(No, it's not Friday, but presumably everyone is done with or in the process of being done with this week)
So I've really kept you on the edge of your collective seat with that cliffhanger about guano, right? You're thinking nothing could possibly be more fascinating than the Guano Islands Act of 1856 and you keep waiting to be proven wrong. Get ready.
Last time we noted that guano experienced a meteoric rise from useless animal waste to valuable industrial commodity to totally depleted resource in a relatively short period of time. Many of the small islands on which it was found were essentially scraped clean by the latter part of the 20th Century and, just as a reminder, the landscape that gets left behind by guano mining is…bleak:
If you live on a very small island with no valuable resources and suddenly it is revealed that your island is literally made of something rich countries want, you can imagine how little restraint would be practiced in harvesting and selling it. Once it is all gone, though, you're back where you started, only worse. You have no valuable resources and now you live in an unremediated, totally cashed former strip mine. Hopefully your nation invested what it earned from resource extraction wisely, right?
That brings us to Nauru.
Leaving aside European microstates, Nauru is the smallest country on Earth. It is barely 8 square miles. Total. For comparison, Philadelphia is 134 square miles in size. Oh, and it's incredibly remote and lacking in infrastructure, so the usual "At least we have tourism!" corollary of the South Pacific does not apply. You're thousands of miles from anything, barren, impoverished, and 1/20th the size of Philadelphia's city limits; what do you do to ensure the economic future of your 10,000 citizens when a fairly large but one-time-only windfall comes your way?
If you're the government of the Nauru you establish the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust to make that money last. You also make sure that no one who has any concept of what "investing" entails is in any way involved, and those involved conceive of investing in the way a tycoon in 1920s comic books might. During the 1980s the Trust managed to lose nearly every penny the island earned by selling itself to the petrochemical industry through a string of almost comically bad investments. It financed a 1993 West End flop "Leonardo the Musical," about the painting of the Mona Lisa. It was one of the biggest financial disasters in the history of UK theater. It spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars (AUD) to build Nauru House, a skyscraper in Melbourne, Australia. Eventually it was sold to real estate developers for about half of what was outstanding on the loans the Trust undertook to run it. Partially to encourage tourists to come to the island and partially to allow Nauru's elite to get off the godforsaken rock as often as possible, Air Nauru, the government-run airline, purchased a spankin' new Boeing 737. The tourists never came, as tourists do not generally enjoy going to the middle of nowhere to see nothing and stay in unelectrified concrete block houses. The plane was repossessed by debt collectors in 2004 in what I can only imagine was an awesome job for some Australian Repo Man. Media accounts pitifully underscored the situation by describing the 737 as the island's "only link with the outside world" and Air Nauru's only plane.
At this point Nauru, a poor and indebted nation, did what poor and indebted individuals often do. It turned to the gray economy. Or, you know, crime. Basically crime. It started an "economic citizenship" program of the type that were common prior to 9/11, in which a passport and citizenship were sold to any individual willing to pay $25,000 to the failing government. When that was shut down by the U.S. and Australia, Nauru became a money laundering hub for Russian and East Asian organized crime. That didn't last long, but this time Australia offered Nauru an appealing alternative: it could take millions of dirty Australian dollars to build a prison for asylum seekers. Aussies were alarmed in the 2000s by the number of (NON-WHITE ASIAN) asylum seekers attempting to enter the country, and housing them on Australian soil was considered an unacceptable option. A third nation desperate for cash and reasonably proximate to Australia presented the idea solution. Amnesty describes the detention camp as "a human rights catastrophe, a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions." About a month ago, Nauru decided to simply open the camp and let the detainees wander around the barren island as they please, which has improved conditions.
Just kidding, the detainees are getting raped a lot.
The end of the Guano Economy didn't treat anyone especially well, but nobody can claim that it treated them worse than it did Nauru. It might be the actual worst place on Earth right now, excepting Fresno.