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Banaba today after 80 years of phosphate mining and no rehabilitation


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From the original 1,500 lush tropical acres that were the original Ocean Island, there are now only 150 viable acres left unmined, where the Banaban inhabitants reside today. As of October 1996, the population on Banaba had reached 500 people which also included some Kiribati civil servants and their families. The latest news in 2001 was that due to droughts and some resettlement for people back to Rabi island there was approximately just over 200 Banabans currently living on the homeland.


The Rabi Council of Leaders back in Fiji administer Banaba at a cost of approximately $12,000 a month. The Banabans have two members sitting in the Kiribati Government Assembly and representing the Banaban people. The Banabans have often spoken of their wish to one day see Banaba as an independent nation. While ever the Banabans only have community status split between two different Pacific nations they have no real control over what happens to their land and their future. Even aid projects have to be approved by the governments concerned.  Areas such as community health and education are other important areas that are affected. One very good example of this is the desire of the Kiribati government to remine Banaba.



The Banabans believe that Kiribati will hold on to Banaba in the hope of one day reopening the Phosphate mining that gave them their main source of income for all those years. In 1990 an Australian mining company were contracted to report on the feasibility of re-mining phosphate on Banaba. Their report showed high cadmium levels, well above the Commonwealth standards, which would make the prospect of exporting the Banaban phosphate to mainly third world countries. Because of this factor and the extent of deterioration of the mining equipment (crushers, dryers, etc. which were left on the island when the B.P.C. left in 1980), the refurbishing of mining equipment makes this financially not viable at the time.


In 2000 and 2001, the Kiribati government conducted more feasibility studies, this time with a New Zealand company for the re-mining of Banaba. The traditional landowners of Banaba, many of whom now live on Rabi in Fiji are opposed to any more mining of their land.


Unfortunately, while any remnants of phosphate remain on Banaba it makes the island a target for future remining.  The other interesting aspect of this is the fact that if any rehabilitation was ever to be carried out, the phosphate would be removed first.  The theory behind this idea is to use the remaining phosphate reserves to make the rehabilitation viable or in other words, help pay for it. This would also help with the huge costs of putting in the much need infrastructure needed on the island e.g., wharf, loading equipment, plant etc.


The major problem with this idea is whether the Banabans could ever trust any mining company or government to keep their word and actually rehabilitate the island as the remining progressed.  After all, these were the very promises they were made in the beginning and now all they have is 150 acres on the island that has not been mined, masses of rusting decaying machinery and buildings for their people to live amongst.



The Area Already Mined on Banaba by 1957




Other interesting theories regarding the reason the Kiribati government wants to hold on to Banaba is the fact that the island is the only high island in the entire Kiribati Group. With such concerns over global warming and rising sea levels, Banaba is the only island that is not a coral atoll.  Even with the top 60 feet of the surface of the island removed it still stands over 100 feet above sea level.


Another surprising aspect is that even with all the devastation and environmental damage that has befallen the island in the past 100 years, Banaba has the ability to produce crops amongst the humus that has built up in some areas of the island. Droughts have always been a major problem on Banaba causing the dying off of the island's limited vegetation. But when the rains do come the island is capable of producing crops at an amazing rate. The combination of water, hummus and natural phosphate make an ideal environment that is every farmer's dream.


Once again this is a very different environment to that found on the other Kiribati atolls which are low lying and made up entirely of crushed coral and sand, lacking any real type of rich soil structure. Therefore with a supply of water Banaba could supply fresh produce for the region.


Other reports coming from Rabi is the idea that if the Banabans don’t keep up a presence on their homeland that Banaba will be taken over by Kiribati.



To overview the Banabans current situation in the 21st century it would have to be said that nothing much has changed. Of course, all mining ceased back in November 1979 when the last shipload of phosphate left the island and it was handed back to the Banabans. Many of the old BPC company people are shocked when they see the dilapidated state the island has now lapsed into especially when the island was one of the world leaders in mining technology at the time. Some of the island's staff and company buildings were very grand and remnants of Royal Dolton crockery can still be found at the island's old Banaba House and surprisingly a lot of the sewerage and plumbing will still work if a tap can be found.


But no one ever worked out how the Banabans were going to pay for all of the maintenance to keep it running.  How they were going to pay for the cost of getting a ship to call on the island once mining stopped. Now just getting a boat into Banaba with necessary food supplies and mail a couple of times a year is a major problem. The remoteness of the island is now one of the major pitfalls for any ideas of rebuilding.


Another thing that many people did not realise was the fact that when the BPC left Banaba in 1979 they left all removable fittings to the Kiribati government of the day. This saw the removal of everything that was not tied down.  The old beautifully equipped island hospital was a prime example. All that remains is the structure and one ceramic washbasin in the operating theatre and the large operating light. Attempts were made to try and pull it out and it only resulted in some of the ceiling falling in.


Banban children living on Banaba today 




What has to be realised that even with all this adversity the Banabans face living on the homeland today they consider themselves the very lucky ones.  That is why it was only with much difficulty that half of the island's community was repatriated back to live on Rabi in 1999 and 2000.

Living on Banaba is the dream of every Banaban - young and old.  Every Banaban elder quotes their desire to die and be buried in their homeland.  They do not care about the hardships faced living amongst the ruins and not enough coconut trees or pandanus to make their traditional housing.  For them, Banaba is home, the only place in the world that they can say they really belong. The land that they truly own and as they say, their FREEDOM.


Incredibly with limited natural food resources left on the island, the Banabans rely mostly on the abundance found in the ocean and surrounding reefs just like their ancestors had done for centuries. They seem healthy, happy and at one with the spirit of their land.  They believe they are truly the fortunate ones while their families and relatives living on Rabi and elsewhere dream of the day they can one day make the pilgrimage back to their beloved homeland.


The reality for all of us is the fact that - This is the lasting legacy that 100 years of phosphate mining and colonial rule has left the Banaban people.  The governments involved have conveniently walked away believing that the Banabans as a people would be eventually absorbed into mainstream Kiribati society, after all, they are really I-Kiribati anyway. They are grateful that the Court Cases are now over and the Banaban issues are long dead and buried. Little do they realise that the Banaban identity is stronger than ever and every aspect of the Banabans lives on Rabi relates back to the homeland.


For them, Banaba will always be home even if they now have become the 'Forgotten People of the Pacific'.

For more information on the Current Issues facing Banaba in 2021.


Distance Banaba to Tarawa, Kiribati.JPG
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