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Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba

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Consuming Ocean Island tells the story of the land and people of Banaba, a small Pacific island, which, from 1900 to 1980, was heavily mined for phosphate, an essential ingredient in fertilizer. As mining stripped away the island's surface, the land was rendered uninhabitable, and the indigenous Banabans were relocated to Rabi Island in Fiji. Katerina Martina Teaiwa tells the story of this human and ecological calamity by weaving together memories, records, and images from displaced islanders, colonial administrators, and employees of the mining company. Her compelling narrative reminds us of what is at stake whenever the interests of industrial agriculture and indigenous minorities come into conflict. The Banaban experience offers insight into the plight of other island peoples facing forced migration as a result of human impact on the environment.

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10 Chapters

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1 The Little Rock That Feeds

ePub

On September 20, 1919, Thomas J. McMahon, one of the most prolific journalists and photographers of the South Pacific of his time, published a story in an Australian magazine called the Penny Pictorial. It was replete with the usual Pacific imagery and language—paradise, romance, natives, South Seas, balmy breezes, and so forth—with one notable exception. The title of the piece proclaimed: “Let’s-all-be-thankful Island. A Little Spot in the South Pacific That Multiplies the World’s Food.” McMahon had just visited Ocean Island, indeed one of the tiniest inhabited dots in the Pacific, and produced extraordinary images of productive, orderly, brown laborers and impeccably clad white folk—men, women, and children—against a backdrop of less than tropical rock pinnacles and mining fields. Less than a year later the governments of Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom bought out the Pacific Phosphate Company and created the British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC), tasked with mining Nauru and Ocean Island in the Pacific and, later, Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Across the seas, the Cherifian Phosphates Board (Office Chérifian des Phosphate), today the world’s major phosphate supplier, was established in Morocco that same year.

 

2 Stories of P

ePub

IN THIS CHAPTER I explore five stories of phosphorus and the phosphate compound from which it is sourced. What is phosphorus? Where does, in Dana Cordell’s words, “humanity’s addiction to phosphate rock” come from? How does it fuel essential food and commodity chains? And what does the possibility of “peak phosphorus” mean for the globe? How did Ocean Island—a landscape in which Banaban lives and practices were grounded and eventually disrupted and scattered—come to be made of phosphate? Why should indigenous Banabans today care about the science behind it all?

In 1938, with the United States just out of the Great Depression and on the verge of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to Congress about the critical relationship between phosphate reserves, soil fertility, and agricultural security. He said:

I cannot overemphasize the importance of phosphorus not only to agriculture and soil conservation but also to the physical health and economic security of the people of the Nation. Many of our soil types are deficient in phosphorus, thus causing low yields and poor quality of crops and pastures. . . . It appears that even with a complete control of erosion, which obviously is impossible, a high level of productivity will not be maintained unless phosphorus is returned to the soil at a greater rate than is being done at present. Increases by the addition of phosphorus to the soil must be made largely, if not entirely, in the form of fertilizers which are derived principally from phosphate rock. Therefore, the question of continuous and adequate supplies of phosphate rock directly concerns the national welfare.1

 

3 Land from the Sea

ePub

THIS CHAPTER EXPLORES life on the island as presented in Company documents and visual sources with a focus on the first four decades of mining prior to World War II. The BPC’s archival textual and visual records are read both in terms of what they say or present and in terms of what they are missing: Banaban and other residents’ historical experiences and contemporary realities. Nicholas Thomas discusses both the authority of dense, annotated archival Pacific histories and the turn, as seen in the work of the prominent ethnographic historian Greg Dening, toward a celebration of plural and diverse experiences. He argues that “histories do not merely differ and enrich knowledge through complementary diversity,” but rather they “reflect interests in practical projects, in legitimizing or destabilizing; they entertain, and perhaps they perform some symbolic violence with respect to those who are spoken about but whose voices are absent.”1

Stories gleaned from Company letters and diaries give a fragmented yet specific and usually authoritative point of view, while photographs with inadequate or brief captions beg a viewer to fill in the blanks regarding context. Documentary film and other cinema often attempt to present a total world for the viewer, but the Company film I explore here is an appropriately fragmented and hastily edited montage. These various Ocean Island sources and the kinds of global stories they tell offer particular, still-partial, and morally significant ways in which we might “know” the past. But as Thomas underscores, “history displayed might be harmless if it was evidently less persuasive.”2

 

4 Remembering Ocean Island

ePub

Stories are told, and should be told, simply because storytelling is a good thing to do—but particular stories are never innocent of wider agendas.

