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Mining once made this Pacific island unliveable, now residents fear its return

For some Banabans who trace their family, their history, and their home to the tiny Pacific island, the prospect of phosphate mining being restarted is the re-opening of a wound never healed, “a betrayal”.

“We don’t want mining there,” Toanuea Taratai, chairman of Tabwewa village, told the Guardian this week. “Even though we might be far away, our heart and soul is in Banaba.”

In the 20th century, the tiny island – barely six sq km – was rapaciously mined for phosphate, to feed the world’s burgeoning fertiliser industry, bringing massive profits to the Pacific Phosphate Company, jointly controlled by the British, Australian, and New Zealand governments.

By the second half of the century, so much of the island had been mined, and fresh water stores left so precarious, that it was judged to be unliveable and the vast majority of Banabans were relocated to the island of Rabi, in Fiji, to restart their lives there.

Now, an Australian company believes that mining the island’s remaining deposits could represent the best chance the island has of being restored from the ravages of last century.

An announcement to the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) from Australian miner Centrex on 16 August that it had signed an agreement to “explore the feasibility of mining” sent Banabans – both on the island and living in Fiji’s Rabi – scrambling for information, arguing they had not been consulted, and fearing a further degradation of their home island.

A subsequent commitment, after outcry, to put exploration “on hold” was hailed by some Banabans as a win for islanders’ rights, but by others as an insufficient protection.

“The agreement is still there, we want it torn up,” Taratai said. “That’s our land … and we have to protect it.”

Because some Banabans fear, too, a history repeating.

Exiled from their home

Banaba, part of the archipelago nation of Kiribati, was one of a number of Pacific islands heavily mined for its phosphate for decades over the 20th century.

While some 80% of Banaba has been rendered uninhabitable by strip-mining, some people did return after mining ceased in 1979. About 300 people currently live on the island.

Today, the majority of Banabans live on Rabi, but for many, Banaba is still home: the four settlements on Rabi – Uma, Tabiang, Tabwewa and Buakonikai – replicate the names of the four main villages of the original island.

Despite their exile, Banabans on Rabi retain indigenous and ancestral connections to their home island, as well a measure of legal control, through the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders. But the council, established to administer Banaba, was dissolved by Fiji’s military junta a decade ago: promises to re-establish it have not been fulfilled.

Without the council, significant power over the island is vested in one person, the Rabi administrator, currently Iakoba Jacob Karutake, who signed an exploration agreement with Centrex. The Guardian has sought an interview with the administrator.

Centrex’s statement to the ASX said the company had signed “a binding agreement with the Rabi Council of Leaders to explore the feasibility of mining the remnant phosphate rock on … Banaba”.

Centrex’s managing director, Robert Mencel, said the potential return of mining on Banaba, “ironically, provides a much-needed catalyst for its potential rehabilitation and this is why the Rabi Council of Leaders has agreed to Centrex’s proposal.

“Irresponsible mining practices did occur in the past, but we intend to apply a contemporary modern approach and high standard of mining and rehabilitation on the island.”

The statement said Centrex aimed to show “significant remnant phosphate remains on Banaba that can be economically mined … and at the same time, potentially fund the rehabilitation of the island.”

map of Banaba

Centrex’s initial proposal included “satellite remote sensing” of Banaba to determine areas of high phosphate concentrations, followed by an aerial survey of the island, and – if results were promising – exploratory drilling to prepare a feasibility study. A decision on mining’s practicability would take 18 months.

But the announcement was met with opprobrium from many Banabans – on the island and off – who said they had not been consulted and opposed any return of miners to the island.

Responding in a post online, Rabi administrator Karutake said on 23 August there was “no truth” that the restarting of phosphate mining had been approved for Banaba. He said an “exploration exercise” had been initiated to determine the remaining phosphates on Banaba.

“Exploration exercise is different from mining.”

Karutake said if Centrex’s exploration found secondary mining was viable on Banaba, “then we will get back to the landowners for their information and approval”.

“Secondary mining of phosphates on Banaba cannot be undertaken without the landowners’ approval. That is a requirement.”

But after continued opposition from Banabans who alleged his consultation was limited to a handful of islanders, while disregarding the wishes of the majority of Banabans, Karutake said the exploration proposal would be delayed for further community consultation.

“In light of the views given by our people opposing the above proposed exploration, and considering the need to unite our people together, please be informed that I will put this proposal on hold,” he posted online a day later.

He told Banabans: “Your views and voices are important to me and I will respect them.”

Centrex too, told the ASX, while it had not been formally notified of any delay to the proposed exploration, it was “happy to follow the direction of the Rabi Council of Leaders, including any future request for additional time to consult”.

Mining plans stoke ‘chaos’

Katerina Teaiwa, professor of Pacific studies at the Australian National University and a Banaba descendant, said the announcement of mining exploration caused a “mini-explosion” in the Banaban community.

“It has caused chaos. This idea of mining again, some people think it sounds exciting, often people who have more land than others; while others are incredibly stressed and traumatised over the idea, it is triggering to them. And there are some people on the fence, they don’t know.”

Teaiwa said many Banabans felt blindsided by the announcement, and retain a sense of lingering injustice that the rehabilitation of their island promised by the 20th century miners never happened.

“What is at stake here is the island. If you think about the current climate crisis, it’s hard to come up with an evidence-based position to re-mine that island, on any basis other than a short-term economic gain.”

She said there’s a sense that restoring Banaba “needs to be the priority” and countries responsible for mining the island in the past have an obligation to do so.

For some Banabans, the pause announced on exploration is insufficient, they want the agreement and any plans for mining abandoned.

A group of eight elders has travelled to Suva, seeking a meeting with the Fijian prime minister to urge the agreement be annulled. They argue it was never a legitimate expression of the wishes of the Banaban people.

“The Banaban people don’t want mining to restart, don’t want exploration. This is a betrayal,” Taratai said.

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