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Strip-mined country

Eighty percent of the surface area of the Pacific country Nauru has been strip-mined; most of its land has been shipped to Australia, New Zealand, and Britain.

Nauru, because it’s an island in the midst of the southern Pacific Ocean, is visited by a lot of migratory birds. Their guano, accumulated over thousands of years, left Nauru more or less covered in rich phosphate rock. Phosphorus is a key ingredient in inorganic fertilizer, and phosphate rock is pretty much the only economical way of extracting it.

(Side note: we’re going to run out of phosphorus at some point in the future. Our extraction and lack of recycling means that it will be so spread out that it won’t be possible to extract large quantities any more. So we have that to look forward to.)

Nauru was strip-mined, first by the Germans and then by an Australian / New Zealand / British consortium, and its phosphate rock shipped off to power their agriculture. Fully 80% of the island’s surface has been stripped away, leaving tall pillars of limestone and not much else.

The profit from this mining was supposed to create an investment fund for the Nauruans, but a series of bad investments has seriously diminished its wealth. This included, in one notable failure, the funding of the 1993 production Leonardo the Musical, a show so bad that most of the audience left before the end of the first show.

There’s lots more to the story of Nauru, so I may revisit this country in a later blog post. As far as phosphate is concerned, two other Pacific islands were also plundered: Banaba Island in Kiribati lost nearly 90% of its surface area between 1900 and 1979; Makatea in French Polynesia is inhabited by 93 people (at last count). Today most of our phosphate comes from Morocco. For now.

[Thanks to Nicoletta R. for suggesting this topic.]

Categories: Earth & sky Economics & business Food & agriculture History Modern history Oceania Places Sciences

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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