CNN Reporter Johnny Colt Visits Nauru: Little Island of Big Stories

Please join me in a series of iReports about a place that I hope you will find as fascinating as I do.

Let me introduce you to the island nation of Nauru, the world’s smallest independent sovereign Republic. When I say this raised, fossilized atoll is small, I mean small. This country boasts a population of roughly 10,500 people. Maximum. The manager of the country’s one television channel (NTV – Nauru Television) claims that most people in Nauru know everyone on the island. To get a real feel for how small Nauru is, let’s look at it this way: Nauru’s landmass is 21 square kilometers in total. If you drive at the island’s top speed of 25 mph, you can circle the island in about 20 minutes. When they say Nauru is remote, it is hours by plane to the next landmass of any real size. It took me two full days and four planes to reach Nauru from Atlanta.

If the world were flat, the last stop before you fell off would be Nauru. Equal parts Pacific beauty, gritty industrial complex, native people in no hurry and Ian Fleming-style mystery all add up to create a story you just couldn’t make up. The cast of characters I met on this remote island are the stuff of timeless novels.

Nauru is infamous on the world stage. The country has been at the center of much controversy. Offshore banking scandals; supposedly, the world’s highest obesity rates per capita; the site of a controversial detention center for Australia’s unwanted asylum-seekers and let’s not forget the U.S.-led Operation Weasel. Operation Weasel, you ask? That operation was a program where the U.S. Government paid Nauru to use the Nauruan Embassy in North Korea to help smuggle out defecting North Korean scientists. Does that come with one of those James Bond gadgets, like a fountain pen that shoots lethal darts?

Nauru, however, is best known for phosphate. After World War I, Britain, Australia and New Zealand administered Nauru. For six decades, Nauru’s foreign administers strip-mined the island–taking the phosphate and leaving two-thirds of the island uninhabitable. Found guilty for devastating the land through inappropriate mining, Nauru’s administrators had to turn over the keys to the phosphate ATM as well as give Nauru its independence in 1968. The Nauruans continued to mine the island as their predecessors had done. The phosphate boom continued and briefly made the islanders the wealthiest people per capita in the world. The phosphate mining eventually slowed down. According to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, phosphate production went from 1.67 million tons in the late 1980‘s to having ceased, altogether, by 2003. Phosphate production is currently up and running, again, as I would soon see for myself. But, I am getting ahead of the story. Out of control spending, bad investments and outright theft left Nauru destitute. Nauru fought to have it all, only to lose everything they earned in one generation. It is a remarkable story of excess, corruption, international manipulation and a community of natives coming of age. An island gold rush for a mineral principally used as fertilizer. In all my research about Nauru, I only found two quotes from actual Nauruans (that were not politicians.) Why do we hear so little in these reports from the everyday Nauruans? So much has been said about this notorious country–most of it negative. Some of that press is so negative that it feels a little like journalistic bullies picking on a school kid of a story. Information about Nauru is difficult to get. From a statistics standpoint, small populations can be tricky to track correctly. Because of these issues, reporting on Nauru is suspect to questionable sourcing. The basic theme of most reporting on Nauru is as follows: The island, after using up its resources and income, is now a hard luck case living on government handouts. Australia will spend 26.6 million dollars worth of aid to Nauru in 2010-2011. Sounds hard luck to me. I can not help thinking that, on the other hand, had the country’s original Aussie administrators rehabbed the land as they mined it in the first place, maybe they wouldn’t be writing all these checks, today.

While researching Nauru’s crazy history, I found something that–for me–painted a very different picture of the islanders’ character than I was being told in my “off the record phone calls” with Australian officials. During World War II, the Japanese occupied Nauru. It is well documented how brutal the Japanese military were to the islands of the Pacific. Nauru was no exception. The Japanese deported many Nauruans to work as slave labor in the Chuuk Islands. The ones who survived life under the Japanese on the Chuuk Islands were repatriated back to Nauru after the war’s end. The Nauruans had narrowly escaped the destruction of their culture at the hands of the occupying force. This historical event is celebrated by Nauru on the 26th of October and is known as Angam Day or “homecoming.” It’s clear that Nauru and its people have massive challenges ahead of them. Whether it is the environmental issues left by the dirty business of mining, the economic crisis of Nauru’s massive debt structure or the fact that Nauru’s location gives the island a front row seat for the impact of global warming, this country is a frontrunner for the problems that all nations are facing. Limited natural resources, consumption and overspending combined with global warming are the legacy being left for future generations all over the globe. If the people of Nauru had the character and sheer strength of will to survive the Japanese occupation, then there may be a good chance that they can handle the trifecta of doom staring down the barrel at these people. Any way you slice it, Nauru is a long shot. But, then again, I am always a sucker for a Cinderella story.

I called my bookie and, against his advice, placed my bet on Nauru. I am boarding a plane for this faraway nation–this 30-to-1 long shot, this butt-of-the-Pacific joke–to find out just what the Hell is going on halfway around the world.

Johnny Colt
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