One island, 21km2, and 100 million tonnes of phosphate



If Nauru is in the news, it’s usually because of the detention centre. This modern issue is troubling, however it is just one of many the island has faced over years.

Phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient – as important as nitrogen and potassium (and the others) for plant growth (if you like eating, you care about plants growing). However unlike nitrogen, phosphorus cannot be manufactured – only mined and recovered.

Nauru is a tiny, 21km2 island in Micronesia. Lying at the Papua New Guinea end of the trek between Australia and Hawaii, it was once known for its phosphorus mines.

In 1896, Henry Denson, an officer on the Lady M cargo ship, made a brief stop in Nauru. On the island he found an interesting looking piece of petrified wood. Although Henry planned on carving the wood into toys for his children, life got in the way and the piece ended up being used as a doorstop in the Sydney office of the Pacific Islands Company.

Three years later, a quality surveyor by the name of Albert Ellis came to the Sydney office to analyse rock samples from the Pacific Islands. Noticing the very phosphate rock looking doorstop, Ellis asked to have it tested but was told it was only petrified wood. Another three months passed and Ellis followed his hunch and had the ‘petrified wood’ tested. It turned out not to be wood but rather rock phosphate of the highest quality.  The rock contained an astounding 78% phosphate of lime (calcium phosphate, a similarly astoundingly insoluble group of compounds).

Samples from the neighbouring Ocean Island (Banaba Island) came back with even higher results. Nauru is mostly composed of phosphate rock and is one of the three ‘rock phosphate’ islands of the Pacific, the others being Banaba (Kiribati) and Makatea (French Polynesia).

Steps were immediately taken to reconnoiter the German protectorate island. In 1906 a joint German, British, Australian and New Zealand share company began mining, setting up mornings and jettys for the transport ships. The first year of mining extracted 5,000 kg of phosphate that was shipped to Australia.

During WWI, phosphorus was recognised as a strategic commodity (not just for incendiary bombs) but for food production. Nauru was given to Britain, Australia and New Zealand who established the British Phosphate Commissioners (BCP). What the Nauruans thought about this we are not sure, but undoubtedly had little say in who mined their island and who they were ‘given to’. The BCP set about mining the island with vigour.

Then WWII hit and Nauru was occupied by the Japanese military. The phosphate was considered a valuable resource and an opportunity to build military resources in the area. The Japanese didn’t continue mining, instead turning the island into a military stronghold. The military set about subduing, executing, and deporting the population. The majority of the indigenous population were deported to the Truk (Chuuk) Islands, closer to Papua New Guinea, where nearly half the deported died of starvation. Imported labourers and troops over populated the island causing food shortages.

When the big second dust-up was over, the mining began again.

In 1968 Nauru gained independence, and kept mining until around 2000 when most of the deposits were exhausted.

All plants (even Australian natives) need at least minimal phosphorus to grow. An island that was once fought over for phosphorus, will need phosphorus if there is any hope of a more developed agricultural industry. But P alone will not make an arable soil on a landscape so damaged by mining.

What is needed is soil rehabilitation. Expensive, time consuming, but necessary soil rehabilitation.

For where would you be without the earth beneath your feet?

Soil: Nature’s Intestines

December 17, 2016