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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
Name of conflict:Phosphate 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 commodities:Phosphate
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Project area:2100
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:10,000
Start of the conflict:01/01/1919
Company names or state enterprises:The Pacific Phosphate Company Ltd.
Republic of Nauru Phosphate (RONPHOS ) from Nauru - phosphate mining and trade
Relevant government actors:Australian Government
New Zealand Government
Government of United Kingdom
Government of Nauru
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Local government/political parties
Forms of mobilization:Lawsuits, 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…)
Other Health impactsVery high rates of diabetes, low life expectancies, heavy metal cadmium poisoning.
Socio-economical 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
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain: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 & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

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

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

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

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

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]

Meta information
Contributor:Mariko Takedomi Karlsson, research intern for EnvJustice, [email protected]
Last update18/08/2019
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