—Nicholas Thomas, In Oceania

THERE IS A significant and growing interdisciplinary literature on storied landscapes, places, spaces, and memories with scholars engaging and weaving a variety of textual genres from memoir and autobiography to film and interview. The motivation for much of this work stems from a critique of the metanarratives of the nation-state and of prominent and privileged actors who have erased or submerged the lives and voices of everyday people, including women, workers, children, slaves, and indigenous communities, often described in postcolonial studies as constituting the “subaltern.”1

Jennifer Shennan and Makin Corrie Tekenimatang’s One and a Half Pacific Islands is this kind of important project. Inspired by Adam Manterys’s collection of 101 stories from among 733 children who arrived in New Zealand in 1944 as orphans from Poland,2 Shennan and Tekenimatang’s book gathers the stories and memories of 68 individuals—children, elders, teenagers, scholars, elected leaders—who speak of two home islands and of Banaban life in Fiji on the sixtieth anniversary of their landing on Rabi. These views are complemented by those of a select number of Banaban elders and colonial and Company officials and their families.

 

5 Land from the Sky

ePub

We cannot read our histories without knowing how to read our landscapes (and seascapes).

—Epeli Hau‘ofa, “Pasts to Remember”

AS EPELI HAUOFA suggests, a reading of our landscapes and seascapes—spaces that are the products of multiscalar processes in both contemporary and deep, geological time—is necessary to better explore our Pacific histories. For many Pacific scholars, such as the late Hau‘ofa, Albert Wendt, and Anne Salmond, history and a sense of temporality were not just limited to archival texts, or to the last century or two, but rather extended tens of thousands and even millions of years across time in embodied and material forms. We can expand Hau‘ofa’s proposal to include our reading and framing of the contemporary stakes of globalization and the intense interconnectivity of the twenty-first century. This requires material, corporeal, grounded, and symbolic readings across disciplinary boundaries, geographic areas, and temporal contexts.1 Furthermore, to truly acknowledge diverse ontological realities, we need to acknowledge that in indigenous epistemologies and ontologies, poetics are never just poetics.

 

6 Interlude: Another Visit to Ocean Island

ePub

THE FIRST TIME I visited Kiribati, in 1997, I stayed at the Otintaai (Rising Sun) Hotel in Tarawa for five days before my father, John Teaiwa, and I made a trip to Banaba. Our vessel was small and so laden with food, people, chickens, puppies, ducks, and motorbikes that the predicted one-and-a-half-day journey took two nights and three days. The ocean on the equatorial belt is relatively calm, and most of the time I lay with my feet above my head on a pile of mats with my ear to the back of a mother nursing her newborn baby. I survived stubbornly on a cup of water, three biscuits, and a mandarin orange a day. Finally, the rock of Banaba appeared on the horizon. It looked like the gentle hump of a great turtle floating on the ocean, and I was indescribably thankful to see it. Most important, from a distance it appeared green and not like the lunarscape that I’d imagined.

The two main political factions—Banaban caretaker families from Rabi on one side, and Gilbertese government workers on the other—were not speaking to each other. There were effectively two kinds of authority dividing the three hundred or so residents, so we had an official welcome from each one. Each expressed bitter sentiments rooted in the political clashes between Banabans and Gilbertese on the island that had turned violent decades earlier when the BPC was still working the mines. One meeting was conducted in the main mwaneaba near the Homebay Harbor and the other at the Catholic mwaneaba in Fatima. Teaiwa, the newly elected Banaban Council chairman, was there to help negotiate the conflict, and he did seem to make some progress over the numerous bowls of Rabi kava consumed every night. I kept to myself most of the time and enjoyed meeting my uncle and his wife and children. I noted in amusement that the nightly ritual consisted of the viewing of Fiji One television programs on VHS cassettes. Back in Suva, the West was streamed into our living rooms via the local pirated-video industry of Australian and New Zealand television shows, and here was Banaba 1,600 miles away, feeding its imagination on Fijian TV programs, replete with advertisements for goods that no one could buy.

 

7 E Kawa Te Aba: The Trials of the Ocean Islanders

ePub

When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.

—Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

The motto of the Banaban Council of Leaders is Atuara Buokira, or Our God Help Us. In this chapter I explore the historical context in which the motto of a community of five thousand or so Banabans became not Nano Matoa (Stand Strong), or some such inspiring phrase, but rather a plea for God’s help. I discuss the broader conditions under which the Banabans’ attempt to maintain a sense of independence and efficacy was systematically eroded by the agendas and interests of far more powerful actors and decision makers in the British Empire.

