Nauru

A strange and troubled island nation with a stunningly panoramic sunset. That is all it can boast of….and a flashy coat of arms that says, ‘God’s will first’. A more appropriate mantra might have been ‘God forsaken first’

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The first James Bond villain, Dr. Julius No, is a reclusive Chinese-German who lives inside this hollowed out volcano in Crab Key, a fictional beach in Jamaica.

Ostensibly, Dr. No runs a guano mine, but Bond discovers that he is also working with the secretive Soviet umbrella intelligence agency, SMERSH and has built an elaborate underground facility from which he intends to sabotage American missile tests at the nearby Cape Canaveral.

Dr. No has made his millions out of ‘guano’ mining. Guano is actually fossilized crap, the excrement of seabirds like the Guanay cormorant and the reason why it made him millions is that it is the world’s single most valuable organic manure – rich in nitrogen, phosphates and potassium – nutrients that are to plants what Caspian Sea caviar is to humans (or chingri macher malai curry, to Bengalis).

Though the location for the Bond story was in the Caribbean, guano deposits are especially predominant on isolated Pacific islands in a region called French Polynesia. For eons, they have been like rest and recreation – cum – bathroom break stopovers for exhausted sea birds (mom, I just have ta go. Can we stop over on that li’l island down there?) Of course, I am assuming that is the case and letting my imagination run. Guanay cormorants don’t speak English, you know that.

Those bathroom breaks over 500000 years were what created the massive guano deposits on those tiny islands. Over time, the crap formed a whitish crust over the mountainsides, hundreds of feet thick and eventually settled down and formed rock formations of their own.

And that is how those islands remained until the late 1890s, when they became rest and recreation stops for a different kind of living organism – the great white explorer. And as with everything else, it didn’t take long for guano to catch the discerning eyes of those first Europeans, though the first discovery and its true worth was accidental……

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Around 1890, a man named Henry Denson, an employee of a 19th century Australian version of the British East India Company, The Pacific Islands Company, happened to be on a tiny island that was situated practically in the middle of nowhere.

A piece of rock, strangely white in color, caught Denson’s fancy and he decided to pick it up and stow it in his overnighter, for further study. Maybe you and I wouldn’t have bothered with the rock, but Denson had been mandated to scour the islands for anything that could bring revenue to his employers in the long term, however silly it looked.

The Pacific Islands Company encouraged employees to gape at rocks. It was an avaricious conglomerate that was in the business of locating and plundering mineral reserves, gold, precious stones and other deposits from the thousands of islands strewn around the Pacific. Denson brought the rock back with him to Australia, where it languished for a while in his home, functioning as a doorstop.

In 1900 a colleague of Denson’s, a chemist named Albert Ellis, arrived on a temporary assignment and his job was to test samples that were coming in from the islands in the Pacific. Ellis took one look at Denson’s rock and said, ‘Hey, that looks like phosphate to me. Where did you get it?’

Ellis was right. When he chipped off a piece and tested it, that little rock turned out to be a piece of the richest phosphate ore that had ever been discovered. The Pacific Islands Company had finally hit pay-dirt.

The discovery plunged this little island into the Industrial Age in the most brutal manner possible. The Europeans colonized it, shoving the natives rudely aside and beginning a process of open-cast mining known as ‘strip mining’, where you literally peel off the land, layer by layer, until the ore is gone and all that is left is a hardscrabble, rocky terrain.

First came the Germans and then Japan (during WW2) and finally, after the war, a group of three nations – Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain – stripping the island of its phosphate wealth, in a massive feeding frenzy right up until the 1960s, when all of a sudden colonialism began to go out of fashion and it became more politically correct to let the natives all over the world have their independence.

By the early 20th century, guano mining and trade was playing a pivotal role in the development of modern input-intensive farming practices where the plants are helped along in their growth, with fertilizers. Today, guano is still prized the world over, as a top grade organic fertilizer.

As to the tiny island, by the time its 10000 souls got their independence from Australia in 1968, the economy had peaked and 80% of the phosphate wealth was already gone. By then, the guano strip mining had gotten organized into regular mechanized open-cast mining operations, complete with motorized conveyors jutting out into the sea, filling up huge ships that waited by the shore.

