“According to the WHO, Nauru is, per capita, the most overweight country in the world: the average adult weight is 100kg. 97% of men are overweight, and 93% of women. The proportion of clinically obese people – meaning a BMI of over 30 – stands at 71%. Anyone can calculate BMI, of course, but just for comparison: a BMI of 30 means that someone 175cm tall weighs 92kg. That’s the condition of over 2/3 of Nauru’s inhabitants. One consequence of this epidemic of obesity is that 40% of the population is diabetic.
But how did this happen in a true tropical paradise?
For thousands of years, the natives of Nauru lived like other Polynesians: they fished (but didn’t hunt, because no mammals are native to the island) picked coconuts and tropical fruit, and were remarkably healthy. This idyll endured until the mid-20th century, when the island was first occupied by the Japanese army during World War Two, then liberated by the Australians, before the island proclaimed its independence. At around this time someone first noticed that the reason a large part of the island was uninhabitable was because 90% of the territory is covered in a layer of phosphate several meters thick. This, incidentally, was formed from the feces of seabirds accumulating over long centuries.
From the 1960s onwards, this phosphate was extracted by open-cast mining, and this brought huge sums of money to the island, compounded by the fact that it became a paradise of tax dodging and money laundering. Individual income tax has been abolished, and there was a period when anyone could establish an officially recognized bank on Nauru – all you needed was to put up $25,000, and no further questions were asked. In the 1970s Nauru had the highest GDP per capital on the planet. With huge sums of money at its disposal, the government launched a series of seemingly random investments, buying up hotel chains in Australia and launching a national airline. At one point they had so many Boeings that they could have put 20% of the country’s population aboard them at the same time.
It wasn’t just the government that had no idea what to do with this newfound wealth, however – its citizens were equally at a loss. Nauruans stopped working, since they could live perfectly well without it. Today 90% of the country’s population is unemployed, and 95% of those who do have jobs are employed by the state. They also gave up fishing and cultivating fruit, and replaced these with the culinary habits of Australia – a scary number, for instance, took to drinking large quantities of sugary soda every day. Since obesity had once been a signifier of prosperity, honor, and high social status, nobody worried too much as the entire population began to put on weight.
These days most of the phosphate mines have been exhausted, the accumulated reserved have run dry, and GDP per capita has fallen back to $5,000 per capita (approximately the same as Congo and Swaziland, and a quarter of the per capita wealth of Hungary). The country is on the brink of bankruptcy, and sustains itself only thanks to Australian aid. Overweight Nauruans look at one another, how all this could ever have happened. (2016)