Pacific Islands

Category : art, book

As you read through Solastalgia, the narrative moves from idealistic projections onto islands, into the stories of particular, real islands, focused particularly on islands in the South Pacific, specifically Nauru and the Marshall Islands.

Nauru is a tiny bit of land, settled by Micronesians and Polynesians 3,000 years ago. It was once called Pleasant Island by the Europeans when their whaling ships stumbled onto it. Nauru was annexed by the Germans in the 19th century, who controlled it until after World War I, when it came under the control of Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. It became a fully independent nation in 1968.

Nauru is rich in phosphate, a natural fertilizer, which was strip-mined on the island throughout the twentieth century. Visitors to the island found as they approached from the sea, an idyllic line of palm trees lining a white sandy beach. In traveling to the interior of the island however, they found that the land had been stripped down to its coral bones. The center of the island was rendered uninhabitable and largely infertile, and most residents and businesses lived and worked on the coast. The phosphate was mined and shipped away by European companies to fertilize other peoples lands, and the money that the resource generated was badly invested, leaving the country short of options once the mining reserves began to be tapped out in the latter half of the century.

To earn income, Nauru briefly became a tax haven for those wanting to avoid paying taxes, and an illegal money laundering center for Russian gangsters. Eventually Nauru signed on to house refugees and migrants for the Australian government, who built an infamous prison camp on the island, referred to as “the Pacific Solution”. Briefly closed in 2008, it reopened in 2012 and continued to house asylum seekers and refugees from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Afghanistan, among others, who attempted to sail to Australia and were detained in squalid conditions. After numerous reports of human rights violations, riots, and hunger strikes, the camp housed 10 asylum seekers at the end of 2018, down from a high total of 1233. Nauruans have protested the closing of the camp, as the loss of the deal with Australia will represent a loss of a valuable source of income for a nation in desperate need of cash. The climate refugees of the future have been recruited to play warden for the political refugees of the present.

Nearby in the Marshall lslands, a large chain of volcanic islands with some of the lowest elevations in the south Pacific, the younger generation is preparing to leave their home.

The older generation on the islands have lived through the atomic bomb tests of the twentieth century. During the Cold War, the United States military detonated 67 nuclear bombs on or close to the nearby Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll. Tests were carried out here because American scientists judged that the islanders were “more like us than mice” and could therefore give them more useful data on the effects of fallout on a human population. Because of this complicated history, Marshall Islanders can live and work in the US and communities have grown in states like Arkansas and Oregon, in anticipation of a drowned future. Saltwater inundation is already beginning to kill plants and trees on the islands. The political leadership on the islands have lead the fight in international arenas on climate debt, the attempt to balance the scales by getting developed nations to compensate poorer ones who feel the effects of climate change first and more severely, while having fewer resources to adapt to new realities.

But the question remains for nations like the Marshall Islands and Nauru: how will they maintain a national identity once they are forced to leave their homes? Is it possible to maintain their sovereignty once their populations are in exile?

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