21 Aug 2023

Banaban community seeks apology from NZ govt over mining

10:46 am on 21 August 2023
Rabi Island community volunteer Rae Bainteiti

Rabi Island community volunteer Rae Bainteiti Photo: Rabi Island Community Hub

The Banaban community are seeking justice for what happened on their island and to its people over a century ago.

In the early 1900s, Banaba or Ocean Island was mined for phosphate resulting in a barren and uninhabitable land that forced its people to relocate and settle in Rabi Island, Fiji in 1945.

The extractive mining project led by the British Phosphate Company (BPC), equally owned by Australia, the UK and New Zealand, is a history that is largely unknown or forgotten about.

However, the Banabans of today say they still live with the grief and trauma brought on by the destructive practice. They point out that not only had they lost their land, they lost their language and cultural identity.

The displacement of the Banaban people has meant their rights and land development is safeguarded by Kiribati - which Banaba is part of - and Fiji to which Rabi Island community hub volunteer, Itinterunga Rae Bainteiti describes it as "falling into the cracks of two countries".

In order for the Banaba community to move forward and restore their sense of dignity, they are seeking a formal apology from the New Zealand government.

Community leaders hope to go to New Zealand before the end of the year to present a petition to Parliament requesting an apology.

Bainteiti said seeing the impact the Dawn Raids apology had on New Zealand's Pasifika community in 2021 spurred him on.

"I was in New Zealand at the time when the discussions around the Dawn Raids were happening," he said.

"Then I was in Rabi when the apology took place and for me - as part of a community that was uprooted from our ancestral home because of extractive industries and phosphate mining - I think that's what our community needs right now."

In February this year, Auckland's Silo Park hosted an art exhibition created by the Banaban community in Auckland and Rabi, by the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD) and the Banaban Women's Organisation (BWO).

The exhibition depicted Banaba's history, the lingering impacts mining has on Banabans today and stories of resistance. At the same time, ICAAD launched its petition calling on the New Zealand government to deliver an apology and outlining several recommendations.

Banaban cultural performer Zachary Bakaua said the exhibition was an opportunity to clear up common misunderstandings of Banaba.

"To us, our identity became lost," he said

"We're using the i-Kiribati language and therefore people think we're i-Kiribati but we're not."

Bakaua also said the struggles are ongoing for the Banabans on Rabi island

"We're experiencing climate change, sea rises and water shortage."

University of the South Pacific student Kimere Nemia said as a Banaban living in Fiji, it can feel isolating.

"We're an even smaller community in Fiji, we don't normally hold exhibitions like this in Suva," she said.

"But we need more exposure of our community."

Rae Bainteiti said other countries which also mined Banaba have also yet to acknowledge their actions, however he said New Zealand's history of championing social issues in recent times is commendable.

"New Zealand is in the best position to step up with facilitating this public apology," he said.

"New Zealand has always been the big brother or sister for the Pacific in policies and development agendas for the Pacific."

"We would love to see the leadership just stepping up and seeing where they could potentially assist our very marginalised communities with supporting education, scholarship, health because for over 70 years, the development of Rabi has really been constricted, restricted to the fact that part of the development is really falling in the cracks of two countries."

"We're also asking in this petition if they could come and investigate and see how the Banabans are doing now."

As New Zealand's general elections looms, Bainteiti said the Banaban community will continue to engage with the government in Wellington even if there's a change in leadership.

"If there is a change in government we will still pursue the conversation with the new government," he said.

"Our work has not been really about who's in politics and who's not. When we were in Auckland in February, we worked with every politician because it is an advocacy work that shouldn't be politicised - it is a moral obligation."

Two dancers in traditional dress at Banaba Kiribati ca 1906 Photo: