the impact of the phosphate industry, fish and

coconut that were once staples of the Nauruan diet were largely replaced by salty and

fatty canned foods. It is undeniably clear that alongside the forceful erosion of the land,

the Nauruan way of life and intricate relationship with their surroundings was also

eroded. An integral element in the Nauruan lifestyle was its complete dependence on the

tiny island. The islanders used the island for both their livelihood and their enjoyment.

Indeed, the Nauruan circle of life was profoundly affected by phosphate mining as

illustrated by the words of a Nauruan song; “All our lands on the hill..No longer can be

used..Will become home of craters and rocks (sic).”23

The implications of environmental degradation for Nauru as well as for the rest of

the world are multi-faceted and often not obvious in the short-term. Harmful

environmental conduct exposes several broader dimensions such as the nation’s ability

to use its resources as determined by domestic political processes. The depletion of

phosphate has undoubtedly limited the political and economic choices available to the

Nauruans since they bear the direct brunt of dealing with seemingly irreparable

environmental damage. The adverse effects of environmental damage on the health and

future well-being of the Nauruans has likewise become tragically clear. For instance, the

problem of land shortage due to mining is one of the many pressing social problems in

Nauru today. Several of these problems can be traced back to colonial practices on the

island and were thus highlighted in the case presented to the International Court of


Paradise of Northern Wisconsin Transformed

Let the tragedy of Nauru be a message to all of Wisconsin.