Phosphate Mining on Nauru

Over a century of phosphate mining has rendered most of the island of Nauru uninhabitable. Colonialism and extensive mining has resulted in a huge loss of traditional culture and the country becoming reliant on foreign aid.


Nauru is the smallest country in the world, with an area of 21 km2 and population of roughly 13,000. Located in Micronesia, this small island state is heavily dependent on international aid due to its colonial history and excessive mining of phosphate. “The government estimates that the secondary phosphate deposits have a remaining life of about 30 years” (BBC 2017). The phosphate mining carried out partly by Nauru, but mostly by Australian and British companies, had rendered most of the island both uninhabitable and infertile (about 80% of the surface of the island) by the 1960s, leaving everything but the coastal strip uninhabitable (Klein 2014). With a rise in sea levels due to global temperature rise, Nauru’s entire population is highly vulnerable, as there is nowhere to relocate to.

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Basic Data
NamePhosphate Mining on Nauru
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Mineral ore exploration
Specific CommoditiesPhosphate
Project Details and Actors
Project Area (in hectares)2100
Type of PopulationSemi-urban
Potential Affected Population10,000
Start Date01/01/1919
Company Names or State EnterprisesThe Pacific Phosphate Company Ltd.
Republic of Nauru Phosphate (RONPHOS ) from Nauru - phosphate mining and trade
Relevant government actorsAustralian Government

New Zealand Government

Government of United Kingdom

Government of Nauru
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingLocal government/political parties
Forms of MobilizationLawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Malnutrition, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Other Health impacts
Potential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
OtherVery high rates of diabetes, low life expectancies, heavy metal cadmium poisoning.
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCompensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.Although the Australian government is paying financial compensation to Nauru and very minor rehabilitation efforts have been made, the damage of decades of phosphate mining is devastating and irreversible.
Sources and Materials

Klein, N. 2014, This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate, New York, Simon & Schuster.

Anghie, A. 1993, 'Heart of my home: colonialism, environmental damage, and the Nauru case', Harvard International Law Journal, no. 2, p. 445-506.

Amnesty International 2016, Island of despair: Australia's "processing" of refugees on Nauru, Amnesty International, viewed 7 January 2017.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance 2017, letter to the Parliament of Australia, "Urgent: risk of cadmium poisoning on Nauru", 24 February.


Doherty, B. 2016, ‘A short history of Nauru, Australia’s dumping ground for refugees’, The Guardian, 9 August 2016.
[click to view]

BBC 2017, Nauru country profile
[click to view]

UN News Centre 2015, ‘‘The time for excuses is over,’ small island leaders tell UN, urging global action on climate change’, 30 September 2015
[click to view]

Other Documents

The effects of phosphate mining credit:
[click to view]

Phosphate mine on Nauru Credit: Vlad Sokhin
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorMariko Takedomi Karlsson, research intern for EnvJustice, [email protected]
Last update02/11/2017