Different stories from the same tale

Banaba is a tiny Pacific island that was cursed by its natural resources.

ANU College of Asia and the Pacific Associate Professor Katerina Teaiwa wrote her dissertation on how Banaba was intensively strip mined for 80 years by Australian, New Zealand and British companies, and most of its indigenous people were eventually relocated to Fiji.

But rather than move on to another project after graduating, Teaiwa stuck with it. She:

  • Translated some of her research into dances which she performed in Fiji, Australia and the United States.
  • Worked with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to create a permanent exhibit on how phosphate mining on Pacific Islands aided New Zealand farmers but at a large cost to Banaba.
  • Collaborated with artists and researchers in Germany to convert her work into a science comic-book chapter on phosphate mining and its importance to global agriculture.
  • Converted her research into a solo visual arts exhibition at Carriageworks arts precinct in Sydney. This featured large archival photo of Banabans printed on curtains interspersed with a historical timeline and coral pinnacles depicted on "phosphate sacks", as well as a large three screen video projections of archival and Teaiwa’s own film work in Kiribati and Fiji.
  • Wrote the book: "Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba."

"I just keep going back to this material and mining it," Teaiwa said. "I think researchers rarely go back to the same material and reimagine it for public or popular consumption, for primary school children or other types of audiences."

Banaba is a very personal tale for Teaiwa, who was raised in Fiji and had a grandfather who once lived on Banaba before he was relocated. The tiny island provided Teaiwa with a big source of stories.

Banaba is a tale about colonialism, environmental destruction, population displacement, global agriculture, the history and culture of Pacific Islanders, and even the chemistry of why phosphate acts a prime source of fertilizer. Using different lenses on the same topic has led to many different stories, Teaiwa said.

For example, land and agriculture make up a big part of New Zealanders’ identity, she said, so images of crop dusters spraying their fields with phosphate really made them connect with the phosphorous strip mining on Banaba.

"That fertilizer coming out of the back of that crop duster is our land," Teaiwa said. "That’s when New Zealanders said ‘this story is important.’"

Photos of an island with sparse vegetation and scarred landscapes highlighted the environmental damage caused by the phosphate industry. Images of Banaba’s dancers reinforced the cultural harm caused by pushing the people off the island to resettle in Fiji so that they wouldn’t hinder the mining operations.

Banaba can be viewed as a political story because of the strategic importance of phosphorous to agriculture. Japan captured the island during World War II to gain access to fertilizer, and recently uncovered documents revealed how strategically valuable the British government viewed Banaba, Nauru and other islands for their phosphate. Australians benefited even more as the primary mining managers, traders and consumers of Pacific phosphate.

Dance also played a role in Teaiwa’s in research on Banaba. Not being raised in her father’s first language, Teaiwa connected to other Banabans and I-Kiribati by teaching them contemporary Pacific dances and they in turn shared their own moves. That’s when Teaiwa realised just how important dance was to the survival of Banaban culture.

"Dance is their way of processing tragedy. It’s their way of processing history – all the terrible things and all that has happened," she said. "If you treat dance as mere entertainment, you’re not going to value it."

Because her research revealed there were many ways to tell Banaba’s stories, Teaiwa found artists and museums were receptive to her work. Arts and heritage institutions specialise in telling national stories to general populations using different types of mediums and allowed Teaiwa to reach beyond academic audiences.

"Researchers have to be open to these possibilities," she said. "From the beginning of my research, I’ve always wanted to translate it for broad audiences."

Related website: Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba

Related research: Associate Professor Katerina Teaiwa

Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team