Phosphate mining in Nauru

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A ship being loaded with phosphate in Aiwo District

The economy of Nauru has been almost wholly dependent on phosphate, which has led to environmental catastrophe on the island, with 80% of the nation’s surface having been strip-mined. The island's phosphate deposits were virtually exhausted by 2000 although some small-scale mining is still in progress.

First discovery of phosphate[edit]

In 1896, a cargo officer (supercargo) for the Pacific Islands Company on the Lady M, Henry Denson, found a strange-looking rock on Nauru during a brief stop on the island. He originally believed it to be a piece of petrified wood. Denson, according to legend, had planned on making children's marbles from it but fate would have it end up as a door stop in the company's Sydney office.

Chinese phosphate workers on Nauru standing between limestone pinnacles

In 1899, Albert Ellis, a management official of the phosphate division of the Pacific Islands Company, was transferred to the Sydney office to "analyse rock samples coming from the Pacific Islands." Ellis noticed the rock and suspected it to be phosphate (similar in appearance to the phosphate coming from Baker Island), but was rebuffed by Denson and told that it was only wood. Three months later, Ellis decided to test his hunch and tested the rock for phosphate. It turned out to be phosphate ore of the richest quality.

A neighboring island to the East, Banaba Island (Ocean Island), shared Nauru's geology and also had significant reserves of phosphate.


Phosphate mining in Nauru.

Ellis' discovery of phosphate excited the executives of the Pacific Islands Company and they decided to pursue rights and access to Nauru's lucrative resource. The negotiations to pursue rights to the phosphate involved four parties: the British and German governments, the newly reorganised Pacific Phosphate Company, and Jaluit-Gesellschaft (a German mining company that had been exploiting phosphates on Nauru since the late 19th century).

In 1906, an agreement was established whereby Jaluit-Gasellschaft's rights were transferred to the Pacific Phosphate Company for "a cash payment of 2,000 pounds sterling (British), 12,500 pounds sterling (British) worth of shares in the Pacific Phosphate Company, and royalty payments for every ton of phosphate exported."

In the first year of mining alone, 11,000 pounds (5,000 kg) of phosphate were shipped to Australia. After World War I Nauru was given in trust to Britain, Australia and New Zealand. They established the British Phosphate Commissioners, who took over the rights to the phosphates.

In 1968, Nauru became a sovereign, independent nation. In 1970, the newly formed government purchased the full rights to the phosphate business from Australia for A$21 million. This purchase brought an economic boost to the Republic, as revenues from the mining operations are estimated to have been A$100–120 million annually since independence through virtual resource exhaustion in the early 1990s. Gross production of phosphate from 1968 through exhaustion has been 43 million tons.[vague]

A number of prominent Nauruans, notably René Harris, who have headed the Nauru Phosphate Corporation, have gone on to serve as President of Nauru.

Investments and finances[edit]

The economic history of the Nauruan phosphate industry.

The government puts profits from the mining into a trust for the islanders. This trust reached a peak of A$1 billion, returning approximately 14% annually. Poor investments and corruption have left the trust fund nearly empty and therefore Nauru with little money.

In the year 1948, revenues from phosphate mining were A$745,000. A minuscule 2% (A$14,900) was being returned to the Nauruans, while 1% was being charged for "administration". In the 1960 future president Hammer DeRoburt negotiated royalties of profit to the Nauruans to be 22% while administration would increase to 14%.[1]

One apparently successful development project was in 1988, whereby the Royalty Trust purchased 600 acres (2.4 km2) of vacant, residentially zoned land near Portland, Oregon. Called Forest Heights, it was controlled by the Nauru trust until 75% of the allotments were sold, when the homeowners association took over.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre. "View on Nauru - Between a mined-out rock and a hard place". Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  2. ^ "Island nation holds keys to neighborhood". The Portland Tribune. April 23, 2002. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 

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