January 31, 2010

Nauru: Wealth from Bird Guano (Poop)



     It’s a joke.

     That’s what I thought when I read Joel Brinkley’s column on January 3, 2010. I thought he was writing satire about an imaginary country, Nauru, that became wealthy from bird poop.

     According to Brinkley, Nauru has known the best known the best of life, and the worst of life. Once it was once the second wealthiest nation on Earth, per capita. Today it’s among the poorest.

     Even though I thought he was joking, I went to the Internet to find out if a country named Nauru really existed.

     And I learned that Brinkley was not writing satire. There actually is a country named the Republic of Nauru. And it actually did make a fortune on bird poop. My research affirmed the statements in Brinkley’s column.

     Nauru is the smallest republic in the world, just eight square miles, and 80 percent of the territory is a forbidding, barren wasteland. Alone in the Pacific Ocean, on the equator northeast of Australia…*Brinkley wrote.

     The small, oval-shaped, western Pacific island is just 42 kilometers (26 mi.) south of the Equator. It is one of three great phosphate rock islands in the Pacific Ocean–the others are Banaba (Ocean Island) in Kiribati and Makatea in French Polynesia.**

     And this tiny island nation did once boast the second-highest per capita GDP in the world, following Saudi Arabia. Its nominal per capita GDP exceeded $2,700.

     During the good years—the 1970s and 1980s—the locals grew fabulously rich. Journalists described a people who spent their days lying about, eating well and drinking lots of beer. Drunken-driving accidents were frequent—one of the few recreational activities was driving the island’s twelve mile road around its perimeter. Most of the island’s population did not work.

     Its presidents commandeered aircraft to take their wives shopping in Melbourne, New York and Singapore. Households owned three cars, although the island has only one twelve-mile circular paved road and a 25 m.p.h. Jobs were plentiful, housing free, and no one paid tax. Children went to the best schools in Australia and Nauruans gave lavish gifts.*

     And yes, Brinkley was right. The Nauans wealth was derived from bird poop.

     Nauru celebrates its 42nd anniversary in 2010. It was a United Nations trustee state before becoming an independent republic on January 31,1968. With its independence, it became full owner of one of the world’s richest natural resources: bird guano (a more refined, fancier name for bird poop). Deep piles of the guano lay in what the Naurans called the “topside,” at the Island’s center. It had been deposited for thousands of years by birds who defecated there.

     Luckily for the Naurans, bird guano is rich in phosphorous, used for fertilizer, drugs, plastics, rustproof metals—and for smoke and incendiary bombs. Mining it—a matter of scraping it up—provided wealth for the people.

     In 1967, the Nauruans purchased the assets of the British Phosphate Commissioners, and in June 1970 control of the phosphate resources (again, a nicer way of referring to bird poop) passed to the Nauru Phosphate Corporation.**

     In the 1990s, the last bit of bird excrement had been scraped up and sold, and Topside became an ecological wasteland from the decades of bird-dung strip mining. Soon the nation’s central bank declared bankruptcy.

     It has no arable land. Its only fertile areas are the narrow coastal belt, which has coconut palms, pandanus trees and indigenous hardwoods such as the tomano tree, and the land surrounding Buada lagoon, where bananas, pineapples and some vegetables are grown.****

     By 2005 the per capita income dropped to $5000. By 2004 there was ninety per cent unemployment.

     Nauru’s current industry includes phosphate mining, offshore banking and coconut products. They exported $64,000 in 2005 and imported $20 million in 2004.*** Its ninety per cent import stat includes foodstuffs and other basic goods. However, sea and air transport is problematic. In December 2005, the national airline’s remaining airplane was repossessed for non-payment, leaving Nauru dependent on chartered flights.

     Poor diet, alcohol abuse, and a sedentary lifestyle, have produced a country with multiple health problems: one of the world’s highest levels of diabetes, renal failure and heart disease, exceeding 40% of the population.**

     Perhaps the United States could offer them some aid. Perhaps all the surplus pigeons and geese that deposit destructive bird dung on buildings, in ponds, and on people could be sent to “Topside” Nauru to renew the natural resources they no longer have.

     Just wondering…it might be better than having pigeon shoots.










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