Nauru is an oval-shaped island located 26 miles south of the Equator. The island is completely surrounded by a reef; the perimeter of the island is a 500-1000 foot wide fertile coastal strip, followed by forested coral cliffs that rise to a central plateau that once held vast phosphate reserves. A century of strip mining has left the interior, accounting for approximately 80% of the island’s area, a wasteland of jagged coral pinnacles. Efforts to rehabilitate mined-out areas have been largely unsuccessful.1
Current estimates place the population of Nauru in excess of 14,000. Indigenous Nauruans make up about 93% of the population, with the rest of the population consisting of Pacific Islander, Chinese, Filipino, and British nationals who work primarily in the phosphate industry.3 There is a Nauruan language, which is unrelated to other Polynesian or Micronesian languages; however, English is the primary language of government and commerce on the island.
The average life expectancy of Nauruans is 64.57 years. This is due in large part to the poor health of many Nauruans.4 Over 90% of the adult population has a body mass index over the world average; approximately 40% of the population suffers from type II diabetes, and rates of heart and kidney disease are high.5 Alcohol and smoking are also problems among the population, so much so that the government introduced taxes on alcohol, cigarettes, and sugary food. However, the government does provide free healthcare to its citizens.
The Nauruan population also suffers severe unemployment. An estimated 90% of the work-eligible population is unemployed, and the Nauruan government employs approximately 95% of the population that does work.6 However, the literacy rate is 96%, and education is compulsory through the first ten grades, with an additional two non- compulsory years offered. There is also a campus of the University of the South Pacific on the island.
From Beginnings to the Modern Era
Nauru was first settled by Micronesian and Polynesian explorers approximately 3,000 years ago. The first recorded European contact with the island occurred in 1798 when a British whaling ship encountered the island; the native Nauruans sailed out in canoes to meet the ship, but no formal interaction actually occurred. Regular visits by Europeans to the island eventually began around 1830; whaling crews would trade alcohol and firearms to the native population in exchange for food. Alcohol and firearms ultimately disrupted the peaceful co-existence of the twelve tribes; a ten-year war among the tribes broke out in 1878, which reduced the island’s native population from 1400 to under 900.7
Internal strife was ultimately settled when the island was brought under a German protectorate in 1888. Phosphate was discovered about 10 years later, and full- scale mining commenced in 1906 by the Pacific Phosphate Company, under agreement with Germany.8 During World War I, Australian forces captured the island from Germany in 1914. The island was then placed under the authority of the British until 1920, when the League of Nations established a United Kingdom-Australia-New Zealand joint trustee mandate. The three countries resumed phosphate mining under the British Phosphate Commission.9
The Japanese captured the island during World War II, who deported some 1200 Nauruans for forced labor in the Caroline Islands; the deportees were eventually returned to Nauru in 1946, after forced labor had claimed over 400 lives. After the war, the new United Nations renewed the old League of Nations trusteeship, but actual administration of the island fell to Australia.10 During the 1960s, Australia made plans to relocate the entire island’s population to Curtis Island off the coast of Queensland, Australia, due to declining phosphate reserves and the fact that strip-mining had largely devastated the island itself; however, the plan was abandoned in 1964 when the Nauruans made it clear they did not wish to leave the island. Instead, Nauruans began to take a more active role in their own governance, and in 1968 the United Nations trusteeship was terminated and Nauru was given independence.
The Independent Era
The Nauruans purchased the assets of the British Phosphate Commission and established the Nauru Phosphate Corporation to continue mining. During the early years of independence, the continued mining of phosphate provided Nauru with one of the highest GDP per capita in the world; the country also enjoyed remarkable political stability, with the country’s first president, Hammer DeRoburt, serving as President from the country’s independence in 1968 to 1989, with only three relatively short interruptions interspersed throughout that period.
However, Nauru’s good fortune would soon come to an end. During the 1980s it was predicted that the country’s phosphate reserves would be largely exhausted within fifteen to twenty years. The government established the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust to invest the country’s phosphate profits (at the time averaging AUD $80 million per annum) to provide the country with a steady stream of income. The fund was initially successful, with at one time a portfolio of real estate investments totaling over AUD $1 billion across Asia, the Pacific, and the U.S. During the 1990s the Trust made a series of poor investments; combined with wasteful spending on the part of government officials, Nauru was faced with increasing budget deficits that the country financed with loans.13 The end of large-scale phosphate mining during the 1990s caused the government to be unable to pay off its loans, and eventually creditors began seizing the Trust’s assets. By 2002, the Trust had shrunk to a tenth of its size, from a high of AUD $1.3 billion in 1991 to AUD $138 million.
Nauru has sought to repair the damaged caused by decades of phosphate strip-mining. In 1989 the country brought suit against Australia in the International Court of Justice for damaged caused by the mining. Australia ultimately settled with Nauru for the sum of AUD $107 million and an agreement to help Nauru repair mining damage.15 The United Kingdom and New Zealand have also contributed funds to help the rehabilitation process; however, while small- scale vegetation has returned to the mined-out areas, the land still remains unusable.
By the turn of the millennium, Nauru had effectively become bankrupt. The country now largely relies on outside aid to keep functioning. In the early 2000s Nauru agreed to host refugees who sought asylum in Australia in exchange for additional grants from the Australian government, but in 2008, after concerns of human rights violations, Australia shut down the facility.16 In 2001 Nauru severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established ties with the People’s Republic of China in exchange for US $130 million; however, in 2005 Nauru reestablished diplomatic relations with Taiwan and officially severed diplomatic relations with the PRC, although the PRC still maintains a representative office on the island. In 2009 Nauru recognized the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; it later received US $50 million in aid from Russia, although Nauru claims that the aid was unrelated.17
The relative political stability that characterized Nauru’s government during the first twenty years of independence has been replaced by chaos in the last twenty. Since President DeRoburt was ousted in 1989, up to the present day, Nauru has experienced nineteen changes in presidential administration. 1989 to 2003 saw power shift back and forth numerous times between René Harris and Bernard Dowiyogo. When Dowiyogo died in 2003, the presidency fell to Ludwig Scotty. The Scotty Administration enjoyed several years of political stability, until 2007 when power shifted to current President Marcus Stephen. Like his predecessor, the first few years of Stephen’s presidency were relatively stable; however, in 2010 Stephen lost the support of several members of Parliament, which resulted in a deadlocked government. Stephen called snap elections in both April and June of 2010, but neither election has succeeded in breaking the deadlock.