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Nauru seeks to regain lost fortunes

Nick Squires, BBC
There are not many countries you can bicycle around before breakfast. One of the very few is Nauru, a Pacific island nation halfway between Australia and Hawaii.

… Nauru may be little, but it once enjoyed enormous wealth. In fact Nauruans were among the richest people, per capita, in the world.

A quirk of nature means that their island consists of some of the world’s purest phosphate – the legacy of millions of years of sea bird droppings reacting with an uplifted coral.

From independence from Britain and Australia in 1968, until the 1990s, Nauru earned a fortune exporting its phosphate for fertiliser. The decades of mining left the once-lush interior a bleak moonscape of strange, grey coral spikes – all that is left once the phosphate-rich top soil is scooped out of the ground – but Nauruans did not care.

They gave up their jobs, brought in migrants from other Pacific islands to do the hot, dirty work of digging and sat back waiting for the royalty cheques to drop into their hands. They then went on an extraordinary spending spree. Families who had never left the island would charter aircraft to take them on shopping expeditions in Hawaii, Fiji and Singapore.

… “Hardly anyone thought of investing the money. Dollar notes were even used as toilet paper,” his friend told me. “It’s true,” he insisted seeing my look of disbelief. “It was like every day was party day.”

A procession of conmen and carpetbaggers persuaded successive governments to invest in a string of bizarre schemes, including a West End musical about the life of Leonardo da Vinci.

Nauru amassed a property portfolio of hotels and office blocks around the world. But corruption and downright incompetence took their toll and by the early part of this century, most of the assets had to be sold off to pay for the country’s mounting debts.

Now all the money is gone.

… Despite all these trials, Nauru is determined to get back on its feet. A new reformist government is hatching plans to establish the island as a pit-stop for international tuna boats to refuel and repair.

A mining company hopes to extract precious metals from the surrounding sea-bed. Phosphate mining has resumed with the government claiming there is another 30 years of reserves up in the scarred interior.

“We find ourselves in a big hole,” concedes newly-elected president and former weight-lifting champion, Marcus Stephen. “We’re doing our best to climb out of it. It won’t be like in our heyday, but at least we’ll be comfortable.”

Nauruans realise that the party is well and truly over.
(15 March 2008)

What Does Climate Change Do To Our Heads?

Sanjay Khanna, WorldChanging
A small yet growing body of evidence suggests that how people think and feel is being influenced strongly by ecosystem transformation related to climate change and industry-related displacement from the land. These powerful stressors are occurring more frequently around the world.

A case in point: When researchers from the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health at the University of Newcastle in Australia conducted interviews in drought-affected communities in New South Wales in 2005, the responses suggested some of their subjects may have been suffering from a recently described psychological condition called solastalgia (pronounced so-la-stal-juh).

Solastalgia describes a palpable sense of dislocation and loss that people feel when they perceive changes to their local environment as harmful. It’s a neologism that Glenn Albrecht, an environmental philosopher at the University of Newcastle’s School of Environmental and Life Sciences, created in 2003.

Albrecht’s work among communities distraught by black-coal strip mining in New South Wales’ Upper Hunter Region convinced him that the English language needed a new term to connect the experience of ecosystem loss to mental health concerns.

“The sense of a home landscape being violated [by strip mining-related environmental damage] seemed to have disturbed the region’s social ecology so much that the psychic or mental health of many people living in the zone of high impact was being affected,” he says.

Albrecht’s stunning insight? That there might be a wide variety of shifts in the health of an ecosystem—from subtle landscape changes related to global warming to desolate wastelands created by large-scale strip mining—that diminish people’s mental health.

… GA: Solastalgia’s Latin roots combine three ideas: The solace that one’s environment provides, the desolation caused by that environment’s degradation and the pain or distress that occurs inside a person as a result.

Solastalgia brings into English a much-needed word that links a mental state to a state of the biophysical environment. The need for new concepts in the face of what is happening under climate change has seen other cultures develop new terms that have affinities with solastalgia.

The Inuit, for example, have a new word, uggianaqtuq (pronounced OOG-gi-a-nak-took), which relates to climate change and has connotations of the weather as a once reliable and trusted friend that is now acting strangely or unpredictably.

… GA: … Remnant aboriginal cultures are still being pushed aside by the dominant global model of economic growth and progress. Even today, their chronic health problems are likely related to social and political issues that are connected to ongoing dispossession.

I’ve had recent firsthand experience of the lives of Indigenous people leading semi-traditional lives in Northern Australia to see the importance of the connections between human health and ecosystem health. In Arnhem Land, Aborigines who live on what are called “outstations” have been able to maintain much stronger and healthier links to their traditional land. Their physical and mental health status is, as a consequence, much better than those whose links to their own land have been severed and who now live in crowded, dysfunctional communities.
(21 March 2008)