I’m sure you can’t wait to find out why nearly 90 per cent of Nauru’s population is overweight. But before I treat you to the answer to this essential question in global politics you probably want to indulge in a few facts about Nauru.
Nauru is a tiny coral island halfway between Bali and Hawaii, and it’s the world’s third-smallest country both by population and area: its 11.000 inhabitants live on a territory a third the size of Manhattan. The British came across the island in 1798 but it wasn’t until the 1830s that the Nauruans first met Europeans. Very few wanted to settle, the majority only needed food which the islanders happily traded for booze and firearms – both of which created lots of problems for the previously peaceful 12 original tribes. From the late 19th century till the First World War, Germany ruled the island and started exploiting the massive phosphate deposit found around 1900. Afterwards, Britain, New Zealand and principally Australia took control, except for the Japanese occupying the island from 1942 to 1945.
The Nauruans gained their independence in 1968 and more or less instantly made lots of money by exploiting their phosphate. By 1975, they had the second-highest income per capita in the world but, instead of saving or investing the mining revenues, splurged on things such as free water, electricity, and even cleaning ladies, and a West End musical about Leonardo da Vinci.1 Of course, everybody knew that the phosphate wouldn’t last forever, so the country took precautions: in the 1990s, it became a money-laundering haven and made it legal to establish a bank without being physically present and to buy a passport. Al-Qaeda and the Russian mafia loved these policies but the US imposed Iraq-like sanctions on the island, so that Nauru abandoned its short stint in money laundering and instead started making money by detaining and processing refugees for Australia. This business has two major downsides: human rights violations and it will come to an end soon. In short, the country is on the brink of sovereign default since it ran out of phosphate around 2000.
But why are 88 per cent of the island’s adults and 65 per cent of its minors overweight?2
On the one hand, Nauru’s original population arrived by boat from somewhere in the Pacific and only people with a thrifty metabolism would survive the trip and the associated food shortage, so that Nauruans have “thrifty genes” and put on weight easily.
On the other hand, they eat way too much junk food. The island’s traditional food consists of fish, root vegetables, fruits and coconuts. Nauruans gardened and fished, and were not fat. However, once the phosphate had made them rich, people adopted more Western eating habits and agriculture ceased in the 1970s. Of course, mining had reduced arable land, but more importantly, imported food could not only be afforded but also enjoyed a better reputation as its consumption was a sign of wealth. Sadly, the island is in the middle of nowhere and most imports are canned and processed. Besides, food producers dump their surplus and sub-standard food on poor countries. For example, New Zealand and Australia sell mutton flaps – the low-quality and high-fat end of a sheep’s rib – to countries such as China, Mexico or Nauru because they can’t market it at home. In addition to their questionable diet, most Nauruans lead a sedentary lifestyle and 42 per cent suffer from insufficient physical activity, which means they engage in less than 75 minutes of sports a week.3 Being big is traditionally associated with wealth and higher social status and the physical work connected to mining had been done by immigrants.
30 per cent of Nauruans suffer from diabetes because of these unhealthy habits.4 Nowadays, the country’s GDP per capita is similar to India and Namibia, and even if its inhabitants would be educated about nutrition and exercise, they still wouldn’t be able to afford a balanced diet.