What is the Future for Our Oceans?
Is Kanton Island the new jewel in a tarnished crown?
The President of the Pacific nation of Kiribati has stated that his country, with a population of 119,446 (2020), needs to sell off the fishing rights for their World Heritage Marine Park, known as Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA) (1), for US145 million to the Chinese government.
But what does this mean for the future of our oceans?
Recent quotes from the Kiribati government include:
“It is clear enough that the original development policy logic, even if it is innovative and intentional, is not sufficient to meet the current needs of the Kiribati people.” (News article: Sell off Phoenix Marine Park)
"The government also said it rejected assumptions that its decision to open the marine reserve was being influenced by external parties, saying that was inaccurate and hypocritical, driven by what it called 'neo-colonial precepts." (News article: Kiribati Open Marine Park to Commercial Fishing)
It is hard not to be cynical with Kiribati accepting an offer from China to upgrade a strategically located, disused World War Two airstrip and build major seaport facilities on Kanton Island, (2) in the Phoenix Group, as part of their 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, MSR (3) expansion across the Pacific. So the use of terminology such as "neo-colonial precepts: the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence other countries, especially former dependencies," seems at odds with the government's hope to justify the "sell-out" of their World Heritage marine park.
Is Kanton Island the new jewel in a tarnished crown?
The Kiribati government stated that it had "opened" its UNESCO World Heritage marine park to commercial fishing in order to bolster revenue.
"Since 2015, there has been a revenue loss from fishing licences of almost $US150 million."
It said this loss went against the development needs of the country. Yet In August 2018, Dr Toatu, Kiribati Finance Minister, reported that the Kiribati Reserve Equalization Reserve Fund (RERF) (4) was on target to reach one billion Australian dollars by 2020. The RERF fund was established in 1956 from the phosphate royalties taken from Banaba, known during the mining era as Ocean Island (5). (Article: RERF Worth a Billon Dollars)
Banaba Island’s destruction under Colonial rule
Ocean Island (Banaba) is just 6 sq km (2.34 square miles) and located in the Pacific, 83 km (52 miles) south of the Equator. In 1900, Britain quickly annexed the island into the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony after discovering it held one of the richest phosphate deposits. The British government would eventually tax the Banabans over 84% to fund the running of the Colony.
After the discovery, the indigenous inhabitants - the Banabans began a struggle to save their homeland. Over the next 80 years, over 23 million tons of their island’s soil containing the crushed bones of their ancestors was removed, scattered mainly over Australian and New Zealand farmlands. After the Japanese forcibly removed the Banabans from their island, the British relocated them over 2,000 km (1,242 miles) away to Rabi, Fiji, at the end of the war.
Kiribati relying on International Aid
Kiribati independence (6) coincided with the cessation of Banaba’s phosphate mining. As a result, exports fell by 80%, and the government’s revenue and real GDP declined by about one half. However, in anticipation of the depletion of the phosphate resources, the Government began in 1956 to accumulate a reserve fund with 550,000 Australian dollars from Banaba's phosphate royalties.
In November 2020, the fund ranked number 71 among the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, with assets totalling $608.52 million US dollars. (Investopedia 2020).
Yet, since independence, Kiribati has relied heavily on international aid.
During the planning for Kiribati independence, the Banabans mounted one of the most protracted civil cases in the UK High Court. They also went to the United Nations to seek the return of sovereignty over their island. All to no avail.
The Banabans, and their homeland, once considered the "prized jewel in the crown", was left devastated. With pressure mounting during the court case, the government-owned consortium called the BPC, comprising the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, ceased mining in November 1979. No land recovery or rehabilitation was carried out, and the island has been left covered in crumbling asbestos ridden buildings.
Banaba, now entrenched under Kiribati control, has seen little development and still is suffering from continuing water issues. There has been no land reformation, no rebuilding, only talk of re-mining or allowing China to take over most of the island for an international airport (not an airstrip that is usual on small Pacific atolls) and a major shipping port.
The question all Banabans asked when Kiribati government plans were leaked was, "WHY"?
We all know that the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand need to fix the devastating destruction they left behind when mining ceased on Banaba, yet the "call for action" can only come via Kiribati diplomatic channels. Another sad legacy bestowed upon the Banabans by the UK government at the time of Kiribati independence.
Yet, the silence from the Kiribati government to represent its people - is deafening!
Now the focus has shifted to Kanton, and the Phoenix group one has to ask, "What happened Kiribati? Why is your country now so desperate for money?"
With so much rhetoric from the Kiribati government to "act in the best interests of its people", surely a good start would be to lobby and direct foreign aid, especially from the governments involved, in addressing the rehabilitation of the Banaban homeland.
Just as Australian and New Zealand governments recently stepped up to assist Kiribati to address the WATER CRISIS on Banaba, there needs to be long term solutions for the island. More infrastructure to fix the continuing water issues, the removal of mining waste, asbestos, providing suitable housing for the island community, regular shipping and restoring the soil to the mined-out fields.
As noble Banaban Elders have often stated,
"Money comes, and money goes, but our homeland will remain in our hearts forever."
Let’s hope that Kanton in the Phoneix Group is just not another new jewel in an already tarnished crown.
Get the Book!
Read more about the epic history of Banaba (Ocean Island) and the Banaban people (The Forgotten People of the Pacific) as they try and seek justice to save their island, their culture, their future, "Te Rii ni Banaba- backbone of Banaba" by Raobeia Ken Sigrah and Stacey M King, available on Amazon here.
1. Phoenix Islands Protected Area is a 408,250 sq km expanse of marine and terrestrial habitats comprising the Phoenix Island Group, one of three island groups in Kiribati Phoenix Islands Protected Area Marine Park (PIPA). It is the largest designated Marine Protected Area in the world.
2. Canton Island (also known as Kanton or Abariringa), previously known as 'Mary Island', 'Mary Balcout's Island' or 'Swallow Island', is the largest, northernmost, and as of 2020, the sole inhabited Phoenix Islands, in the Republic of Kiribati.
3. Maritime Silk Road (MSR), is the sea route part of China's "Belt and Road Initiative."
4. The Revenue Equalization Reserve Fund (RERF) is the sovereign wealth fund of the Pacific island republic of Kiribati. The RERF was created in 1956 to act as a store of wealth for the country's earnings from phosphate mining, which at one time accounted for 50% of government revenue.
5. Albert Ellis discovered one of the richest deposits of phosphatic rock on Ocean Island, now known as Banaba, in 1900.
6. Kiribati gained Independence in July 1979 and was previously known as the Gilbert Island under the British Colony of the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Group (GEIC).
About the author
Stacey King, a published Australian author and historian. Her writing focuses on her mission to build global awareness of the plight of the indigenous Banaban people and her achievements as a businesswoman, entrepreneur and philanthropist.