The white guys had really not been magnanimous in giving them their independence – the guano export had been expertly sewn up tight, in no-bid contracts, similar to the ones that South Africa’s ANC signed with their white guys when they gave up power.

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Say hello to the Republic of Nauru, a nation of once happy-go-lucky folks who, in the 1970s, were said to be the richest per capita, in the world. Happy-go-lucky, because the meaning of the word ‘Nauru’ as per Wiki, is – ‘I want to go to the beach’ (no kidding).

The future for Nauru is bleak. A bugbear has been waiting in the wings to deliver Nauru and 43 other tiny Pacific islands like it, the coup de grace – global warming. These tiny islands are low lying (just a few meters above sea level) and one can only imagine what awaits them in another few decades – mass migration, to escape being submerged at some point within the next 50 years.

Recently Nauru was elected the chair of the UN Alliance of Small Nation States, a group of island nations that have banded together to address the imminent danger of disappearing beneath the waves.

If the Pacific swallowed up Nauru, it would wash away one the planet’s most troubled nations.

Nauru is tiny – just 21 sq. kms. If you took a taxi and went on a drive around the island at, say, 50 kmph, you’d be back where you started in less than 30 minutes. It also holds the distinction of being one of the most remote landmasses anywhere in the world, situated 3000 kms from the nearest continent (Australia) and 300kms from the nearest land, the even tinier (just 6 sq.km) island of Banaba.

For clear unobstructed views of the sunset, nothing beats Nauru, for sure. But today, denuded by mining, the sunset is all that Nauru offers to anyone who comes to visit.

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The first two decades after independence were Nauru’s golden years. With guano still being mined, the Nauruans were rolling in it. Everything was imported and everything was free, there was no personal income tax and the island’s only employer was the government and it employed everybody who wanted to work.

The moolah was pouring in so fast that the Nauruan government decided to salt it away. It established a sovereign wealth fund called The Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust (NPRT), into which the government plowed all the cash inflow from the state owned guano mining company, Nauru Phosphate Corporation.

Initially, the mines injected considerable wealth into the newly independent nation, bringing in around A$100–120 million annually. If one considers an annual government expenditure budget of just A$30 million, that gave the Nauruan republic around A$80 million per year surplus, that was promptly injected back into the trust fund, the NRPT. The NPRT reinvested the money in real estate and hotels all over the world. The aim was a noble one – to provide the native Nauruans a steady source of national income after the mining assets were depleted and the guano was gone.

The sudden wealth also turned Nauruans into couch potatoes, unwilling to work or even cook fresh meals. Besides, as more and more of the land was denuded by mining, farming became more and more difficult on the now uncultivatable soil. Imports of processed and junk foods bloated the population into one that ridden with diabetes and cardiac problems.

This would have had a happy ending – another Singapore-style success story in the far east. However, we are dealing with dumbos who just happened to have a bunch of astonishingly corrupt leaders. Within a decade, mismanagement, bad investment advice and embezzlement essentially bankrupted the fund and in turn, the entire Nauruan Republic. That was in the end of the 1980s.

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In the 1990s, with bankruptcy looming large, most of the land reduced to nothing but a mass of craggy boulders, Nauru did what other failed states do under the circumstances – it turned to crime.

In its desperate efforts to stay solvent, the Nauruan government has tried its hand at the usual forms of jiggery-pokery that insolvent, isolated nations do – it became a tax haven and began offering passports to foreign nationals for a fee. Soon it became possible to establish a licensed bank in Nauru for only $25,000 and no other requirement.

That gig was a short one – the UN sponsored inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) identified Nauru as one of 15 ‘non-cooperative’ countries, in its fight against the parallel economy created by money laundering. Under pressure from FATF, Nauru introduced anti-avoidance legislation in 2003, the foreign hot money left the country and Nauru was back at the curb with a begging bowl.

And that was when fate – in the form of a far larger evil – took a hand and turned Nauru into the despicable pariah that the world sees it as today, a brutal security state that has stayed afloat through means that flout every tenet of the UN Charter for Human Rights.

The middle of nowhere has suddenly morphed into the center of everything – a 21st century version of The Final Solution.

(to be continued……)