How (Unpleasantly) Low Can You Go?

By Jheri St. James

Fiji Islands

When this writer gets the file on a participant country, some time will have passed, with so many countries to write about. In the case of Fiji II and its simultaneous collections from Tonga, Tuvalu and Nauru, about five years went by, so looking at what happened those many years ago is especially fascinating.

Mr. Brian Siler of the U.S. Embassy in Fiji collected soils from Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and Nauru. A later email indicates his willingness to also gather precious dirt from the Solomons, Vanuato and Micronesia. Mr. Siler is one of the few multi-collectors for the project, and we are so very grateful! We note that he says in regard to his efforts: “Gary, I didn’t realize that the samples needed to be taken from significant sites. In the cases of Nauru and Tuvalu, this isn’t a problem since its phosphate mines are what Nauru’s all about and, in Tuvalu’s case, there are no significant sites, just the place, perhaps the first country to be swallowed by the sea because of climate change, so sand from the beach seems ‘significant.’ . . . In the case of Fiji, I collected from the site of the Great Council of Chiefs’ new complex, the Bose Levu Vakaturaga Complex. In Tonga’s case, I gathered within sight of the royal palace, though outside the fence. That’s as close as a commoner would get really and be able to collect soil.”

Thank you Brian Siler! This is a rich trove of soils from an endangered area, Oceania.

The Fiji II file, the main file for this Oceania collection, contains a 3-page Permit to Receive Soil, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is an unusual form. Also the Origin and Value Declaration, which says the soils from Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Nauru have a total value of $25.00. These soils rest proudly among the other 193 countries’ soils, with each country’s flag flying by its jar. And to us, these soils are beyond measure in value, priceless.

Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and Nauru are all island countries in the area of the Pacific Ocean known as Oceania, formed through volcanic activity started around 150 million years ago.

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Fijian Beach

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Satellite image of Nauru US Army Air Force

(A satellite image of Nauru in 2002 from the U.S. Department of Energy's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program.)

(U.S. Army Air Force bombing the Japanese airstrip on Nauru)

The Republic of Nauru formerly known as Pleasant Island is located in Micronesia in the South Pacific. Its nearest neighbor is Banaba Island in Kiribati. Nauru is the world’s smallest republic, covering just 8.1 sq. mi. With 9,378 residents, it is the second least-populated country after Vatican City. As we can see from the photos above, Nauru has just as dramatic a history as any of the larger countries in our world—China, Russia, North America. Claimed by the Germans, administered by Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, Nauru was occupied by Japanese troops during World War II, who were then bypassed by the Allied troop advance across the Pacific. After the war ended, Nauru entered into Australian trusteeship again and finally gained its independence in 1968.

Nauru boasted the highest per-capital income enjoyed by any sovereign state in the world during the late 1960’s and 70’s thanks to being a phosphate rock island with rich deposits near the surface, allowing easy strip mining operations. Phosphorite mines are primarily found in:

  • North America, especially North Carolina, with lesser deposits in Florida, Idaho and Tennessee.
  • Africa: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Western Sahara.
  • Middle East: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Akashat, Iraq.
  • Oceania: Australia, Makatea, Nauru, and Banaba Island.


Phosphorite Mines

At the rate of consumption in 2007, the supply of phosphorus was estimated to run out in 345 years. However, some scientists now believe that a "peak phosphorus" will occur in 30 years and that at "current rates, reserves will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years." Reserves refer to the amount assumed recoverable at current market prices, and, in 2012, the USGS estimated 71 billion tons of world reserves, while 0.19 billion tons were mined globally in 2011. Phosphorus comprises 0.1% by mass of the average rock (while, for perspective, its typical concentration in vegetation is 0.03% to 0.2%), and consequently there are quadrillions of tons of phosphorus in the Earth's crust, albeit at predominantly lower concentration than the deposits counted as reserves, being inventoried and cheaper to extract.
Some phosphate rock deposits are notable for their inclusion of significant quantities of radioactive uranium isotopes. This syndrome is noteworthy because radioactivity can be released into surface waters in the process of application of the resultant phosphate fertilizer (e.g. in many tobacco farming operations in the southeast USA).
When the phosphate reserves in Nauru were exhausted and the environment seriously harmed by mining, the trust that had been established to manage the island’s wealth diminished in value. To earn income, Nauru briefly became a tax haven and illegal money-laundering center. From 2001 to 2008, it accepted aid from the Australian government in exchange for housing the Nauru detention center.

Here are some words from traveler Rik Royall:

“Nauru South Pacific

“Well Nauru is not really somewhere I would suggest you go, unless you are from there or you work there!

“However if you were using Air Nauru to get around the Pacific in the 90s you would probably end up spending a night or two there. I spent 3 days there in 1996 enroute from Tarawa to Fiji and for two days there was no beer, I'd run out of books (no book shop) and the hotel swimming pool was closed. There was no real public transport, about 1.5 TV channels, lots of Land Rovers and the cheapest cigarettes I've ever found. What is going to happen now the phosphate is running out?

Pictures of Nauru taken December 1996 © Rik Royall (

Phosphate Mining

(Phosphate Mining – Rik Royall)

Brian Siler, our collection agent mentioned above, got his sample in Nauru from the phosphate mines.

One would expect that an Oceanic island would be a beautiful vacation spot, with clear waters and balmy breezes. Not so today. An oval-shaped island, Nauru is surrounded by a coral reef, which is exposed at low tide and dotted with pinnacles. The presence of the reef has prevented the establishment of a seaport, although channels in the reef allow small boats access to the island. Coral cliffs surround Nauru’s central plateau. The only fertile areas on Nauru are on the narrow coastal belt, where coconut palms flourish, and surrounding Buada Lagoon supports bananas, pineapples, vegetables, pandanus trees, and indigenous hardwoods such as the tomato tree. Phosphate mining in the central plateau has left a barren terrain of jagged limestone pinnacles and stripped and devastated about 80 percent of Nauru’s land area; 40 percent of marine life is estimated to have been killed by silt and phosphate runoff.

After Phosphate Mining
(After phosphate mining – Rik Royall)

There are no personal taxes in Nauru. The unemployment rate is estimated to be 90 percent and of those who have jobs, the government employs 95 percent. Tourism is not a major contributor to the economy. Nauruans are the most obese people in the world: 97 percent of men and 93 percent of women are overweight or obese. As a result, Nauru has the world’s highest level of type 2 diabetes, as well as large numbers of those with kidney disease and heart disease.

Coral Reefs at low tide
(Coral reefs at low tide – Rik Royall)

Nauru is one of the many islands endangered in our world today, most from rising ocean waters. The picture above seems to present what must at one time have been a paradise. But once again, the activities of mankind have affected this, the smallest republic in the world—warfare, strip mining, mismanagement of the Nauru trust funds, and health problems may continue into the unknown future.

All we at Common Ground 191 can do is be grateful for the phosphate-laden soil collected by Brian Siler, and say a prayer for Nauru, as our project may well be a conceptual prayer for the entire Earth, and a headstone in memory of its potential. The word for peace in Nauru is “Low.”





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