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Phosphate Mining on Nauru


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.

The colonialism of the 19th and 20th century has had many lasting effects that have changed life on Nauru drastically. A land once rich on mangoes, pineapples, coconuts and fish now has next to no vegetation, biodiversity or fertile land. Nauruans have been dependent on food imports for decades, and poor diets have led to staggeringly high levels of diabetes, and consequently low life expectancies (55 for men, 57 for women) (BBC 2017). The coloniality of power has led to the decimation of traditional knowledge such as fishing methods, causing important parts of culture to be lost. 

Among some of the factors that make Nauru a unique case is that it was the first country to take its previous administration (Australia) to the International Court of Justice on the grounds of environmental injustice. Nauru filed its case in 1989, and in 1993 Nauru and Australia agreed to settle the case and discontinue the proceedings. The Australian government reluctantly agreed to give financial compensation ($73 million over 20 years) due to the damage done to Nauru through phosphate mining as well as the lack of effort by Australia to rehabilitate the land as promised (Anghie 1993, BBC 2017). 

Nauru is still to this day intimately tied to the Australian government, which has been using Nauru as a dumping ground for refugees since 2001, then officially through ‘The Pan-Pacific Solution’ and today under what’s more commonly known as ‘offshore processing’. An Amnesty International report describes Nauru as ‘effectively a client state of Australia’ (Amnesty International 2016, p.12). The purpose of offshore processing is to deter people from wanting to flee to Australia as refugees (Klein 2014). Despite several reported cases of abuse, neglect and wrongdoing in the detention centres, reports written by psychologists and social workers, severe criticisms from Amnesty International (2016, p.5), who described the detention centre of Nauru as an ‘open-air prison’ and the Human Rights Watch as well as the UN, Australia has refused to take responsibility for these atrocities (Doherty 2016).

It is important to understand that Nauru’s colonial past and current economic dependence on foreign aid have to a large extent coloured the circumstances under which these human rights abuses are now occurring. Indeed, it is extremely important to recognise that the abuses occurring on Nauru are facilitated by laws established by the Australian government, for example one of the more recent laws whereby any health professional or journalist who speaks out about the conditions on Nauru may face up to two year’s imprisonment (Amnesty International 2016).

During its administration, Australia was not exerting physical violence onto the people of Nauru, but they were surely destroying their livelihoods and their land, whilst proudly establishing English teaching schools and planning for Nauru’s population to eventually relocate to Australia. For Nauru was designed to disappear; relocating its entire population was part of the plan so that Australian (and New Zealand and English to some extent) companies could continue mining for phosphate without scrutiny until there was nothing left (Anghie 1993; Klein 2014).

During Nauru’s appeal to the International Court of Justice (Certain Phosphate Lands in Nauru (Nauru v. Australia)), in 1992, the Australian government used the fact that Nauru had also taken part in phosphate mining to argue that demanding the Australian government to rehabilitate their land was acting in bad faith (Anghie 1993). Although this claim was rejected by the court, it shows the lack of responsibility and acknowledgement by Australia of the severe impacts that colonialism has had on Nauru.

In more recent years, Nauru has been involved in speaking out at several climate summits including the COP21 in Paris and the UN General Assembly, where climate change has been a big focus. Nauru is particularly limited because of its economic dependency on Australia which puts Nauru in a geopolitical position where they are unable to criticise the Australian government. Baron Divavesi Waqa, president of Nauru addressed the general assembly in 2015 and called for more serious engagement in regards to climate change policy, whilst praising the 2030 Agenda for its commitment to human rights (UN News Centre 2015).

This year, the president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance wrote an open letter to the Australian government, drawing attention to yet another health crisis on Nauru, namely cadmium poisoning. The mining of phosphate has caused the groundwater to be contaminated by the highly toxic heavy metal cadmium, which is now present in high concentration on Nauru (Australian Lawyers Alliance 2017). "The health consequences include irreversible kidney damage, lung damage, bone damage and cancer" the letter explains (Australian Lawyers Alliance 2017). 

Nauru is the smallest country in the world but this is not the only reason why so many people do not know about it. Part of the colonial project has been to erase the stories, practices and cultures of the subaltern, and this is precisely what has happened in the case of Nauru.

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.

BBC 2017, Nauru country profile

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

Meta information

Contributor:Mariko Takedomi Karlsson, research intern for EnvJustice, [email protected]
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:3098



The effects of phosphate mining


Phosphate mine on Nauru

Credit: Vlad Sokhin