Nauru: An Island Country Destroyed by Phosphate Mining

Jun 13, 2015 10 comments

Nauru is a small island country, a speck in the Pacific Ocean, with an area of only 21-square-kilometers. It is the smallest state in the South Pacific and third smallest state by area in the world. Nauru was originally inhabited by Micronesian and Polynesian people for at least 3,000 years, who remained isolated from western contact except for the occasional runaway sailor or escaped convict, until the late 19th century when it was annexed and claimed as a colony by the German Empire. The Europeans soon discovered phosphate deposits and the tiny island became a strip mine, exploited by foreign colonial powers. After it gained its independence in 1968, mining intensified until most of the phosphate had been stripped and the island’s economy went south. In the process of mining phosphate to fertilize fields in faraway places, the country had rendered its own landscape infertile. Today, the island is a barren wasteland with jagged limestone pinnacles that cover 80% of the island.


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Nauru’s phosphate deposit is the result of thousands of years of bird droppings, also called guano. This rich deposit lies near the surface, allowing easy strip mining operation. The Germans were the first to exploit these resources before the rights to mining was transferred to the British by an agreement. After the First World War, the League of Nations made Britain, Australia and New Zealand trustees over Nauru, and the British Phosphate Commission was formed who took over the rights to the phosphates.

After Nauru became a sovereign, independent nation, the newly formed government purchased the full rights to the phosphate business from Australia, and its economy soared. The profits from the mining activities raised Nauru's per capita income to the highest level enjoyed by any sovereign state in the world. While the mining business exploded, the land was systematically destroyed. Phosphate mining in Nauru involved scrapping off the surface soil and removing the phosphate from between the walls and columns of ancient coral. What remained after mining were tall columns of coral and uneven depressions between them that’s unusable for habitation, crops or anything else. Mining also affected marine life surrounding the island as silt and phosphate runoff contaminated the waters.


The site of secondary mining of Phosphate rock in Nauru, 2007. Photo credit


Tall pillars of coral is what remains after the phosphate is removed. Photo credit

Then the phosphate ran out, and the trust that had been established to manage the island's wealth diminished in value. The trust also made a series of bad investments including overseas hotels and the Air Nauru airline, which never made profit, essentially undermining the nation's economic future. Desperate for a source of income, Nauru started selling passports to foreign nationals for a fee and taking in war refugees which other countries refused. This led to the creation of the Nauru detention center in 2001 by Australia, which continues to provided a significant source of income and employment for the country.

The land and economy weren’t the only things ravaged. The Nauruans are among the most sick and obese people in the world, racked by diabetes and high blood pressure. Few people live past the age of 60 years.

Before independence, there was a culture of fishing and gardening among the Nauruans and they ate fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables grown on land. With the easy income from phosphate, the people stopped farming and began importing canned and frozen food. As a result, Nauru has the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the world. 94% of its residents are overweight while 72% of them are obese. More than 40% of the population has type 2 diabetes, as well as other significant dietary-related problems such as kidney disease and heart disease.

Nauru still exports small amount of phosphate but the revenue earned through it is not enough to sustain a population of 10,000. Foreign aid, chiefly from Australia, Taiwan and New Zealand, is the only thing keeping the Nauruans alive.


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Participants of a walk against Diabetes and for general fitness around Nauru airport. Photo credit


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Sources: Wikipedia / ABC / Green Fudge


  1. This is really amazing! I'm impressed it.

  2. They sound like Texans. Big fat ol' Texans.

  3. I guess this small amount of people should be migrated to either australia or elsewhere. leave this Island vacated and lets the nature take it course.

  4. More like the world. Phosphates were sent all over the world, not just Europe. If you want to blame someone, blame the human race as a whole and its propensity for neglecting Nature.

  5. Nauru is a microcosm of what will happen to Earth if we don't take care of it. The only difference is that there is no other place to go right now and there won't be some outsiders who will provide some assistance.

    I would wonder what's going on with the heads of the most powerful and wealthy people on Earth who have the most means and capability to prevent this apocalyptic disaster from happening. Are they really that stupid and narrow-minded just like the most of us? Should have their wealth and power made them wiser?

  6. isn;t nauru also sinking as well as ocean water rising?

  7. is IS sinking, it;s been in the news since 2011
    On Nauru, a Sinking Feeling - The New York Times
    Jul 19, 2011 · A cautionary tale about life in Nauru, a place with hard ecological limits.
    Search domain

    1. No the islands out here in the Pacific are NOT sinking because the ocean is NOT rising! I've been a resident of Guam for decades and nothing about our coastline has changed. CNN won't tell you that though.

  8. Speculation and stupidity have never been good advisers. This is the thumbnail of the planet

  9. I am a resident of Guam and if you want to blame anyone - blame the island's leadership and the people of Nauru. Looking for a fast buck is what destroyed that island. Nauru built a failing hotel on our island with the money they received. That and Nauru Airlines were horrible ideas and cost them dearly. You can not blame outsiders for their bad judgement as an island.


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