Nauru and Kava

Nauru, like many of its Micronesia neighbors, has an unusual relationship with Kava.  Beyond its relationship to Kava, many environmentalists look to Nauru as a test case for natural resource management (or, more specifically, mismanagement).  Before we get to that, let’s take a look at Nauru’s unique history and how they came to be the nation we see today.

Nauru Island Itself

Formerly known as Pleasant Island, the Republic of Nauru is a small oval shaped island 26 miles south of the equator.  Nauru’s closest neighbor is the Kiribatian island of Banaba.  Banaba lies approximately 190 miles to the east and is considered one of the three great phosphate rocks in the Pacific along with our current local Nauru and Makatea in French Polynesia.

Nauru is the world’s smallest island nation.  Completely surrounded by a coral reef, this tiny coral atoll measures a mere 8.1 square miles.  On these 8.1 square miles live Nauru’s approximate 10,000 citizens.  With a population density of nearly 1700 residents per square mile, Nauru is in the top twenty most densely populated nations on earth.  The citizens of Nauru are 60% Nauruans, 25% other pacific islander, with the remaining 15% evenly split between European (read British) and Chinese.

The massive reef structure surrounding Nauru has limited access to the island through out its history, and most likely added to its isolation from outside forces for so long.  This reef has also prevented the creation of a single major seaport on the island to this day.  Unfortunately for the residents of Nauru, this has not prevented foreign nations from plundering its natural resources.

The island itself has a very narrow band of arable land which circles the island between its sandy beaches and the inland plateau.  It is on this band, which is only 500 to 1000 feet wide, that all of Nauru’s indigenous plants (of which there are few) and crops are grown.  Due to the atoll’s harsh climate and lack of arable land, Kava is not among the indigenous species.

As with most former colonies, English is spoken by the bulk of the population and used in all official government communication.  The other official language is Nauruan.  Nauruan is spoken in the homes of nearly all its citizens.  This language is interesting in the fact that is unlike any other Oceanian tongue.

Although Nauru has no official capital city, Yaren is looked to as the capital as it is the largest settlement on the island and the seat of parliament.  This has been the case since Nauru gained it’s independence from Australia in 1968.

Nauru History

The first settlers to Nauru were most likely a mixture of Melanesian, Filipino, and Polynesian voyagers who decided to make the island their home.  Much of the archeological record of this time has been destroyed by the strip mining of phosphorous.  Most of what we know about the early Nauruans is base on the personal accounts of whalers and explorers.  One of the few things we can derive of early Nauru is that Nauruans believed in a female deity, Eijebong, and a spirit land, an island called Buitani.  It is also known that the Nauruans practiced aquaculture.  In doing this Nauruans would catch baby salt water fish, acclimate them to fresh water, and raise them in ponds.  Aside from this, much of their cultural identity has been swallowed up by 100 plus years of western influence.  Of the original twelve tribes, there remain only ten.  And even in these ten, tribal elders have trouble recollecting the old ways, stories, and songs.

Due to its small size and remote location, Nauru was one of the last South Pacific islands to be reached by European explorers.  It wasn’t until 1798 that “Pleasant Island” was first sighted by British Captain John Fearn while on a whaling expedition.  The crew of Fearn’s boat found the natives to be handsome, peaceful and friendly; generously supplying the crew with food and fresh water.  By the early 1800’s “Pleasant Island” became a regular stop for European whalers to load up on supplies.  At this time we start to see the first European settlers appear.  These initial settlers were more sailors on permanent leave than ambassadors of their respective countries.  Finally, in 1898, Germany annexed Nauru.

Within a few years of annexation, German prospector Albert Ellis discovered Nauru’s rich phosphorous reserves and formed the Pacific Phosphate Company.  Thus began the 100 year wholesale exploitation of Nauru’s natural resources, which has made them the environmental test case mentioned earlier.  These operations carried on until the outbreak of World War I.

It was at this time that Australian forces invaded Nauru and defeated the minimal forces.  After this, the island fell under the control of the British Phosphate Company.  This came out of a three way treaty between Britain, Australia, and New Zealand known as the Nauru Island Agreement.  As you can see, wartime land grabs for natural resources is one of the oldest plays in the book.

Nauru’s Environmental Test Case

As mentioned earlier, many environmentalists look to Nauru as a test case in natural resource management.  The small island nation was rich in one resource-phosphorous.  The rights to which have ALWAYS been owned by some foreign entity.  During the 70’s, 80’s, and into the 90’s Nauru had one of the highest incomes per capita in the world (brought on by the selling of mineral rights to foreign companies much like citizens of Alaska getting a yearly check from the oil companies).  However, today the island is hanging on the brink of collapse.

The phosphorous deposits were left there by hundreds, if not thousands of years of sea bird migrations.  Within 110 years of their discovery, they are gone.  What’s been left in their place is a limestone waste land, an uninhabitable desert which encompasses over 75% of the habitable land.  This is a resource which will not come back any time soon.
The countries unemployment rate stands at over 90%, as most jobs came from the phosphorous mining sector.  Although the literacy rate on the island is over 95%, these educated people have no place to work.  Because of this, over the last decade there has been a slow but steady migration to other South Pacific islands.

Nauru and Kava

Although Kava is not indigenous to the island and the early inhabitants did not partake, there has been a modern introduction of our favorite drink to the people of Nauru.  The government of Nauru, scrambling to find a new source of income for there remaining residents, has turned to eco-tourism (isn’t that ironic).  One thing Nauru has in spades is coral reefs.  And what better way to finish a long day of scuba, than with a cup of Kava.  We also hope that Kava will find its way into the daily rituals of Nauru people, as we know they need a little relief.

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