Whareroa, Banaba, and the Western Sahara: The Stones and Bones of Empire

Whareroa Marae is nestled in the inlet of Tauranga Moana, a humble marae that has weathered an onslaught of industrialised colonialism for decades now. Most recently – the whanau of Whareroa have raised their voices to say: No more. Listening to their story, it’s impossible not to think of how this plays out across the nation. The industrial divisions of cities and townships that are zoned for “the public good” are so often merely another form of colonial landgrabbing from local Maori to facilitate urban and corporate expansion. The whanau of Ihumaatao, for instance, have, without consent, had their lands, their sacred mountain, their waters and food systems, stripped from them for the provisions of a quarry, an airport, and a sewerage treatment plant for Taamaki Makaurau. Similarly, the whanau of Whareroa Marae in Tauranga have watched their land holdings degrade over time, along with the abundance of their waters, and the freshness of the very air they breathe.

All of the land in this image used to belong to Whareroa Marae. Over the years it has been alienated, industrialised and polluted. Image from Marae TV story: https://www.maoritelevision.com/shows/marae/S01E017/marae-2020-series-1-episode-17

Ballance Agrinutrients in particular seem to be playing a significant role in this story. Whareroa Marae residents say the fumes from Ballance Agrinutrients drive them indoors and make the air unbreathable. Ballance Agrinutrients have responded by saying that it meets their consented criteria. In 2016 Ballance were fined $60,000NZD for sulphur dioxide release. That year the local council received 19 complaints from local residents.

Like all marae and hapu who bear the weight of public services, Whareroa deserve our support. But what Whareroa are also providing us with, is the local context of a story of injustice that extends across our nation, is bolstered through our own Māori economy (over 25% of all beef and lamb is farmed on Māori land, constituting over 228,000ha of grassland), and reaches out across oceans to the lands of other Indigenous peoples. The fertiliser industry is one that requires some careful consideration for Aotearoa, and for Te Ao Māori, who are both significantly impacted by, as well as having significant impact upon, the NZ agricultural sector. Opposition has mounted in recent years towards the injustice of phosphate mining in the Western Sahara for the production of fertilisers by Ravensdown and Ballance Agrinutrients, a practice now commonly known as “blood phosphate” mining.

The people of the Western Sahara know that New Zealand is a major culprit in phosphate extraction from their lands, stripping the topsoil, leaving land inarable – and transferring the arability across to Aotearoa where the bones and stones of the Western Sahara feed the fertility of New Zealand pastures. To understand the endgame of this practice we can look much closer to home. The Pacific islands of Nauru and Banaba were stripped bare of their own phosphate to feed New Zealand’s agricultural economy – driving the people of those islands off their ancestral lands and rendering those lands ecological deadzones. Our greed for fertilizer created an entire class of refugees within the Pacific, an injustice compounded by our reluctance to accept them onto our own shores. and the only reason that Ballance and Ravensdown turned their eye to the Western Sahara is because, in their locust-like extractive model, they exhausted the Pacific supply.

This is just one of many ways in which New Zealand, through racist economic practices, perpetuates economic imperialism across the Pacific and within the global south. Quite separate from the fact that the New Zealand economy is built off of stolen Māori land, and our dark past of Pacific slavery (blackbirding), but our fertiliser industry exploits non-white, non-European lands to prop up our agricultural sector, as a nation we have exploited Māori and Pacific Island communities as “essential workers” who are still not awarded a basic living wage, continue to exploit Māori, Pacific, and Asian workers on our fishing fleets who are working in deplorable conditions, and have, right up to the COVID-19 crisis, imported cheap labour from across the Pacific to subsidise the picking and packing of our fruit across the horticultural sector.

NZ economist Bernard Hickey details how New Zealand’s “dirty little secret” of an economy that relies upon exploiting migrant labour is now faltering under COVID travel restrictions.

The exploitation of Indigenous lands for someone else’s gain, and the practical enslavement of migrant workers in our orchards and on our seas is an extension of racist and imperialist economic practices that were incepted, coincidentally enough, in Western Africa in the mid 15th century, where Europe first acquired permission to plunder lands, and the people of those lands, for the profit of European empires. It appears New Zealand as a colonial nation-state is now coming a full circle, founded in British imperialism, maintaining the economic traditions of it’s colonial forebears by propping itself up through the exploitation of others. This is a challenge not only for New Zealand’s economy, but also for the Māori economy, who holds environmental and Indigenous principles dear to our practices, but are also embroiled within these deeply problematic practices in our own horticultural, agricultural, and fishing industries.

