For some time I have been making a list of “geopolitical anomalies,” loosely defined as existing arrangements that defy the standard model of sovereign states exercising completely control over unambiguous, clearly delimited territorial realms. Until recently, however, one of the world’s more interesting geopolitical anomalies had escaped my attention: that of Banaba Island (also called Ocean Island) in the Pacific island country of Kiribati. Banaba definitely belongs to the country of Kiribati, yet it is administered by a legal body based in another country, Fiji. The “body” in question is the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders, which administers both Rabi Island (in Fiji) and Banaba Island in Kiribati, although it maintains its main office in Suva, the capital Fiji, located on the island of Viti Levu. The people of Rabi Island are Fijian citizens, but they also hold passports from Kiribati. More importantly, they maintain ownership of Kiribati’s Banaba Island, which gives them they authority to administer it. One of the eight members of the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders, moreover, sits in the parliament of Kiribati in order to represent the community.
Banaba covers only 6 km2 (2.3 sq mi), but is still one of the larger islands of Kiribati, a country mostly composed of tiny coral atolls scattered across an enormous expanse of oceanic space. Only 335 people lived on the island as of 2012. Rabi Island is considerably larger in regard to both area and population, covering 67.3 km2 (26.0 sq mi) and counting some 5,000 inhabitants, 95 percent of whom are ethnic Banabans.
The unusual geopolitical situation of Banaba is rooted in the island’s extraordinarily rich phosphate deposits, a resource that was also extremely abundant on the near-by island of Nauru, a sovereign state in its own right. The phosphate deposits are now largely mined out, leaving both Nauru and Banaba in precarious situations. Although the people of Nauru mostly remained on their own mined-out island, those of Banaba were mostly relocated just after WWII to Rabi Island in Fiji. As historian Gregory T. Cushman explains in his award-winning book, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World, the Banaban people were not exactly forced to relocate to Rabi Island, but there were severely misled in several ways (pp. 128-129). The indigenous people of Rabi Island were similarly relocated, in their case to nearby Taveuni Island. But as the Wikipedia notes, “The original inhabitants still maintain their links to the island, and still use the Rabi name in national competitions.” The Wikipedia article on Rabi also provides a good description of the relocation process:
The Banabans came to Fiji in three major waves, with the first group of 703, including 318 children, arriving on the BPC vessel, Triona, on 15 December 1945. Accompanying them were 300 other I-Kiribati. The Banabans had been collected from Japanese internment camps on various islands; they were not given the option of returning to Banaba, on the grounds that the Japanese had destroyed their houses – this was not true. They were told that there were houses waiting for them on Rabi: in fact they were given tents to live in and food rations which lasted for only two months. It was the middle of the hurricane season, and they were still weak from years of Japanese imprisonment: 40 of the oldest Banabans died. They were joined by a second wave between 1975 and 1977, with a final wave arriving between 1981 and 1983, following the ending of phosphate mining in 1979. Recognizing the lack of opportunities for Banabans in their homeland, the Rabi Council assisted the remaining population to move to Rabi after 1981.
But not all of the Banaban people relocated to or remained on Rabi Island; as noted above, some 335 do live on their home island today. Not surprisingly, geopolitical tensions persist. Rabi islanders are angry that only people living on Banaba are eligible for proceeds from the 614-million (Australian dollars) trust fund established from phosphate mining. In 2006, the representative of the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders in the Kiribati parliament called for Banaba to secede from Kiribati and join Fiji. Other local leaders have called on Banaba to declare its own independence. Proposals to reopen the phosphate mines have generated considerable discontent among the Banaban people.
Kiribati is, of course, keen to retain Banaba Island. Not only does its government view the Banaba as an intrinsic part of its own territorial domain, but it also sees the comparative lofty island (with a high point of 81 m [266 ft]) as a potential place of refuge in case rising sea-level inundates the county’s atolls.
Janice Cantieri posted a preliminary report on the plight of the people of Banaba as part of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling initiative in July 2015. Evidently, more of her stories will be forthcoming.