Consuming Ocean Island: A Tale of Love and Phosphate

Phosphorous is in, or impacts, almost everything.

Highly reactive and glowing slightly when coming into contact with oxygen, the element is in your bones, your muscles, and in the food you eat. A phosphate compound is used as a leavener in baked goods, another is used in toothpaste, and phosphoric acid is found some dentistry solutions and in soda.

Phosphates are also found in a number of industrial fertilizers used to grow crops.

It is a resource that is highly valued and which has been extensively mined, perhaps nowhere as devastatingly as on the Pacific island of Banaba.

The history and legacy of that mining is the focus of the book, Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba.

Written by Framing Fellow Katerina Teaiwa and published by Indiana University Press, the book is a mix of the academic and the personal, of the ethnographic and historical, and of the global and the local.

Scholar Kirin Narayan has called Consuming Ocean Island an ‘ethnographic and analytic tour-de-force’ while Publisher’s Weekly said the book lays ‘bare the consequences of reaping such a natural bounty at the expense of others.’ (You can watch a trailer for the book here.)

Teaiwa spoke with Framing the Global’s Rosemary Pennington about the 15 years of work that went into the publication.

Rosemary Pennington: This book is a story of Banaba framed by phosphate. Why trace phosphate?

Katerina Teaiwa: I have two paternal ancestral islands — Banaba and Tabiteuea, both in Kiribati in the central Pacific. This is about Banaba where phosphate mining completely changed the course of history for our family and the Banaban people.

I had heard stories about it growing up, but until I explored the mining company records in the National Archives of Australia, I didn’t realize just how critical the phosphate compound was and the important nature of its role in agricultural production, global food and ecological cycles. The newspapers and company officials said this mining was ‘for the good of humankind’ so I wanted to know why.

RP: You take a number of different tactics to explore the legacy of phosphate on Ocean Island and on Banabans. How did you decide on this approach and what were some of the challenges you faced?

KT: Most of the Banaban scholarly works (and there aren’t that many), or popular and travel writing about the island, focused on the social, economic, political or cultural dimensions of mining. The land itself, the mined landscape, served more as a backdrop rather than the foreground for history and analysis.

I am a very visual and kinesthetic person with a background in dance and the arts so when I went through the literature and archives I ‘read’ them like an artist, and like a Pacific Islander, and I saw and noted things that many previous scholars had not.

Rather than weaving what I found into a master narrative that condensed information into an authoritative format typical of history or anthropology, I decided to let various strands remain intact and to let the various threads be visible as aspects of the Banaban past in their own right. These included photographs, films, newspaper articles, letters, memoirs, poetry, the voices of laborers and island residents, and so forth.

For me this is a more grounded, embodied, materially focused and empathetic approach. I am not interested so much in theorizing, though I believe how you frame an object of study is critical, but you must not let the frame completely determine what you see. So I would regularly step outside of any anthropological or historical frameworks and try to read phosphate histories as a dancer, or a visual artist, or just as a Banaban woman exploring her own history.

RP: The global and the local are in tension throughout your book — from the earliest days of phosphate mining on the island to the more modern concerns of Banabans living in Fiji. How did you navigate these different scales of inquiry as you conducted your research and then wrote the book?

KT: They’re in tension but I hope in ‘productive’ tension. For me these scales are co-present, they just are, they exist simultaneously with real consequences for the individual and the collective. When I came across chemical formulas for transforming phosphate rock into super phosphate fertilizer the multi-scalar became real far beyond ‘global’ and ‘local.’ We’re talking molecular and global and everything in between.

Once you contemplate the nature of land at the molecular level and then combine that with geological time, the time it takes to actually grow an island, you are working with a completely different sense of temporality — phenomenologically, everything’s changed. For me this is clarity so now it’s a matter of selecting which events, peoples and stories to put together, and to tell stories in ways that highlight that sense of complexity and multi-scalarity. That took time. There were many drafts and entire chapters thrown out of the book. There is a whole bunch of visual material that cannot be seen in the book form.

The whole process of getting this into book format from the start of research, fieldwork (which I called ‘homework’), filming, film editing, writing, consulting with family, other scholars, IUP editors, communities, editing, re-writing, re-editing, to production…was 15 years.

RP: You write early on that ‘consumption is not just a central them of this book but an emotional ethos and motif in this work.’ Could you explain what you mean here?

KT: I was and still am consumed by Banaban history, by Ocean Island stories and images and material fragments. We all ‘ate’ Ocean Island and scholars, communities, companies, governments, travel writers, legal experts, colonial officials, mining workers, families, myself as a researcher, have mined and re-mined the island reshaping its past, present and future in the process.

