Nauru, land of disenchantment

In 1975, the tiny island of Nauru had the highest GDP per capita in the world. Today it is in the bottom five. Prosperity hit this island of 7,000 so fast that they went from being simple folks living a simple life to buying luxury cars for the four miles of coral gravel roads, yachts and five — count em’, five Boeing 737s and an Airbus A320.

The island had been home to millions of birds that, over thousands of years, had laid down one of the greatest concentrations of nitrogen rich seagull poop in the world. They sold this pile for around a billion dollars (the exact number is a state secret) and the strip miners rolled in and did what strip miners do. The Nauruans sold their island right out from under themselves.

The resulting chaos was so extreme that they had 17 governments in 14 years. This third smallest country in the world of eight square miles (and dropping) is divided into 14 districts and when the money came in each had its own ideas about how to spend it.

With all this loot they thought they’d invest in surefire moneymakers dropping two million pounds (seven million dollars today) into a West End production called Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love. As the government A320 jet was leaving the island for the London premiere, some locals were so upset at the absurdity that they were clinging in protest to the landing gear as it took off. Leonardo was the most expensive London production to date and predictably it bombed like the Luftwaffe. Ditto for their dozens of hotel developments around the world as well as every other project. In a few years all the money and most of the usable land was gone.

Nauru is a member of the United Nations and was among the first to recognize the breakaway region of Abkhazia, Georgia (the one with the sheep not the one with the banjos). I was in Abkhazia three years ago and a local said the Russians move the fence lines closer every day. The Russians gave Nauru a few million for the ‘attaboy’ which the Nauru government said was “not a quid pro quo in any way!” it was just typical warmhearted Russian philanthropy.

Then Nauru decided to open a money laundry and hang the washing for Russian mobsters. They cleaned and pressed over 80 billion in 1998 alone! But eventually the Russians stopped even pretending to clean money and Nauru had to find a new angle. They did, and it made the previous schemes look like a Mr. Rogers TV script.

They had the brilliant idea to build for fee concentration camps for refugees intercepted at sea on their way to Australia. Since they were an independent country they wouldn’t have to follow the humane practices of Australia, and the camps became famous for a Twilight Zone of horrors.

Some children as young as eight committed suicide. Others became catatonic with what called Resignation Syndrome, a withering despair which can lead to death.

Australians protesting the camps

The airplanes are long gone. No one even bothers anymore to take them up on their offer to open an international bank (for a $20,000 fee) as the brand is a little tarnished, like the rusty hulks of Cadillacs (and even a Daimler limousine or two) which jumble the roadsides, which by the way, are nearly impassable. And there is zero tourism (though I want to go have a look at some point). Ironically the only smaller counties are The Vatican and Monaco which have pretty healthy balance sheets.

The people once held the record as the most obese on earth (71.1%) but that has dropped a lot due to extreme poverty. The country is now a ward of Australia and with 90% unemployment the future looks bleaker than a pile of bird shit which is, of course, gone too. Hey, someone should do Nauru, the Musical.

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  • mda says:

    Jack Hitt did a pretty solid half-hour on This American Life about Nauru.

    If small island “paradises turned traps” is your thing, it’s worth a listen.

  • George A Moore says:

    My goodness, what a history and its status as an Australian offshore processing center for refugees continues. Peaked my interest to dive deeper into this country – the following are a couple tidbits I copied and pasted.

    The production, plagued by problems with sets, costumes, and —most significantly— the script throughout its development, opened at the Strand Theatre on June 3, 1993. By the time the performance ended, nearly four hours after the curtain first rose, most of the audience had departed. A victim of critical disdain and audience indifference, the show closed five weeks later on July 10.

    In May of 2016, Omid Masoumali — an Iranian refugee who lived at the Nauru camp for three years — covered himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire in front of officials visiting from the United Nations. He had recently learned that he would be expected to live on the island for the next ten years.

  • Sean Burns says:

    Thanks for the close look at this disaster scene. I had heard about the holding pens for people wanting to get into Australia, but never looked any deeper. The whole situation from the bird poop up to the present day looks like a personification of the old adage “money is the root of all evil”.

  • ollie stevenson says:

    For once i actually have no thing to say

  • chris mckay says:

    Great reporting. Where d0 you find this stuff? Better than 60 minutes.

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