Tiny Pacific Isle’s Citizens Rich, Fat and Happy--Thanks to the Birds

Associated Press

Out here, a hundred leagues from nowhere, the world’s richest republic is dozing away fat, happy and forgotten under the equatorial sun.

Nauru is a superlative little island in many ways--the smallest of the world’s republics, it is probably also the remotest, possibly the dullest, certainly the oddest. Thanks to the easy life, Nauru’s people also may be the world’s portliest.

A spin around the palm-fringed isle (it’s pronounced NOW-roo) takes just 20 minutes. But it is a revelation:


--Though barely bigger, at eight square miles, than New York’s Kennedy International Airport, this miniature nation runs its own fleet of half a dozen jetliners.

--In an ocean whose island people usually make do with thatched-roof huts and outrigger canoes, the Nauruans spread out in ranch-style, solar-powered homes, with at least one Land Rover and usually a powerboat in every driveway.

--The men putter around on a nine-hole golf course, the teen-agers race motorbikes, and the women fly off on shopping jaunts to distant continents.

--There are no traffic lights, no commercials and no taxes.

Prehistoric Droppings

The pot of gold supporting this carefree life lies on the tiny island’s central plateau. That barren upland--”Topside,” they call it--contains one of the world’s grandest concentrations of prehistoric avian excreta, old bird droppings.

Time and geology converted it into high-grade phosphatic material, which is dug up and processed into fertilizer for the farmlands of Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Strip-mining has turned the island’s core into a moonscape of exposed coral pinnacles. But, if not pretty, Nauru at least is rich.

Phosphates give the 4,800 Nauruans the world’s highest per-capita gross national product--last estimated by the U.S. State Department, in 1981, at $35,000 per person, higher even than Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms.


But the pot is not bottomless.

The Nauruans, digging up and shipping out their little island ton by ton, will run out of phosphates sometime in the early 1990s.

What happens then?

A government clerk giggles at the question--a typical Nauruan reaction.

“Oh, nobody’s really thinking about that,” she says. “I think they all trust the government will come up with something.”

Telling Very Little

In fact, President Hammer DeRoburt, Nauru’s chief investor, is thinking very deeply about that, but telling very little. That’s another of Nauru’s superlatives--it is among the world’s most secretive places.

“The president keeps his own counsel on his investment decisions,” a member of the island Parliament complains privately to a visitor. “He should be more open with the people.”

Other Nauruans sound confident that their financial future is secure in the hands of DeRoburt, a 63-year-old former schoolteacher who has been president almost continuously since the island became independent in 1968, who holds 6 of the 11 Cabinet posts, and who is in charge of the government-owned Nauru Phosphate Corp.

“It is true that he is a one-man band,” islander Anthony Detsimea wrote to a regional magazine, “and we like listening to him, for he plays beautiful tunes.”


DeRoburt spends much of his time with his Australian financial advisers at the 52-story Nauru House in Melbourne, 3,000 miles southwest of here.

‘Bird-Doo Tower’ The $48-mil

lion skyscraper--cruder Aussies dubbed it “Bird-Doo Tower”--is one of the Nauruan people’s major assets. One of their newest and biggest investments is a chunk of Hawaii, a Honolulu residential-commercial development project that may ultimately cost a half a billion dollars.

Also in the Nauruan government investment portfolio:

The airline Air Nauru; a shipping line of half a dozen merchantmen; hotels, apartments or other properties in Guam, Saipan, the Marshall Islands and Hong Kong, and joint ventures in phosphate processing in the Philippines and India.

The government earns more than $100 million a year from almost 2 million tons of exported phosphates. It says it puts 60% of that into investments “to provide an income for the Nauruan people when the phosphate is exhausted.”

Tightly Guarded Secret

But it publishes no long-range economic plans, and the precise investment strategy--properties, short-term securities, growth stocks or other ventures--is a tightly guarded secret.

The rest of the income goes mostly toward operating the government and its free services, and about 5% goes directly to Nauruans who own the land being worked.


Big money is relatively new for Nauruans, a brown-skinned, robust, distinctive island people of mixed Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian stock.

