An island destroyed: From tropical paradise to ghostly mining town

Banaba. (Supplied)

Empty swimming pools and discarded movie projectors on the tiny island of Banaba are symbols of the exploitation that destroyed it, writes Belinda Cranston.

A largely abandoned island, overgrown with tumble weeds, broken and rusted machinery, and other remnants of a former mining town.

Welcome to Banaba – a once rich in phosphate island not many have heard of with a complex past largely buried in archives.

Located east of Nauru, the tiny island has an area of just six square kilometres.

Access is limited – occasionally people arrive by boat, otherwise, there is no official way of getting there.

For Dr Katerina Teaiwa, a Fiji-born academic at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, the urge to visit Banaba, part of a group of atolls and islands across the central Pacific known as the Republic of Kiribati, was instinctive.

From 1945, the first wave of migrants including her grandfather left Banaba for Rabi in Fiji, home to many of her relatives and childhood stories.

“We celebrated the landing of Banabans in Fiji every 15 December,” she says.

“Hundreds of people would get together in community halls and churches. And in other places. Wherever they could gather; and just remember the big move of people from one country to another.”

She learned of the harsh reality behind the relocations, while researching the history of phosphate mining in the Pacific during postgraduate studies at university.

In 1997, her father, then the Chairman of the Rabi Council of Leaders, the same body that administers Banaba, visited the largely abandoned island as part of his official duties.

Teaiwa went with him. Arriving in darkness on a government boat with women and children passengers, freely wandering chickens, ducks, dogs, canned food and other goods, she recalls the island resembling “the hump of a whale in the middle of the ocean”.

On waking the next morning, she was overwhelmed by the desiccated field of rock pinnacles, bush, broken glass, stark buildings, abandoned bulldozers, and old, rusted trucks.

“You think of an island as being this tropical paradise with coconut trees and white sandy beaches,” says Teaiwa, astonishment and sadness still apparent more than 15 years later.

“But then you get to Banaba and it looks like an old, dead, broken ghostly mining town.”

Beginning in 1900 and ending 80 years later, phosphate rock mining stripped away 90 per cent of the island’s surface.

Initiated by New Zealander Albert Ellis, mining rights were initially bought for 50 pounds a year, for 999 years.

After World War I, the island was placed under the British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC) - a board of AustralianBritish, and New Zealand representatives who also managed extraction of phosphate from neighbouring Nauru and Christmas Island.

"You think of an island as being this tropical paradise with coconut trees and white sandy beaches."

Based on royalty rates per tonnage, Banaba’s Indigenous population was promised a share of profits reaped from the venture.

“Of course the BPC came up with figures that were nothing like the profits that were coming out of the mines,” says Teaiwa.

The consortium also failed to deliver on a promise to replant trees destroyed by mining activity.

“The landscape used to be 80 metres above sea level. And the (mining operators) cut it down by 20 to 30 metres,” Teaiwa says.

The major ingredient in superphosphate fertiliser, farms in Australia and New Zealand were major beneficiaries of the phosphate strip-mining, guaranteeing food security in both countries.

As part of its operations in the Pacific War during World War II, the Japanese attempted to exploit Banaba’s phosphate resources, while rebuilding military defences in the area.

Meanwhile locals were moved into war camps in other parts of the Pacific.

After Japan’s defeat, the British convinced survivors their home island was not worth returning to, offering them with Rabi island instead.

In the decades that followed, Australian and New Zealand employees of the mining industry lived it up on Banaba – the remains of what used to be a golf course are still there, along with empty swimming pools and movie projectors.

"The landscape used to be 80 metres above sea level. And the (mining operators) cut it down by 20 to 30 metres."

“They shipped in water and amazing food from Melbourne,” Teaiwa says.

“It was a wonderful place to live and work.”

The party ended around the late 1970s, by which time Banaba had been mined into exhaustion, 22 million tons of land removed. The destruction rendered the island unliveable, with just 300 residing there today in challenging conditions.

Unprepared for their new life, many of those who migrated to Rabi struggled to make ends meet. A group of Banabans eventually sued Britain, with a 1976 London based High Court case lasting 221 days. The court found Britain had no legal obligation, but did have a moral debt.

In a new book on the island’s calamitous past, Consuming Ocean Island, Teaiwa pays a tribute to her ancestral past, and shares lessons for future populations facing human-induced environmental displacement.

If there is anything to be gained from Banaba’s history, she says it lies in others not taking commodities like wheat, meat, cheese and other dairy products for granted.

“We don’t think about how such commodities came into being,” she says.

“Because of this chain of fertiliser which makes it possible for you to have mass agriculture.

“I think it is important for humanity to think about what the trade-off is for all of these things we take for granted.”

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