In 2019, I interviewed Banaban scholar and author, Katerina Teaiwa, on the story of Banaba, phosphate mining, and Aotearoa. It was as a part of Katerina’s “Project Banaba” exhibition that was touring at the time, curated by Yuki Kihara. If you would like to learn more about the story of Banaba, I’d recommend Katerina’s book Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba. Most chilling, for me, in this interview and exhibition, are the facts about human remains that are scooped up in the phosphate mining process. For me, as Māori, I felt ill thinking about us loading planes with the dust of somone’s ancestors and sprinkling them over our fields. This is quite separate to the heavy metal impacts this has on our soils and polluting effect on our waterways. Superphosphate topdressing is an issue that all of New Zealand need to consider, but certainly that the Māori economy also need to consider, in our journey of decolonization.

Here is my interview with Katerina:

New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom collectively owned a company with the purpose of mining the island of Banaba for its phosphate rock. This was shipped to cities and towns like Napier, to be manufactured into superphosphate fertiliser. While New Zealanders were developing the practice of aerial topdressing in the 1940s to spread vast quantities of fertiliser and transform what was once native forest into farms of lush green grass, Banabans were relocating to the island of Rabi in Fiji as their homeland was rendered uninhabitable. Katerina Teaiwa, Banaban artist and scholar, draws on this history in her multimedia exhibition Project Banaba. Curated by Yuki Kihara, Project Banaba traces further links between lands and lives unsettled as a result of the ‘settlement’ of the European colonial project. Weaving together film, still photographs, archival quotations and appliquéd hessian evocative of sacking, the installation brings the experience of the Banaban people to the fore. This is a story that highlights the imbalanced nature of colonising societies, premised on the domination of nature and indigenous peoples. While this imbalance has long been obscured, it becomes increasingly undeniable as soil quality declines, waterways become toxic, biodiversity is lost, and the climate destabilises. The exhibition therefore leaves us with a vital question: for the sake of all people, how can balance be restored?

TINA: Tāna koe e Katerina, i te tuatahi te tika me mihi ki a koutou ko ō tīpuna i tēnei mahi, koutou kua mau, kua takoto te manuka i mua i a mātou katoa, kia whakamōhio mai, kia whakapuare ō mātou whatu ki tēnei mahi tūkino. Just a mihi to you, and to all of your ancestors as well, who have carried this story and brought it forth in this work. It’s powerful and revelatory, and an important challenge to place before us all so that we can really consider it, and our role in it all. Were it not for these forums of truth that our own hold, to converse with each other – we would never learn of all of these systems going on around us that we are, knowingly or unknowingly, complicit in. Our governments sure as heck aren’t proactive in bringing any of this to our attention. So thank you for this, and for all your work on this issue. A lot of my work and contact with the injustice of phosphates has been with relation to its devastating effects on our waterways and food systems here in Aotearoa. Of course, the quote that there can be “no food without phosphate” is plainly ridiculous given that our own ancestral food systems performed so much better before all of this came along – but then I looked at the quote a little longer and realised that it can just as easily be a command, as much as a declaration – which really drives home the colonial nature of this practice. More recently I think we’ve been able to access more information on the injustices attached to this product in West Sahara, and through your work, in Banana. Does it feel to you like acknowledgement is finally on its way?

KATERINA: Tēnā koe and ko na mauri Tina. Ko bati n rabwa for talking with me about Banaban histories, phosphate landscapes and waterways and how these are entangled with the same in Aotearoa. The ongoing sourcing of phosphate from the Western Sahara illustrates just how important this resource is to New Zealand agriculture and how problematic phosphate extraction and reliance on fertiliser can be when ignoring the knowledges, practices and environmental relations of indigenous peoples. Banaba, like Nauru, was one of those islands deemed absolutely critical to the development of Australia and New Zealand and because it was directly underneath Banaban homes and villages, the people had to be removed to allow for unfettered access to the resource. This means that any human remains, any bones in those landscapes were also mined and transformed into fertilizer along with the rock. This wasn’t just unique to Banaba, though, bones are actually a critical source of phosphorus, an essential nutrient for plants and animals, and scholars have written about how both human and animal bones have (disturbingly) been used in history as fertiliser. At different times this Banaban story has been acknowledged, mainly when Banaban themselves fight for visibility, like in the 1970s when they sued the British government for colluding with the British, Australian and New Zealand mining company at the expense of the Banabans. The British Phosphate Commissioners was owned by the three governments so of course the interests of the three countries was paramount, not the interests of Pacific Islanders. Between the big court case in the 70s and today there have been a few media stories about Banaba and how mining destroyed most of the island but it has never resulted in any of the parties revisiting their responsibilities to rehabilitate the landscape. There was a payment made of 10 million Australian dollars in the early 1980s and six thousand or sonatas were expected to be able to benefit off the interest from this fund in perpetuity. They were moved by the company to Rabi island in the North of Fiji which once belonged to the Rabea people. The company bought it for them from the Lever Brothers who had used it as a copra plantation. Rabeans still have indigenous interests and claims to Rabi which leaves Banabans in a precarious spiritual and economic position with respect to their new home.In 1996 my elder sister, Teresia, wrote an essay called “routes and roots of a displaced native “which reflected on all this by imagining the bodies of Banabans, specifically our grandfather, his father and our great, great grandmother whose landswere leased to the mining company together with the body of the mind landscape. She wrote “agriculture is not in our blood but our blood is in agriculture.” This is captured in the concept te aba referring to both land and people. But as much as dispersing Banaban lands as superphosphate across Aotearoa has resulted in increased fertility of farms and stabilised erosion in hill country, excess phosphorus leaches into waterways and causes algae to proliferate. Industry thrived on and eventually decimated Banaba and the same is happening in New Zealand, Australia and other countries with mass agriculture.