Between 1900, when the putty-like phosphatic rock was found on Nauru, and 1968, when Australia ended its U.N. trusteeship over the island, Nauru was exploited by a series of colonizers--German, British, New Zealander, Japanese and Australian.

Foreigners still largely run the phosphate operations--managers from Australia, workers from other Pacific islands and Hong Kong--giving Nauru a total population of about 8,000.

But the spoils now belong to the Nauruans, and they clearly enjoy it, leading a life that, if not extravagant, is certainly leisurely.

Only about 200 Nauruans work in the phosphate operation. Several hundred more hold jobs in the government, Air Nauru or other offices, but long lunches, card games and general relaxation seem the rule there.

All on Coastal Strip

Everyone lives on a 100-yard-wide coastal strip ringing the island, a band of green between the Pacific’s aquamarine and the gray of the phosphate plateau.


Nauru’s 2,000 vehicles have only the 12-mile-long perimeter highway to ply, and young men speed ‘round and ‘round “The Road” in their four-wheel-drive Land Rovers, looking for diversions. Others ride up “Topside” for motorbike races. Still others sit parked in their driveways or lounging on porches, whiling away the hot afternoon hours.

“Mostly we like to fish or catch birds,” one explained in the Australian-accented English that Nauruans speak.

Nauruans also love home videos, “big box” portable stereos and parties.

“They smoke, drink and eat like hell, all the wrong stuff. Their wealth is killing them,” University of Hawaii anthropologist Robert Kiste, a Pacific islands specialist, noted in a Honolulu interview.

Such pastimes are inexpensive in an economy with no import duties or other taxes. The frozen meat from Australia is cheaper here than there. Good Scotch--”Nauruans like whisky,” explains the liquor store clerk--goes for $3.40 a fifth.

Obesity seems endemic, the result of an unhealthy diet. Young men typically weigh a roly-poly 200 to 300 pounds. At the supermarket checkout, Nauruans can be seen stocking up on canned fruit and nectar drinks, plus huge cans of flavored whipped cream.

Much Diabetes

The authoritative periodical Pacific Islands Monthly reports Nauru has the world’s highest incidence of diabetes.


Free health care, including trips to specialists in Australia, is part of the island’s welfare package, which also includes free education, electric power at 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, and telephone service and houses for the same minimal rate, about $5 a month.

Water, a scarce commodity on this dry island 50 miles below the Equator, is shipped in by tanker from Australia and elsewhere.

Although Nauru is isolated in the vast Pacific--its nearest inhabited neighbor, Tarawa atoll, lies 400 miles away--claustrophobic Nauruans can fly off on weekend trips to other islands or Australia.

They nonetheless remain out of touch, with no newspaper and a local radio station heavy on island music and Australian horse races.

“They don’t seem to care about the rest of the world,” confides one foreigner here on a government contract. “It’s like a village, and DeRoburt is the village elder.”

40-Cent Beer

Over at the golf club, one Nauruan who works with the phosphate company relaxes with a visitor over a 40-cent Australian beer.


“The future. . . . ,” he muses. “That’s the big question. You bloody well can’t be confident about the future when he does not tell us what he is doing with our money.”

Estimates of the island nest egg range up to $3 billion by 1993. No Nauruan will starve after “Topside” runs out.

But shutting down the phosphate digs will mean redirecting the island economy--either toward a total-leisure existence of high-yield bonds, or into new areas.

Nauruans talk of filling in the plateau’s arid cavities with topsoil for farming, but the scheme may be prohibitively expensive. Some talk of turning the tax-free island into an international financial haven, but Nauru is probably too remote.

Might they simply pack up and move to a more livable environment? The 1,759 residential units planned for the Honolulu complex could house the entire Nauruan population.

But home is home. “I don’t think anybody would want to leave,” says the Parliament speaker, Reuben Kun.


Providence will take care, they seem to feel. It’s an attitude emblazoned on the national seal, which proclaims, “God’s Will First,” a motto topped by a picture of the original godsend, a perched bird.