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Canary in a phosphate mine

By Johnny Colt
iReporter, Special to CNN
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Nauru struggles to survive
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nauru is the smallest island nation on the planet
  • It was recently very wealthy but now is destitute
  • Soon Nauru will lead a group at the U.N. working to slow climate change
  • CNN iReporter Johnny Colt took a tour of the place and its peculiar character and challenges

Editor's note: CNN sent iReporter Johnny Colt on a trip to the remote island nation of Nauru in November 2010 to get the story about the last country on Earth to post an iReport. It's quite a story, as you'll see. Since then, the tiny island's story has gotten even bigger: Nauru was recently elected to take over as chair of the United Nations' Alliance of Small Island States, a group of 43 countries working together to slow climate change across the globe and keep the ocean from swallowing them up.

(CNN) -- Endless hours of travel have left me more than a little raw.

The 12-hour layover in Australia's Brisbane International Airport is a whiz-bang. I find myself shopping for crystal unicorns and staring at duty-free liquor. Two entire shifts of employees come and go while I down 14 shots of espresso.

It's 14 hours from California to Australia, then one more flight to Nauru.

Where? Exactly. It's a tiny island nation about 1,800 miles from eastern Australia. It's in the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, beyond Papua New Guinea, beyond the Solomon Islands. If the world were flat, this might be the last stop before you fell off.

Nauru first hit my radar as the last country that CNN iReport waited on to complete its Global Challenge, a race to net an iReport story from every nation on the planet.

CNN iReport blog: Who is Johnny Colt?

Soon, Nauru will also hold the chair of the U.N. Alliance of Small Island States, a group of 43 countries working together to slow climate change.

It's a new role for Nauru and its 9,000-some inhabitants. They'll be the voice of places like Tuvalu and Kiribati, tiny islands that might well be erased by rising oceans; tiny islands trying to make the case to the world at large to cut emissions and extend the Kyoto Protocol, lest the ocean swallow them up.

A U.N. climate change panel in 2007 estimated the sea level would rise more than half a meter by 2100, but recent reports have indicated that ice sheets may be melting even more quickly, threatening places like Nauru, where most of the population lives in a low-lying band around the perimeter of the island.

In a lot of ways, Nauru is something like a canary in a coal mine: It's a tiny place with more than its share of troubles, most of them the kind that might have been prevented.

Nauru is battling a failed economy, widespread poor health and a natural environment ruined from the inside. They're the kinds of things that aren't altogether different from what's facing many of the rest of us, but they're magnified in a place that's only a tenth the size of Washington, D.C.

If the Pacific took Nauru, it'd wash away one of the strangest and most troubled places on Earth. In my three days there, I met a cast of characters who would introduce me to the place.

First light on Nauru

With no neighbors for almost 200 miles, Nauru enjoys a gorgeous, unobstructed sunset.
With no neighbors for almost 200 miles, Nauru enjoys a gorgeous, unobstructed sunset.

The pilot's voice crackles through the plane. The aircraft I'm on is the single plane in the airline's fleet, and its weekly trip to Brisbane is the only practical way off the island, unless time isn't much of an issue.

The air pressure changes. The landing gear is down, but all I see out of my window is pitch black. Where is the island? Where is the runway?

A flash of light appears just under the left wing: the terminal. Half a dozen phosphorescent bulbs suddenly twinkle: a street.

"Welcome to the Nauru International Airport" a wooden sign reads.

I have traveled half the globe to the world's smallest island republic. It's 21 kilometers square. If you drive at the national top speed of 25 mph, you could circle the island in less than an hour. The air is clean, the breeze is salty soft. The weather is absolutely perfect.

The first person I see is a 10-year-old boy. Emblazoned across his T-shirt is the image of an American rap star, Lil Wayne. Seriously, American pop culture must be the most predominant force on the planet, next to pollution and poverty.

As the light dawns across my hotel -- the only one on the island -- it reveals a harsh and fascinating reality: The entire place is literally crumbling. Imagine if no one had repaired anything around your home since the early 1980s.

Signs of Nauru's heyday are all over the island: rusted-out amphitheater, boarded-up neighborhoods and my broken-down hotel.

Not long ago, Nauru was one of the wealthiest nations on Earth: The phosphate mines, before they dried up, gave the nation the second-highest per-capita GDP in the world. But today, 90% of its residents are unemployed and the nation's economy sags under enormous debt. The phosphate mineral money that brought Ferraris to the island in the 1970s and '80s has dried up, leaving all those sports cars to rust. Today, most Nauruans live on about 90 to 100 Australian dollars a week.

Not for all the money in the world

There are no taxis in this country, not a one. So I decide to take transportation matters into my own hands.

I approach four large men standing in front of a doorway with a hand-painted sign that reads "security." Dark brown hair and eyes, with beautiful cinnamon-brown skin, they're the size of Mötley Crüe bodyguards (if their bodyguards never hit a gym).

"OK, guys, check it out. I need a car and a driver," I say. Blank faces. "I will pay one of you really good money to drive me around the island and answer some questions so I can film."

Nothing.

"Crazy good money!"

Three of the large men wear matching Hawaiian shirts indicating they work for the hotel. They respond by simply shaking their heads "no" to my request. Then one of the three floral-clad sumo musketeers barks to the one wearing a basic T-shirt, "You drive him."

T-shirt responds by getting into a truck and driving away without a word and without me. I have no idea what to make of this. Don't they need the money? Don't they need the work? In my experience, places this economically depressed are swarming with guys trying to be your driver or do any job they can get their hands on. This place is an exception, so my media director drives me around instead.

Camera shy

Nauru's media offices are a one-story cinder block affair. The antennas and rusty satellite dish are the only indication that a television station may hide inside.

When I walk into the media offices, every single employee who sees my camera looks down, away, or slightly turns their back to me. Not exactly rude; just not interested.

I set up my cameras outside the station and notice two girls leaving the area on a scooter. The girls spot my camera. The driver covers her face with a scarf, and the girl on the back looks away, dropping her head into the driver's back.

I have been in areas of the world where taking a photo at the wrong time will get you shot, but I haven't seen anything quite like the reaction I am receiving in Nauru. In an odd way, it is refreshing to be around people who aren't attention-starved and media-addicted.

One person I talked to seemed to think Nauruans' reluctance to be on camera has to do with some kind of cellular shyness brought on by sheer distance. Another thought it was shame: Nauru has TV, and once the island's residents had money, so they know just what cameras would reveal about them. And it hurts.

Phosphate

The "topside" of Nauru is the middle of the island that's been strip-mined for phosphate. Now the land is no good for living or farming.
The "topside" of Nauru is the middle of the island that's been strip-mined for phosphate. Now the land is no good for living or farming.

The modern history of the island nation starts with the story of phosphate.

Nauru was once one of the greatest phosphate-rich islands in the Pacific Ocean. Phosphate is essentially fertilizer, and to get at it, you pull it out of the ground.

Nauru's topography looks kind of like a top hat. The center of the island jumps up in elevation. A small band of greenery about a thousand feet wide and a coral-laden beach create the perimeter, and most of the population lives in the brim.

The middle is called the topside. That's where the phosphate is -- or was, before most of it was mined and shipped off. From the descriptions, getting excited to see this place is like getting excited when your friend smells something totally disgusting and hands it to you to smell. You just have to smell it.

My tour guide for the phosphate mines is William "Billy" Burns, who lives in Melbourne and commutes into Nauru as an employee of the Nauru Phosphate Co. When we meet, I think we share the same initial thought: "I know I could take this guy in a fistfight."

Burns has a big handshake and an even bigger mustache. He's bald and every bit of 6-foot-2. His personality puts him at an easy 6-foot-8.

We jump into his truck and steer up into Nauru's dusty central plateau.

Mining for phosphate is a simple process: You dig it straight up out of the ground while leaving the jagged pinnacles of coral behind. No need for an underground railway. No phosphate miners see a doctor for black lung.

But a hundred years of strip mining -- first by a parade of foreign administrators of the island and eventually by Nauru itself after it gained independence in 1968 -- have left two-thirds of the island uninhabitable and killed about 40% of the surrounding marine life, according to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In Nauru's mining history, no one has bothered to rehabilitate the post-mined topography. So much of the island's green skin has been peeled back and left raw and exposed to the elements. It looks like a moonscape. And like the moon, people can neither live nor grow food there.

Dinner in Nauru

Giant conveyers were built to carry Nauru's phosphate out to transport ships.
Giant conveyers were built to carry Nauru's phosphate out to transport ships.

The mining tour's last stop is on the coast, at the island's most iconic feature, the phosphate conveyors. They're Nauru's Eiffel Tower. Massive conveyors carry the processed phosphate onto waiting ships.

Stepping off a conveyor, I notice an employee of the Nauru Phosphate Co. cooking. Smoke rolls off a grill that was once an oil drum. Under a shed surrounded by greased mechanical parts is a makeshift kitchen. Looking down, I see a tinfoil bowl filled with white rice and a whole grilled fish. The fish bowl is resting on a large piece of iron sheet metal.

I ask the man behind the grill what kind of cooking this is, the kind where you place a fish on a sheet of iron on the ground to cook it. The man's dark arm stops chopping and the knife falls on the counter. Two dark brown eyes look at me like I am a total idiot.

"That is food for the dog."

My first meal in Nauru was a huge plate of white steamed rice topped with some type of fried meat, probably chicken, swimming in a heavily salted dark brown sauce. So much salt had me up all night searching the island for something to quench my thirst.

Nothing here is fresh. Phosphate mining has left nowhere to produce food. A head of lettuce costs $18 Australian.

So most of what people eat is low-cost and fried to make up for in taste what it lacks in freshness.

Today, about 40% of the population is diabetic, owing at least partly to poor nutrition.

Long shot

This country is a front-runner for the problems that all nations are facing. It's staring down environmental and economic disasters and a health crisis, and it has a front-row seat for global warming.

Limited natural resources, consumption and overspending combined with global warming are the legacy being left for future generations all over the globe.

Now that it's taking a seat as the chair of the U.N. Alliance of Small Island States, it will be Nauru's job to tell the rest of the world what it sees coming: an uncertain future if something doesn't change.

Before I take off back to Australia, and eventually home, a pile of Nauruan kids indulge my camera in a handstand contest. I find the kids on part of the island called The Location. It's got the uneven look of a war-torn village in a tropical paradise. People tell me it used to be one of the hottest spots in the country. Today, it's home to some of Nauru's poorest islanders.

The kids are all giggles and shrieks and goof-balling into the lens. I ask who does the best handstand -- it's their favorite sport -- and the group points out a pair of champs. They give me a quick lesson, and we're off. "One, two, three ... go!" The Nauruans lead the way, and I figure out how to follow.

 
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