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Wanted: one small island for the nation of Nauru to move to

By Chris PritchardSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 1986



Sydney

It's an interesting concept: When a nation grows tired of being where it is, it should pack up and move. This revolutionary idea -- new, at any rate, in the annals of contemporary geopolitics -- comes from a corner of the world not particularly famous for innovative concepts: the somnolent islands of the South Pacific.

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In one part of the region the future is a bit of a worry. The Republic of Nauru is literally a dot on the map. The country occupies a scant 8.6 square miles and has about 9,000 people -- half of them alien contract workers.

The country is rich (despite a price lull) because it produces phosphate, which is used to make fertilizer. Nauru is not a tourist destination: Its only beach is popular simply because it is the only beach, and much of the interior has been stripped bare by miners' machines.

Islanders from neighboring poor island countries do the hard physical work, while key administrative posts are often farmed out to Australian or British officials. Nauruans, therefore, have much leisure time.

They also have a good deal of disposable income. Nauruans have resort and office property investments in Australia and Asia -- and a government which keeps part of their annual phosphate royalty (around $30,000 for each of less than 5,000 Nauruans) to invest abroad for their long-term future. Health, education, and welfare benefits are good.

In fact, when Nauruan sports teams turn up at Pacific island tournaments, they are often the target of envy from players of poorer countries. The reason: The Nauruans are always best-dressed and come with the latest equipment.

They may be the envy of some other islanders but they are not without worries. The key question: What to do when the phospate runs out? It is forecast to do just that in about 10 years.

Nauruans could stay put and live off their shrewd investments, continuing to import life's necessities -- and luxuries. But, as more of their island becomes barren, the option of moving elsewhere grows increasingly appealing.

President Hammer DeRoburt says the search for another island continues, but ``it's not easy.'' Nauru has negotiated with several South Pacific island nations (including Fiji), with the Philippines, and with Australia.

A stumbling block has been Nauru's insistence that its flag fly on any new island. Even impoverished South Sea island nations jealously guard their territorial independence and, on such terms, rejected Nauru's approaches. The Philippines likewise wasn't interested.

Australia offered the Nauruans an island -- to become available when the phosphate ran out.

But when the offer came, in 1968, Nauru had just become independent, the end of phosphate exploitation seemed far away, and -- with the Australians insisting that such an island remain Australian territory -- Nauruans lost interest and the matter lapsed.

Now the Nauruans have revived the issue with Australia -- only to be told, according to a government spokesman in Canberra, that Australia no longer has a spare island to offer.