Banaba: A Tropical Paradise Destroyed by Mining

In the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii, there is a small island named Banaba belonging to a scattered group of islands called the Gilberts. Before European contact, Banaba was a beautiful coral island rich in animal and plant life and with a thriving community that shared close links to people of Kiribati.

In 1900, a New Zealand prospector named Albert Ellis working for the Pacific Islands Company discovered that the surface of Banaba was made of petrified guano that had over the years metamorphosed into high grade Phosphate rock. Around the same time, phosphate in Nauru was also discovered. Nauru being a German territory at the time, and Banaba a British protectorate, the Pacific Islands Company joined hands with a mining company based on Hamburg and formed a new company—the Pacific Phosphate Company (PPC) to engage in phosphate mining in Nauru and Banaba, then known as Ocean Island.

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The serrated surface of the island of Banaba—the result of 80 years of mining. Photo credit: Janice Cantieri

It was agreed that Banabans would receive a paltry sum of £50 a year in exchange for exclusive mining rights for 999 years, although later the terms of the licenses were changed and the PPC also began paying royalties and compensation for mining damage. Within a few years, PPC became a very profitable company.

In 1915, Gilbert Islands became a colony of the British, and four years later the Board of the British Phosphate Commission, a consortium involving the British, Australian and New Zealand governments, acquired the business of the PPC in Nauru and Banaba, and mining continued as before.

When the Second World War began, Japan invaded Banaba and committed horrible atrocities on the island population. Most of the islanders were sent to intermittent camps, others were massacred. After the war ended, the island’s surviving population of about one thousand was forcibly relocated by the British to Rabi Island in the Fiji group under the pretext that the Japanese had destroyed their houses, which was not true.

Banaba’s resident population was the final hurdle in the path to total mining of the island. With this taken care of, the British resumed phosphate mining until the rock was depleted by 1979. By then 90 percent of the island’s surface was stripped away reducing it to a wasteland of rocky pinnacles. The island of Nauru suffered a similar fate.

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The first photograph shows the island shortly before mining began. The second was taken soon after, and shows how the vegetation and soil of Banaba were removed to extract the phosphate rock. Photo credit: newzealand.govt.nz

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Satellite image of the mining area.

In 1971, the Banabans sued the British Crown for its failure to replant their island, which they had promised, and the BPC for its failure to pay adequate compensation. The court instructed the British government to pay up following which the government placed £6.5 million in a trust fund for the Banabans, interest from which today provides the core funding for the administration of life on Rabi Island.

In 1979, after Kiribati gained independence from the British Crown, about 250 volunteers moved back from Rabi Island to Banaba and have been living there since then, relying mostly on wages and funds from Fiji, although the island is a part of Kiribati. Unsurprisingly, a lot of political tension persists. The Banabans living in Rabi Island called for Banaba to secede from Kiribati and join Fiji, while others have called for Banaba to declare its own independence. There have also been talks about reopening the phosphate mine—a proposal that have generated considerable discontent among the Banabans.

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The island of Banaba.

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