A Tale of Riches to Rags

Satellite map of Nauru

For a couple of months towards the end of 1979 I was priviledged to visit a number of islands in the South Pacific. They were not tourist or luxury liner visits. Most of the time I stayed with locals. My work was representing the ship MV Logos and making advance preparations for the vessel to visit these far flung outposts of our world. If interested I describe the type of work I was engaged in in my posts City of Many Faces or I see men like trees walking! Here I am recalling a visit to a tiny island nation in the vast Pacific.

Location of the Repunlic of Nauru

Visiting Nauru was unintentional. Myself and a colleague were flying from Fiji to Honiara, Solomon Islands on Nauru’s national airline, Air Nauru. We had been encouraged by the cheap tickets on offer. However didn’t realise it would be expensive for us time-wise. Nauru was meant to be just a stopover but the airline had no plane available for our ongoing flight. It didn’t appear any other airline went there. They willingly put us up for 2 days in the island’s only hotel. We discovered most people in the hotel were also stranded for similar reasons as ourselves. Being put up by the airline was apparently a regular occurrence. Hard to imagine such happening with today’s airlines. Perversely I wondered if cheap air tickets and flight cancellations were a way of getting visitors to this remote place not on a normal tourist route. For a small place it boasts quite a few interesting and rather sad facts**.

The airline it seems could afford such generosity. The reason was Nauru was full of the world’s purest quality rock phosphate, used in fertilisers. The population had became very wealthy selling mining rights to big companies. At one time Nauru citizens were the richest per capita in the world. My visit was during the boom times. There were no taxes and the government gave everybody a stipend. The population then was 4,000 (now nearly 11,000). It is the world’s smallest independent island nation. Air Nauru then had 4 Boeing aircraft in its fleet. One aircraft per thousand inhabitants! Even the milk was flown in. Sounds idyllic? Not really as there was no incentive to get jobs, start businesses or diversify its economy. 

Roughly oval shaped and about 6 km long and 4km wide Nauru has a main road round it’s perimeter. My recollection was of local teens racing round and round this looped road in expensive motorbikes. The interior of the island was where the mining occurred. I remember the bioluminescence of the waves at night, their sparkling a wonder to behold. Seeing the coral reef that surrounded the entire island was a constant reminder that a great and deep ocean was just out there. The moonlike standing limestone structures gave a kind of haunting beauty. Standing on a small, fairly flat island in the vast Pacific I felt vulnerable and exposed. It’s nearest neighbour is Banabi island 300km to the east. Yes Nauru had a beauty to it and I could understand why it was once called Pleasant island.

The tragedy of Nauru is that strip mining scarred 80% of the country’s entire surface leaving it a wasteland and the people clinging to the remaining habitable areas on the coast. Added to that was the phosphate runoff poisoning the ground waters with cadmium. When there was no more phosphate left to mine this single source of wealth disappeared. The people subsequently have become poor. Riches to rags. The government did win reparations from Australia for the environmental degradation it suffered. In a controversial development in recent years they have been getting income from Australia by serving as a detention centre for asylum seekers. A recent proposed project, currently of unknown impact on the environment, is deep sea mining of seabed metal nodules. There are also a number of dubious money making schemes.

“I wish we’d never discovered that phosphate…When I was a boy, it was so beautiful… Now I see what has happened here, and I want to cry.”

Rev Aingimea, Nauru Congregational Church, speaking to New York Times 10 Mar 1995.

We eventually did get on our onward flight to Honiara in the Solomon Islands. Accommodation there was very different! We stayed in the convent of an Anglican women’s order. My colleague Jean as a woman had no problem in living in the community. For me the solution was the nuns putting me in an outhouse on a hill. However I could eat at mealtimes with the community. Breakfasts were silent which was fine. Meals when you could talk were often mundane. At other times discussing what the call of God might mean. I was impressed by the energy of the leading sister. The peace of the night would be punctuated by the sound of her battering away on a manual typewriter. 

In a few weeks time the world’s attention will turn to my home city of Glasgow. It is about to host the UN COP26 conference on climate change and the environment. Matters of global concern will be discussed with many voices and opinions. Nauru is literally a drop in the ocean of both the world’s population and land area. Insignificant as it might seem it’s tragic story represents the story of many communities and nations today. Places that suffer from a toxic mixture of greed, environmental degradation and humanity’s ongoing hunger for resources.

** See, for example, “11 amazing facts about Nauru…

I see men like trees walking!

MV Logos crew and staff. Dec 1979, Honiara, Solomon Is. Can you spot me?

For several months from late 1979 till early 1980 I had the wonderful experience of travelling in the South Pacific. I was travelling ahead off the LOGOS ship (see ‘bio’). This was to prepare for the vessel to visit various islands with advance publicity and government permissions. There was much to organise with staff and crew of 140 to stay for 1-2 weeks. Chandler supplies, on board and on shore conferences and concerts to organise, a book exhibition, church and school visits etc. Also going there was exciting, pioneer work as our vessel had never visited that region of the world before. It was a priviledge to go ahead of the ship and because the area was so vast there was plenty of flying which I loved! Remote, sparsely populated islands with little happening in the conventional sense but the people were rich in culture and generous in hospitality. Usually I stayed with local families or missionaries.

One such stay was in Kieta on the island of Bougainville* in Papua New Guinea. I was stationed there for a few days with a colleague at the end of December 1979. It was the 31st and we had gone to a church meeting with the intention of seeing the New Year and new decade in there. However I was feeling really tired and decided to return early by myself to our accommodation before midnight arrived. 

The family house we were staying at was on stilts with open windows covered in wooden slats. I settled down on my own to enjoy the peace. It wasn’t long before I heard loud noises and banging all around the house. Upon gingerly looking out I saw the weird sight (at least for me) of figures running around and under the house dressed like trees. Thankfully they seemed to have no interest in coming inside. 

The above commotion was soon followed by the local police who began chasing these figures with batons. I was relieved that what seemed like a riot below and around the house was being sorted out. However the next thing was the police started using tear gas. The gas started to come in through the slatted windows. I had never experienced tear gas before. So 1980 and a new decade was memorably celebrated under a bed with a wet towel round my head.

After a while things settled down and the police came to the door. They were cheerfully looking for liquid refreshments to aid their exertions. My fear contrasted with the joyous cameraderie of the police. They were clearly not averse to having a good, old fashioned fight. It turned out that their adversaries were members of a tribe who had come down from the mountains into town. I got the sense that this kind of thing had happened before.

*A sobering postscript to the above was that Bougainville experienced a secessionist uprising in 1988 with no peace agreement until 2001.