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Nauru: A Pacific Island Sells Its Soul

An episode of the Public Radio program "This American Life" tells the story of Nauru, a tiny, isolated Pacific island east of New Guinea and 1,200 miles from any sizable landmass. Around the year 1900, two scientists from the Pacific Islands Company began to study what they believed to be a piece of petrified wood picked up on Nauru. But instead of a fossilized rock, they uncovered the richest phosphate ore ever identified to that time—a discovery so valuable it plunged Nauru violently into the industrial era.

During the years that followed, the country was colonized by a succession of European and Asian nations in pursuit of financial gain, who turned the island into a strip mine. Nauru achieved independence in 1968, but rather than taking responsibility for the land, the Nauruan government continued the mining practices that had, by then, brutalized the island.

By the early 1980s, Nauru boasted the world's highest per capita income, but its prosperity didn't last long. Midway through the 1990s, Nauru's wealth was gone: embezzled by corrupt financial managers, gambled away on risky investments, and squandered on extravagant luxuries. With the money gone, the Nauruans can now see the effects of their short-sighted decisions. More than 70 percent of the island is a mined-out ruin, unable to offer the infrastructure or natural resources needed to support a nation-state. Nauru must now look for a new piece of land on which to re-locate its population.

"When you're on Nauru," says reporter Jack Hitt, "there's a palpable sense of shame at what they've done ... The Nauruans literally sold off their homeland for a pot of wealth which is now lost."

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