Nauru is a relatively tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. Technically part of Micronesia, a subregion of thousands of tiny westerly islands in the Pacific Ocean, the land was first called Pleasant Island by the British, who used it as a vacation destination. The island's rich phosphate deposits drew colonizers from around the world, and it was occupied or governed by Australia, Germany, and Japan until it formally gained independence in 1968. Over the next 40 years, the beautiful tropical island became a wasteland. The center of the island is currently uninhabitable, and the outer region consists of crumbling buildings and slums. Poor government management and corruption took one of the wealthiest nations in the world and drove it into the ground.
Nauru is a nation gripped in a cycle of poverty and human rights abuses. But how exactly did they go from tropical paradise to hell on earth, and what does the future hold for them?
Nauru Was Occupied By Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan
After 3,000 years of occupation by neighboring nations, Nauru became a German colony in the 19th century. Australia regained control in the early 20th century during WWI. By the 1920s, Australia took over Nauru, with joint responsibility held by New Zealand and Britain. During WWII, the tiny nation suffered immensely, in part because of its highly-sought after phosphate resources. After being captured by the Japanese, the island was bombed by American troops and 1,200 Nauruans were sent to forced labor camps. At the end of World War II, the island fell back into Australian control.
Nauru Became The World's Smallest Independent Republic In 1968
Nauru is a tiny nation, measuring only 21 square kilometers, or about the size of a university campus or large airport. Although the island was governed by other countries for thousands of years, Nauru began to develop its own system of government in the 1950s and '60s. The island officially declared its independence in 1968, making it the smallest independent republic in the world.
Migrating Birds Provided The Tiny Nation With Its Greatest Resource
Nauru's biggest export came from humble beginnings: bird poop. Migratory birds passing through the South Pacific used Nauru as a rest stop for an estimated one million years, with their feces building up over time and composting. The bird feces — scientifically referred to as guano — slowly turned into huge deposits of valuable phosphate, which were discovered by British colonizers in the late 1800s. By 1906, Germans took control of the island and established the Pacific Phosphate Company which was later bought out by the newly-formed British Phosphate Commissioners after WWI.
Nauru Was Once The Second-Wealthiest Nation In The World Per Capita
Nauru coral atoll on top of an underwater volcano. Over generations, seabirds using the island as a rookery added a layer of phosphate-rich sediment. When the British arrived in the mid-1800s as beach tourists and discovered the phosphate-rich earth, they started a mining company in cooperation with the local government. Phosphate, used as fertilizer, became one of the island's biggest exports. This made Nauru a valuable trophy during WWII, and both Germans and Japanese troops attempted to take control away from the Australians, who had colonized Nauru.
During the 1960s and '70s, the republic made an immense amount of money from phosphate. Nauru became the second-wealthiest nation in the world per capita, right behind oil giant Saudi Arabia. The small population size of the island helped inflate the GDP statistic, but there was no denying Nauru's wealth for the next few decades.
Nauru's Fledgling Government Made Some Pretty Bad Investments
In the 1960s, the newly formed Nauru government began a trust in which they invested the money from phosphate into business ventures. This move was supposed to help support the local economy and benefit the Nauru people. Unfortunately, the returns were not very lucrative. The government put money into various buildings and hotels in foreign countries, including Australia and India, and even funded a musical based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci.
Their other major state-run business was an airline called, appropriately, Nauru Airlines. Founded in the 1970s, it frequently ran at a loss, since demand for travel to the tiny island was never very high. At one point, the airline had the capacity to transport 10% of Nauru's population at once, since there were only 8,000 total residents. Nauru Airlines remains active, and has seen an increase in business since the 2010s due to the needs of the island's detention center.
After The Country Declared Bankruptcy, Nauru Laundered Money For The Russian Mob
After the phosphate ran out, Nauru turned to its next big income stream — money laundering. With the rise of the digital age, off-shore banking became all the rage for hiding huge sums of cash with relative ease. Nauru became a hotspot for such activity, and an American bank subsequently passed $7 billion through the tiny island.
Impressively, the tiny island helped take down the whole Russian economy — or so some people believe. Russian gangs funneled around $70 billion through Nauru in 1998, draining the nation of cash and causing it to suffer economically.