TINA: People think that colonisation happened in the past but the truth is… the invasion of our territories, of our bodies, of our families, of our worlds, is relentless and never ceases.

KATERINA: Totally and in addition to remaining committed to challenging and critiquing colonial pasts and presents, I’m also interested in how Banaba history helps reframe contemporary intra-Pacific or trans-indigenous relations. Who are we to each other when our lands and ancestral remains are spread across Aotearoa and Australia? What does indigenous solidarity look like when commodities are formed from whenua or te aba and become part of a global food chain?

TINA: Well yes this is a very interesting question – when we consider ourselves, literally as iwi – the bones of this land – how do we reconcile our own Indigeneity with the fact that we are literally drawing from the ancestral bones of another land to coat our own for economic gain? Of course we take pride in being Indigenous but this clearly exposes that such pride does not necessarily translate into demonstrating solidarity. I feel we have become very good at conceptualising colonialism in a political sense but not an economic sense. There is a strong focus on sovereignty being accomplished when we have our own government colonial models) – but we still chase colonial models of economic success that are inherently linked to power disparity, exploitation, adversarialism and extraction… and we are quite happy to step into the role of coloniser in order to achieve that success. The time to address this discordance is more than overdue.

KATERINA: I agree, and I also think there are many trans-Pacific race, class, religious and cultural issues that hinder true solidarity and are hidden when the focus is on the state or colonial other. Colonialism and imperialism must be held accountable for the social, environmental, political, epistemological and gender based havoc it has wreaked on indigenous peoples but we also need to be wary of how such histories and biases of our own have resulted invitro-Pacific racisms and hierarchies. Until climate change catapulted Kiribati onto the global stage, British Micronesia was either at the margins of Pan-Pacific consciousness or vilified through unflattering representations of Nauru and ideas about “rich phosphate islanders”. Both Nauru and Banaba are in a most challenging environmental and financial state right now. Everyone knows Australia had much to do with the demise of both islands but New Zealand’s critical role in the exploitation of phosphate resources is often forgotten.

TINA: These are brave and necessary conversations to be had, at many levels. The New Zealand government has platformed itself in a sanctimonious manner as the “Switzerland of the South Pacific” (which in itself is a very colonial turn of phrase) – and yet, its own oppressive domestic colonial history aside, it has directly or indirectly played a role in horrid rights abuses of Native communities across our Moana and beyond. From blackbirding, to PACER plus, to our lack of leadership in relation to West Papua, to our participation in Gaza, New Zealand is anything but the politically neutral champions of peace and justice that we purport to be. And here we are, in the anniversary year of the arrival of Captain Cook – the vanguard of British imperialism that incepted a long, slow experience of genocide upon our lands and waters. If this is to be the year of anything then surely this is the year to examine the true cost of colonialism – upon our lands, upon our waters, upon our bodies -but also upon our minds. If we are to decry the colonial structures that have beset us as Indigenous peoples, this must come with an honest appraisal of how we engage and perpetuate these systems ourselves, and THAT must come with commitments to divest ourselves of these actions. We cannot hope to see justice if we are not going to build justice from the inside, out. And this is such a very “inside” space to consider. A very visceral inside space. The space of ancestral bones. The space of the soil we have arisen from. I’m reminded of the very wonderful words of Waziyatawin that pathways to justice must begin with forums of truth. This is a very powerful forum of truth that all of us in Aotearoa need to consider. And I say this not only because of the Non-Indigenous economy that has shaped both your and my ecological landscape – but also in mind of the significant Māori agricultural economy. The questions you pose about solidarity, and trans-Indigenous relations are quite right. I see some movement in our Māori economy towards sustainability – but this concept is increasingly understood within a context of social justice. So this poses a challenge to us BOTH in relation to how we call colonial power to account – as well as how we call ourselves to account.

KATERINA: E koala! Ko rabwa Tina. I look forward to more conversations and wish you te mauri, te raoi ao tetabomoa in all endeavors for your family, people and lands.

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