Phosphate Mining in the Pacific

The price of guano

Many decades before the awareness of global warming and the prospect of rising sea levels became concerns for Pacific nations, phosphate mining wrecked havoc on numerous communities. While the use of phosphorus is not directly responsible for global warming, it is strategically important in food production and, like petroleum, is a resource of fierce international competition. Some predictions indicate that, with the current rate of consumption, the known global reserves of phosphate may be used up by the year 2060.

The word ‘phosphate’ was often used as synonymous with guano, meaning birds’ droppings. The term was derived from the Quechua language of the indigenous people of the Andes in South America. Although guano occurs also in caves as a result of accumulation of bats’ excrements, the guano associated with marine birds in tropical regions of the world is better known and exploited on a larger scale. Isolated tropical islands in the Pacific, as well as the rocky shores of Peru and Chile, were visited for millennia by sea birds of which Guanay Cormorant and Peruvian Pelican produce excrement loaded with nitrogen.

Rich in phosphorus and nitrogen, guano was a valuable fertiliser, usually dispersed directly onto fields. Until World War I it was also a primary raw material for gunpowder and explosives. Some historical examples illustrate its importance. In 1857 the USA enacted the Guano Island Act, which paved the way for the annexation of ten Pacific islands in the latter part of the 19th century. In the Pacific War (1879-83) Peru, Bolivia and Chile fought each other, predominantly over the large guano deposits in the Atacama Desert of South America. In 1942 the Japanese occupied Christmas Island, eager to obtain its plentiful deposits of guano.

Since the early 20th century Australia has sought supplies of phosphate in the Pacific islands, conducting extensive mining on Banaba, Nauru and Christmas Island under the administration of the British Phosphate Commission. These islands have suffered environmental devastation and their indigenous people have experienced grave cultural and social dislocation.

Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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