Saturday, September 30, 2006

An Environmental Fairy Tale From the Middle of the Pacific

By Dominique Dhombres
Le Monde

Thursday 21 September 2006

Nauru is a minuscule island, lost in the Pacific Ocean, 2500 kilometers northwest of Australia. One can visit the whole island in a half hour. It's also the smallest republic in the world, with its 12,000 inhabitants. It is also, finally, on its 21 square kilometers, an absolute environmental, economic, and human disaster.

Thirty years ago, Nauru was the second wealthiest country in the world per inhabitant. Today, the island is bankrupt; electricity is cut several hours every day, and the port has been abandoned. Laurent Cibien and Pascal Carcanade's reportage broadcast Wednesday, September 20, on Arte resembles an environmental fairy tale with a bitter ending.

In Nauru's history, there was the good fairy first of all, then the bad one. One quickly understands that they are one and the same. Phosphate, which made the country rich when it became independent in 1968, has also caused its ruin. The income from the phosphate quarries radically changed the Nauruans' way of life. They bought uncounted numbers of big cars and air conditioners, home appliances and boats. And then the phosphate beds were exhausted. The government, poorly advised, had made disastrous investments overseas.

Phosphate exploitation has devastated the landscape. The center of the island has become a lunar landscape, scattered with holes and bumps. Car bodies are piled up in a gigantic open dump. One resident shows his old desperately empty refrigerator and his broken television set. "That's not too serious, since national television's transmitter is busted too," he says, laughing.

There's still worse. Nauru has the highest rate of diabetes on the planet. The blame rests on the too rich food of the fat years. Life expectancy is constantly decreasing. At present, it is, on average, only 55. Now one finds hardly anything but rice and flour in the shops. The tourism office is deserted.

Who would want to visit a port in ruins, abandoned quarries, and a car cemetery? The only activity for the future is also hopeless. Australia has installed detention camps for its asylum seekers on the island, far from the coasts. Up until now, the rudimentary shelters have held as many as 1,200 people from Iraq and Afghanistan. They've been emptied of their occupants, but could well be refilled again. After having squandered their only wealth, is the sole vocation open to Nauru's inhabitants to become prison guards?

Translation: Truthout French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.

No comments: