Friday, May 1, 2009

The strange case of Nauru

Thanks to a grant from the Festival Photo de Mer, I recently spent 11 days on Nauru, the world's smallest Republic, far off in the middle of the Pacific. To round it all up and turn it into a "real" story I teamed up with Geo staff-writer Markus Wolff.

I am just back from France were 46 images were exhibited outdoor, in a beautiful harbor in Bretagne - very fitting for this story.

Nauru has long been on my mind. I first heard about it in late 2001, when Afghan refugees were held in a detention center on this Pacific island. I couldn't put these 2 facts together in my head. After some research, they were so many curiously fascinating facts about the island that I just needed to go. It seemed a unique case of middle of nowhere yet middle of everything.

Here is a summary of the strange case of Nauru (© Matthieu Paley) :

"Nauru, an island of barely 21 km2, is located in the middle of the Pacific. It is the world’s smallest republic.
Its soil, extremely rich in phosphate, has been exploited since the beginning of the 20th century. The rapid value increase of the phosphate, followed by independence, makes Nauru the richest country in the world at the beginning of the 70’s.
As a result, falling for the temptations of uncontrolled consumerism, the Nauruans considerably change their way of life. Diabetes and the highest obesity level on the planet are some side effects of these excessive years.
End of the 90’s: the Phosphate resources diminish considerably.

Looking for financial solutions, Nauru becomes a tax-free zone, and with this a facilitator for money laundering businesses of the Russian mafia. The government also opens a detention center for Afghan and Iraqi refugees, all paid for by the Australian government...

In 2004, the state goes bankrupt. The government of Nauru decides at last to reactivate its phosphate mining. Official sources estimate that there are between 20 and 30 years left for further exploitation. The Nauruans, an isolated people, continues to look for solutions, keeping all the while their joyful island spirit.

We go to meet these men and women of Nauru, their president, a former weightlifting champion; Gerard Jones, a personal trainer and bird hunter; Lucia, the oldest lady of the country and Scarlet Lucy, the cargo ship that brings goods to the island every 2 months."

Some preview images below - the full story will be on my website in the next few months.

It takes 6 hours flight from Bisbane in Australia to reach Nauru, an island state of barely 21 km2, located in the middle of the Pacific, 42 km from the equator. It is the world’s smallest republic, with less than 10.000 inhabitants. Twenty minutes of driving (19 km) will bring you around the whole country… 

A meeting finishes at the Civic Center. On the main wall, the large map of the Pacific world with Nauru in the center. The extremely tiny island state has been enlarged so as to appear on the map. Nauru was in fact the center of the world at the beginning of the 70’s, when the rapid rise of phosphate price, followed by independence, made it the richest country in the world.

Marcus Stephen (middle) is the current president of the Republic of Nauru. A former weightlifting champion, he won 7 gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. The popular president loves to fish in company of his old friends, the Minister of Finance (left), the Minister of Transportation and Communication (center right) and a Member of Parliament (far right)

One kilometer out at sea, phosphate is being loaded into a ship from New Zealand. It takes 24 hours to load the 25 tons of ore. Phosphate is the main ingredient used in fertilizer worldwide. Government sources estimates there is between 20 to 30 Millions tons of Phosphate left on Nauru, representing about 20 to 30 years of further exploitation…

At the heart of the beast: furnaces break down and dry up the Phosphate (also known as "White Gold") to make it compatible with export laws. “We need 3% of humidity in the Phosphate, no more no less” explains Bill Burns, a RONPHOS employee, the “Republic of Nauru Phosphate Corporation”.

Looking for government income, the Nauru Rehabilitation Corporation recently sets up a program to crush pinnacles like these ones, later sold as construction material, in order to create an even ground allowing for reforestation. In the background, clouds of phosphate rejected by the refinery lift up in the air.

Nauru does not have a deep-sea harbor. This barge, a gift of the Japan government, is going to load up containers brought by Scarlet Lucy, the eagerly awaited supply ship, which comes once every two months. In 2009, Nauru recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. The Russian government has since proposed to help Nauru in building a deep-sea harbor. Unfortunately, the construction hasn’t started yet.

A demonstration of hip-hop moves after class. The former detention center for illegal immigrants, today, serves as a school. From 2001 to 2007, Nauru kept Afghanis, Irakis, Yemenites and other nationals here on behalf of Australia. They lived in these barracks located at the center of the island. The center then provided a considerable income for Nauru, representing up to 20% of all of the island’s revenue. 

An employee of the Diabetes Prevention Clinic. Nauru has the world’s highest level of type 2 diabetes: 40% of the population is affected. There is also a very high level of kidney infection and congestive heart failure. In 2010, life expectancy is averaging 58 for men and 65 years old for women.

Forty-seven years old and 143 Kg of muscles, Gerard Jones is the official trainer of the weightlifting team, the king of sports on Nauru. Every evening after 5pm, Gerard arrives in the Aiwo Boys Gym with his kids. “Here you can feel the pride of Nauru – if you compare the number of gold medals we won with our population, well, then we are simply the strongest country in the world!”.

The shy Carisma, 14 years old, is one of the few girls at the “Boys gym”. She is training after school. “I just love it. Gerard is a good coach. In 2 years, I want to start competing. Our gym is a bit run down but it’s ok. Maybe one day I will live in Australia, they have high tech gym equipment there… But first I will have to convince my mother!”.

Paul Jones (son of national weightlifting trainer Gerard Jones), 10 years old, is back from a nocturnal hunt for the “Black Noddi”, a seabird from the tern family. “My father hunts at night with a huge net. When he catches them, he passes them on to me and I have to kill them. It’s easy: I just break their neck between my teeth and it crackles. Then I take the feathers out. I also do the accounts: once we caught 223 in a night!” In Nauru, the Noddi bird is considered a delicacy.

Frederick Cannon (left) is an former professional 100-meter runner. He participated in numerous international competitions worldwide. At home in Nauru, he is a fisherman. Every day, he swims out to hunt octopus and fish with his harpoon. “People complain that they don’t have enough money. Me, I have always told my kids to look on the horizon: there is money floating on the ocean, you just have to get into the water…”

Lucia dances in her living room “I dance a lot, I pray to the Lord and I play Bingo!”. 85 years old, she is the oldest woman of the country, and the last person to have known deportation, in 1943, during the Second World War. 1200 Nauruans were then sent on the Chuuk island by the Japanese forces, and endured forced labor. Only 737 came back in 1945.
The day is starting up at the President’s office. Stephen Marcus, President of Nauru, a former top-class weightlifter, winner of seven gold and five silver medals at the Commonwealth Games, is also holding the offices of Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust, Minister for Police, Prisons, & Emergency Services, and Minister for Public Service. A busy day lays ahead...

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