Banaba represents the ultimate form of consumption in that it is born from a chemical reaction involving the products of aviary consumption and defecation (guano or bird poo) and that of minerals built up by millions of years of deposits of marine creatures against a calcium carbonate base. Mining then eats away at the results of this reaction — the phosphate rock — leaving behind a skeletal structure in the form of limestone pinnacles.

The flesh of the island removed by hands and machines. The remaining environment is bony and withered, malnourished looking, as if consumed by disease and in places, death. But life goes on, the rain comes, and things grow again, even on this altered landscape…

RP: Something I was thinking about as I was reading this book was this issue of peak phosphate you raise. How are Banabans coping with the idea that Ocean Island has been stripped by phosphate miners only for the world to be reaching peak phosphate?

KT: I don’t think most Banabans know about or particularly care about peak phosphorus. I do only because I have access to the agricultural literature and work in an academic context.

Banabans are trying to carve out lives for themselves on Rabi, across Fiji, Kiribati and some in Australia and New Zealand. They have plans, hopes and dreams for growing and taking care of families like the rest of the Pacific. They struggle with nutrition and don’t always have the best information on appropriate food as historically their relatively healthy, Banaba based diets were replaced by canned, mining company supplied products. Many Banabans still believe tinned meat or tinned fish is more prestigious than fresh fish and that Coke or Sprite is better than water.


Abandoned Ewing Phosphate Company building in New Zealand. (Photo by Rasta Taxi. Flickr Creative Commons.)

However, peak phosphorus should be a global concern because it has the potential to halt a whole range of critical ecological systems — nitrogen and phosphorus constitute an entire planetary boundary or threshold for life, so increasing awareness should stimulate the search for sustainable, and hopefully equitable, approaches to food production and food security.

At the moment not enough communities, scientists, farmers, producers and policy makers are paying attention to the likelihood of peak phosphorus.

RP: This is an, at times, intensely personal book. You and your family appear throughout. What was it like to conduct research and then write in this way?

KT: If I was doing research on people and places that were not connected to my own histories and identities I think it would have taken less than half the time to get a book out. I think an objective, impersonal approach might have been easier and certainly would have been more acceptable academically, especially in Australia where I’m based.

People get uncomfortable with the personal being political or the academic being personal and all that. But I didn’t do a PhD to become a professor and carve out an academic career based on impersonal studies of others. I only kept going with my studies so I could learn more about Banaba. That drove my PhD.

The study of Banaba is what kept me going in academia. Any other research I do is also personal, on things I care a lot about, not things I find interesting in an objective and distanced way. I remain in academia because you can help change and improve knowledge of the world here. If academia stopped being that kind of place I would have to do something else.

RP: ‘We are in history, history is in us’ seems to be a theme throughout the book. What does that mean for you and for this project?

KT: The history of Banaba is British imperial, Australian, New Zealand, Pacific and global history. It’s the history of agriculture and of food, and of indigenous peoples and multi-scalar forces. It’s also a history of environmental displacement, something everyone’s talking about in the context of climate change.

History happened to Banabans and Banabans made history, especially when they sued the British empire and the mining company for destroying their island in the 1970s. Banabans today exist because of all of this. It is the same for the descendants of slavery in the US, and of those who survived nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, or those whose wealth has been amassed from the historical exploitation and conquering of others.

We exist because of history.

RP: You are a Framing the Global fellow, helping create what’s been referred to as a ‘grounded’ approach to global studies. This book, in a somewhat literal sense, seems to be a grounded approach. What advice would you have for scholars who want to conduct global research in this way?

KT: I would say read the literature and the archives, and plan and conduct fieldwork or homework in ways that approach peoples, places and objects in creative and complex ways. I would say, move beyond disciplinary conventions and frameworks and imagine the broadest possible audience for your work.

Working with Indiana University Press helped me do that. I started writing for everyone and not just Pacific or American scholars and students. I would also say minimize theory, or what we think is theory.

Tell stories about peoples, places and things and care about your audience. I am not a fan of the elite article, chapter or book that is written for 5 other people, gets you the promotion and sits on the library shelf or in an inaccessible journal. To be grounded is to be engaged, relevant, connected, creative, and generous with knowledge.

RP: Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?

KT: I would definitely recommend Indiana University Press to other scholars. I really appreciated the rigor and care that went into the editing and production of my book, and while I wish it were more affordable and available in the Pacific Islands, my writing is much better for having worked with this Press and their staff.

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