Meet the Banabans. Forgotten People of the Pacific.

by Carolyn Sotka

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Two of Banaba’s elders. Photo from Janice Cantieri.

The island nation of Kiribati has been the poster child for proactively addressing the reality of global sea level rise. The country has taken climate change by the horns and implemented a series remediation efforts to extend life and infrastructure in the islands, but also look ahead to a likely need to relocate it citizens.

But the residents of one Kiribati’s islands have already been forced to relocate, over seventy years ago. After annexation by the British in 1900, along with the other 33 islands that today make up Kiribati, Banaba Island (aka ‘Ocean Island’) was quickly ‘purchased’ by the British Phosphate Commission and mining leases contracts were set up for the next 999 years. Phosphate is used for fertilizer and industrial chemicals. Banaba, after absorbing eons of phosphate-rich seabird poo, was well-endowed.

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Banaba, before and after phosphate mining. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand.

During World War II, Japanese forces occupied the island and forcibly moved the Banaban community to internment camps. After WWII, the Banabans thought they would be able to return to their ancestral homeland, but were stopped from doing so – believed by many – so that the British Phosphate Commission could have exclusive access to the island’s resources.

In a new National Geographic blogpost, Fulbright scholar Janice Cantieri shares the story of the “forgotten people of the Pacific” and their experiences with war, internment, colonization, forced displacement due to occupancy of their island and the global demand for phosphate.

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Map of Banaba and the Kiribati Islands. Image from Jane Resture.

Today, Banaba has been stripped of its phosphate resources – and sixty feet of elevation – but it remains the highest elevation in Kiribati. This might allow for relocation at some point in the future, if the Kingdom can succeed in once again securing the island as Kiribatian property.

To learn more about the Banaban people, visit their official Web site here.

Follow Cantieri’s continued story in the National Geographic blog that shares recent work by Fulbright Scholars. -CS

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