During fieldwork I heard two expressions repeated regularly throughout the course of a typical day on Rabi Island. If a child tripped and fell, someone would say “e kawa te aba.” If we were discussing the dramas of a family that had just lost a beloved member, someone would say “e kawa ke?” And if we were discussing any aspect of Banaban history, throughout the conversation people would repeat “e kawa te aba, kawa te aba” (the land and people are to be pitied). Elfriede Hermann, in her exploration of the role of Banaban emotions in the context of displacement from Ocean Island and self-placement on Rabi, describes the predominant theme of pity as a process of “eliciting pity for oneself as part of Banaba (or as a member of the Banaban community) and thus for one’s collective self . . . divested of the fixation on individuality as conceived in western cultures.”1

 

8 Remix: Our Sea of Phosphate

ePub

There may be no “there” there but there is a “there” here and plenty of “here” there.

—Gertrude Stein, quoted in Thoughts on Screen by Dave Sag

SOMETIME IN THE mid-1880s, on a typically overcast day in the Taotaoroa Hills between Cambridge and Matamata, a pair of brothers mounted their horses and went exploring the New Zealand hill country. They followed a track through the ti tree and fern scrub and discovered a deserted homestead some distance from the road. Farther down the path they came upon a rough signpost on which was scrawled “The road to ruin.”

The younger brother later lamented that a promising farm was now a scene of desolation and that the owner had given up the obvious struggle. Recalling their father’s recent success in applying fertilizer from Sydney Island to their own farm, the brothers Ellis were inspired to devote their lives to prospecting for phosphate.1

Those Ocean Islanders are hard cases. You take your rifle and revolver with you, and as soon as you get on the beach show the natives you can use them.2

 

9 Interlude: Coming Home to Fiji?

ePub

We have been dancing

Yes, our anklets and

Amulets now are

Yes, grinding into our skin

No longer are they a décor

Yes, they are our chains

We have been dancing

Yes, but the euphoria has died

It is now the dull drumming

Yes, of the flat drums

Thud dada thud da thud dada thud

Yes, it is signaling, not the bliss

But the impending crisis.

—Vincent Warakai, “Dancing Yet to the Dim Dim’s Beat”

ONE OF THE clearest memories I have after returning to Suva, Fiji, from research on Tabiteuea, Tarawa, and Banaba in Kiribati is of people sitting in a bus waiting for the traffic lights to turn green at the junction of Princes Road, Waimanu Road, Ratu Mara Road, and Edinburgh Drive. I was looking up from the window of our Toyota station wagon to the large Tacirua Transport bus stopped just next to the car. The family of a dear childhood friend, now resident in Sydney, owns this company and it has long been a regular pink and yellow feature on the landscape I call “home.” That day, all the passengers were sitting stiffly in a row, facing forward in total silence. It suddenly struck me that I’d never seen such a quiet bus in the streets of Suva in all my life. Usually people would chat away, laugh, look outside, look at each other, or look down and giggle at the cars next to them. Usually the radio was blasting the eclectic and sometimes annoying sounds of FM 96, and people were nodding or tapping the window frames to the music. On this day there was something both steely and fearful about the passengers on the bus.

 

10 Between Rabi and Banaba

ePub

Between our islands the sea lurks like a monstrous storm wrapped in mystery.

On it we conquered mountains and dared valleys in our puny wooden boats. Just visiting relatives.

—Ruperake Petaia, Patches of the Rainbow

The inhabitants of Rabi Island today speak of those places on the island where the Banaban spirits live, and those where the Fijian ones might get you. Banabans, who are now also known as “Rabi Islanders,” became Fiji citizens when the country gained independence from Britain in 1970. Their rights were enshrined in the Banaban Settlement Act and the Banaban Lands Act.1 Governance and law in Fiji have always been heavily racialized; politics and voting, for example, for decades were organized by both race and geography. Before Fiji’s first coup in 1987, the Banabans had legal rights of the same order as other legally defined natives of Fiji, including the indigenous Fijians, who are now called I-Taukei, and the Rotumans.2 This allowed them access to affirmative action and other programs designed for those deemed native to Fiji. After the establishment of the new Fiji Constitution in 1990, Banabans’ status was changed and they were classed as general citizens, or “others,” along with groups such as Chinese and Europeans.3

 

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