Pleasant Island 4b - 'A Failing State': Colonial Continuities


A ‘Failing State’: Colonial Continuities

‘All our lands on the hill

No longer can be used

Will become home of craters and rocks’

Nauruan song

The establishment of the British Phosphate Commission at the end of WWI led to decades of structural imperialism and exploitation of Nauru’s natural resources which eventually rendered large parts of the island uninhabitable. By the 1960s, Australia’s ongoing self-interest in resource extraction, combined with an acknowledgement of the environmental degradation and destruction resulting from decades of phosphate mining, led to a proposal to resettle the entire population of Nauru in Australia, an idea which resurfaced briefly in 2003.

Nauruans considered their sovereignty and the preservation of their national cultural identity to be of great importance. They held concerns about being absorbed into and rendered invisible by White Australia’s assimilation policies. Instead, Nauru pursued full independence.


Nauru is often characterised as a ‘ruined paradise’ or a ‘failing state’ with a corrupt government and barren, commercially useless land. Negative representations of the island’s environment, governance and resource management typically fail to acknowledge the destructive impacts of colonisation. Media coverage of Nauru as a result of Australia’s offshore processing policy often reflects negatively on Nauruan people and their country. Despite being orchestrated by the Australian government, this has positioned refugees and local people in opposition to one another, exacerbated tensions between both populations and increased media restrictions on the island. While in 2001, when the first asylum seekers landed on Nauru, they were greeted by locals with a welcome dance, by 2014 intimidating and threatening letters were being delivered to refugees which represents evidence of increasing hostility.

Naomi Klein argues that the logic that has hollowed out Nauru is the same logic that has driven the global economy for the past 400 years. Climate change and rising sea levels also pose a significant threat to the island. The Australian-run ‘Regional Processing Centre’ (RPC) on Nauru sits at the centre of a depleted phosphate plateau known as ‘Topside’ and is surround by ongoing phosphate mining operations. Although Australia previously considered that the entire population of Nauru might need to relocate because of declining conditions, in recent years it has pursued the argument that 1,200 asylum seekers and refugees who sought protection from Australia should be resettled in this poorly resourced environment, the smallest republic in the world.


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