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Friday, April 30, 1999 Published at 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Big tasks for a small island

The central Pacific island of Nauru lies just south of the equator

The newly-elected president of the tiny central Pacific island republic of Nauru, Rene Harris, has a busy time ahead.

He took the helm just two days before his country was due to become the 53rd fully-fledged member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

And the island nation is expecting a decision soon on its application for full membership of the United Nations.

On top of that, Mr Harris also inherits the daunting task of managing the island as its only exportable resource nears exhaustion. The phosphates that have been mined on the island from before its independence in 1968 are forecast to run out by 2003.

[ image: Mining of fossilized bird droppings has created a barren landscape]
Mining of fossilized bird droppings has created a barren landscape
Nauru's revenue is based solely on phosphate exports - and mining of the island's 1000 years' worth of fossilized bird droppings has been fairly lucrative.

The oval-shaped island's 9,300 inhabitants, until recently, enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

But a series of bad investments by the government, compounded with the almost spent phosphate reserves, left the islanders facing an uncertain future.

According to public affairs consultant for the Republic of Nauru, Helen Bogdan, islanders lost confidence with the previous administration as their fortunes dwindled.

Former President Bernard Dowiyogo lost a vote of confidence on 27 April after 10 years in power.

Smallest Commonwealth country

But joining the Commonwealth will not be affected by recent political events.

Nauru will be the smallest member country. At eight miles square - just one third the size of Guernsey - Nauru relies on imports for almost everything, from food and water to fuel.

Indeed, it is so small that in 1968, the Commonwealth created a "special member" category for it.

Honorary Consul Mr Martin Weston said the key difference for Nauru in being a full member would be that Mr Harris will now be able to attend the bi-annual Heads of State meeting, which is due to take place this year in South Africa.

"There's no way that a change of president will undermine Nauru joining the Commonwealth on 1 May, of which it is already a special member," said Ms Bogdan on Friday.

[ image: Inhabitants have seen the island's fortunes dwindle]
Inhabitants have seen the island's fortunes dwindle
The mood on the island, says Ms Bogdan, is one of cautious optimism - and she says there is no suggestion that this week's political events will derail the process of joining the Commonwealth.

"It's also very likely that Nauru will be accepted into the UN in the next 24 hours. It will mean that they will be able to act more closely with the Alliance of Island States, and have a louder voice on the world stage.

"There's a real risk for places like Nauru of being overrun by the global economy if they do not have that voice."

Pleasant Island

The island was first inhabited by Polynesian and Melanesian explorers. Its first contact with Europeans was with whalers in the late 1700s, who named it Pleasant Island.

It was a German colony until after WWI, when it was jointly administered by Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain under a trusteeship.

During WWII the island was occupied by the Japanese, which was a "very sad" time, according to Ms Bogdan. 1,200 Nauruans were deported to work as labourers in the Caroline Islands, where a third of them died.

[ image: The Nauruan flag]
The Nauruan flag
Nauru has no political parties. The president is the head of state as well as the head of parliament, and is elected by its 18 members every three years. The 18 members of parliament are elected by Nauruan citizens over the age of 20.

Although it lies off the beaten tourist track, Air Nauru shuttles visitors to the islands from Australia. The currency is Australian dollars.

Nauruans are mostly Christians, the majority belonging to either the Nauru Congregational Church or the Roman Catholic Church, although a Protestant church has also been established.

Against all the odds

The people, who live around the coast, have a hard task ahead of them. Against all the odds, they have to rehabilitate the centre of the island from the ecologically devastating effect of mining.

Native species have to be reintroduced to many areas of the island.

Birdlife has disappeared as swathes of forest - including the tomano tree, the nesting place of the almost extinct noddy bird - have been destroyed. The national symbol of Nauru, the frigate bird, is also dwindling in number.

And they need to make their voice heard amongst the giant nations to secure their economical future.

"It is a busy time," said Ms Bogdan, "But there is a resolution and determination to secure a world voice - and to rehabilitate the island. There is a well-founded belief that it can be done."

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