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Mining, land restoration and sustainable development in isolated islands: An industrial ecology perspective on extractive transitions on Nauru


In this empirically grounded perspective, we explore how, if managed correctly, mining might go beyond a straight conversion of finite natural capital to financial resources. We suggest a process where mineral extraction could act as a catalyst for more diversified growth and even serve as a basis to restore forms of ‘natural capital’ it had previously diminished. The case in point—small in scale but significant in consequence—is the particularly challenging instance of the small-island state of Nauru, which has a very negative history of socio-ecological impacts of phosphate mining. Yet, the degraded landscape requires capital investment which could be reaped from restoration of the land using revenues generated from exporting the waste rock pinnacles as branded household counter-tops and pavement stone products with an “island provenance premium”. Furthermore, we use an industrial ecology method to show that Nauru’s secondary phosphate can be shown to be less environmentally impactful than comparable phosphate from other sources. This has potential for further “green branding” of the Island’s products. We contend that implementing such a restoration approach that harnesses the remaining mineral capital with care has the potential, to diversify the island’s economy from one dependent on extractive industries and donors to agroforestry, fishing and tourism. A holistic approach is offered that considers prudent use of Nauru’s remaining mineral resources towards an agenda of ecological restoration and economic diversification that will allow the island to prosper after the phosphates it has traditionally relied upon are depleted.

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Fig. 1

Source Pinterest; Source Wiki Commons

Fig. 2

Source Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

Fig. 3

Source Thaman and Hassall (1998)

Fig. 4

Source Thaman and Hassall (1998)


  1. 1.

    Along with other geologically similar islands formed from coral atolls like Banaba and Makatea.

  2. 2.

    An excellent digital image of the island, showing environmental damage, is available at

  3. 3.

    In fact, Nauru imports almost all its commodities at considerable expense. For example, being dependent on generators for electricity, petroleum made up a startling 36% of imports in 2015 at a cost of US$26.1 million. This is in addition to almost a million dollars’ worth of water and food (OEC 2017).

  4. 4.

    The numbers for phosphate production and quantities for waste by-products (pinnacle rock, crushed rock, reject phosphate, topsoil and compost) given in the results section below are taken from measured and projected figures provided to the authors by the Nauru Rehabilitation Corporation, which is responsible for mining of phosphate on the island.

  5. 5.

    US$400 is assumed in the TMP/TMR scenarios.

  6. 6.

    A mark-up of up to 30% has been suggested in a study by the University of Bonn (2015).

  7. 7.

    Note that topsoil and compost are not factored into the pricing scenarios, as these are valuable commodities for rehabilitation and not exported.

  8. 8.

    The latter of these new techniques might be particularly appealing given the history of fish husbandry on the island.

  9. 9.

    Also see for an interview with the project manager.

  10. 10.

  11. 11. and Graves (2016).


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We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Pavetta Foundation in Brisbane, Australia, for support for this research, which also produced a much longer working paper on this subject. Special thanks to the Nauru government who gave permission for the primary researcher to travel to the country and conduct interviews. Logistical support and access for interviews were also provided by Ronphos, particularly Jim Gearing, Andrew Pitcher and Chelser Buraman. Several researchers and practitioners graciously shared their research insights with us particularly, Peter Crowley, W. Jackson Davis, David Hassall, Vinci Clodumar and Roland Rajah. Australian High Commission Staff past and present were also immensely helpful including Beris Gwynn, Dan Heldon and John Donnelly.

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Correspondence to Martin J. Clifford.

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Clifford, M.J., Ali, S.H. & Matsubae, K. Mining, land restoration and sustainable development in isolated islands: An industrial ecology perspective on extractive transitions on Nauru. Ambio 48, 397–408 (2019).

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  • Industrial ecology
  • Mining
  • Nauru
  • Phosphates
  • Rehabilitation
  • Sustainable development