Noxious Natures: The Not-so-Pleasant Island

Editor’s note: this post is part of the new Noxious Natures series here on EHN. Under guidance of Dr. Katy Kole de Peralta, three environmental history students at Idaho State University will be sharing perspectives on environmental racism from around the world. 

First up is this piece by Emily Morley, an ISU chemistry student interested in how science can change our world. She grew up in the shadow of one of America’s biggest Superfund areas where her community has struggled with cleanup from a century of mining and smelting. 

In the southwest Pacific Ocean, one degree below the equator lies Nauru an island about the size of an international airport (eight square miles). Once teeming with vegetation, the landscape lies barren after a century of phosphate and limestone mining. Modern visitors will not find many signs of life—there are no trees, no animals and nowhere for people to live. Foreign mining companies extracted phosphates depriving Naurans of vital resources including clean air, fresh water, healthy soil and sustainable food supply. Foreign mining interests devastated the local environment, fermented rising obesity rates, and set the stage for the island’s current humanitarian crisis as a refugee asylum.

A Brief History of Nauru

Since its discovery by Europeans in 1798, foreign countries have taken advantage of Nauru’s people and resources. A hundred years later, Germany seized the island and prospectors discovered rich phosphate deposits in 1899. The Pacific Phosphate Company (comprised of Britain, New Zealand, and Australia) bought the island’s mining rights. Near the end of World War II, Japan occupied Nauru. From 1942 to 1945, the Japanese government deported two-thirds of the population as slaves and 500 Nauruans died from starvation or bombing. By the 1960s and 1970s, foreign mining companies overran Nauru for its profitable mining deposits and left behind a poor country that cannot sustain itself. The islanders are now faced with polluted air, contaminated water, poor health, and a humanitarian crisis.

Nauru’s Humanitarian Crisis

Phosphates played a central role in explosives and military technology during and after World Wars I and II drove intense mining on the island leaving over 80% of the island’s surface strip-mined. While western governments pocketed great riches, the island and its residents became destitute. As anthropologist Dr. Nancy Pollock explains, “Sales of phosphate yielded far greater development to Australian agriculture than to Nauruan owners of the resource […] For one party, Nauruans, their wealth has been destroyed by mining; for the other, Australia and New Zealand, wealth was created.”[1]

Though strip mining left behind a barren wasteland of toxic mining by-products and limestone pillars. Only twelve miles around the island’s perimeter are habitable. The few remaining residents are left with a barren island that cannot sustain its own food supply. Sales of phosphate yielded far greater development to Australian agriculture than to Nauruan owners of the resource […] For one party, Nauruans, their wealth has been destroyed by mining; for the other, Australia and New Zealand, wealth was created.


Most of the island cannot support farmland and faces severe air and water pollution. Therefore, Nauruans are forced to import cheap heavily processed foods that are now the staple of their diet. New York Times reporter Philip Shenon describes the dietary transformation as: “For most, a traditional diet of fresh fish and vegetables has been replaced by Span, canned corned beef, potato chips and beer.” The dietary shift to processed foods contributed to rising obesity and diabetes rates. Nauru has the second highest rate of type-2 diabetes in the world. The polluted air and contaminated water contribute to ongoing healthproblems, and most Nauruans won’t live past 60 years old—compare that to Australians who have a life expectancy of over 80 years.

A ravaged landscape and declining qualities of life emerge from a long history of exploitation and environmental racism. But, in a recent twist the Australian government currently pays the island to house a detention center for asylum seekers and (until this month) refugee children. Detainees are a diverse group of minorities and ethnic groups fleeing war and violence in their own countries. A portion of the refugees come from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Sudan. Detainees are forced to live in tents with hazardous health conditions, miserable sanitation and poor nutrition. BBC News reports, “A UN senior official visited Nauru in 2016 and describes Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detentions centers as inhuman and degrading.” Conditions are so miserable that  detainees (even children as young as eight years old) have suffered high rates of mental illness and suicide, stirring enough international pressure to remove all the children from the islands as of February 2019. The tensions between islanders and refugees create local conflicts. Native Nauruans don’t want detainees on their island and this treat them poorly. Detainees are frequently assaulted by natives and their poor living conditions are exacerbated by destruction of what little possessions they have.

Once known as the “Pleasant Island,” the name could not be more ironic. Colonial powers consumed Nauru’s verdant landscapes, leaving behind a legacy of an unhealthy, vulnerable population.  

[1] N.J. Pollock, “Nauru Phosphate History and the Resource Curse Narrative” Journal De La Société Des Océanistes (2014): 138-139, 107-120.