Open to the public today is Project Banaba, an exhibition that tells the story of phosphate mining on the Moana Pacific island of Banaba: once also known as Ocean Island.
From 1900 onward, the governments of New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom collaborated to extract vast quantities of phosphate rock from both Nauru and Banaba, which was shipped to port cities and towns, such as Napier, and processed to produce superphosphate fertiliser.
The creator of Project Banaba, Katerina Teaiwa, has been researching this history for more than 20 years, investigating how and why her ancestral homeland came to be devastated within a period of decades – following millennia of coexistence with what Banabans call te aba, the rock.
She presented her findings in a book titled Consuming Ocean Island, with the Project Banaba exhibition growing out of the same research. Key themes running through both the book and the exhibition are the momentous forces of capitalist colonialism juxtaposed with the incredible resilience and creativity of the Banaban people, who relocated to the island of Rabi in Fiji in 1945 and made a new home that continues there to this day.
As is made clear in Katerina’s work, the British Empire was either unable or unwilling to live in coexistence, and instead was predicated upon domination. The words of British civil servant and phosphate commissioner Arthur Grimble made this explicit in 1928, when presenting a mining agreement to the people of Buakonikai in Banaba: “If you do not sign the agreement: do you think your lands will not go? Do not be blind. Your lands will be compulsorily acquired for the Empire.”
The three governments regarded the rock of Banaba as crucial to their colonial project, as the phosphate fertiliser enabled diverse lands to be transformed into pastures resembling the farms of England. Where once there had been native bush, wetlands, rocky plains, and so on, now we have the rapid growth of lush green grass. This was key to the expansion of industrial agriculture. New Zealand’s phosphate commissioner, Albert Ellis, clarified the thought process when he stated that “there can be no civilisation without population, no population without food, and no food without phosphate.”
Of course this is plainly false, as indigenous societies across the Moana and around the globe have always maintained their populations without fertilisers, developing sophisticated food systems that integrate with and maintain the balance of natural ecology.
The colonial desire was not in fact for food itself, but for profit. It was to produce food as commodities, for sale within the global market. After Ellis had begun testing the land, he wrote in his diary: “If Ocean Island is what I think it is what I think it is, there is a fortune in it, if not several.”
The social and environmental impacts of this imbalanced practice continue and are becoming increasingly undeniable. Phosphate mining on Banaba ceased in 1980, and now continues in large-scale operations in Africa’s Sahara desert. The government of Morocco claims territory in Western Sahara that is rich in phosphate, operating mines and selling the rock while the indigenous Saharawi people are displaced, living in Algerian refugee camps for decades. New Zealand fertiliser cooperatives Ravensdown and Ballance are the only remaining international purchasers of the rock from the Saharawi homeland.
Meanwhile, closer to home, the effects of fertiliser use and the industrial agriculture it enables are now apparent in our degraded and eroded soils, toxic waterways, and destabilising methane emissions.
Banaba can be seen as a microcosm, where the forces that rendered that island uninhabitable are on track to doing the same to the entire planet. The Project Banaba exhibition gives insight into that process and it is my hope that we can learn from it and collectively choose a different path. The words of Katerina’s late sister, the renowned academic Teresia Teaiwa, resonate with this hope: “In my ideal Pacific, things wouldn’t be perfect, but everyone would learn, deeply, from their mistakes.”