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Ocean Island

Volume 884: debated on Thursday 23 January 1975

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9.30 a.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) in his admirable speech on world food problems talked about the necessity for fertilisers. Although the substantial matter that I intend to raise is of a totally different character, there is the strange coincidence that the subject of fertilisers arises tangentially inasmuch as phosphates feature in it.

I shall set the scene for what I am seeking to mention. In 1900 an ocean island in the Pacific had phosphates discovered upon it. The following year it was annexed as part of the British Empire. Its status was a rather insular one in every sense of the word. In 1916, after some time had elapsed, it was included in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and juridically it has remained in that situation ever since.

In these days when the colonial empire has now diminished to a few fortresses and enclaves such as Gibraltar, Hong Kong and a scatter of islands, we are now discussing one of the few remaining colonial problems.

The island in question, because of its phosphate resources, attracted much attention. Since 1920 it has been mined by a consortium which is responsible to the Australian, New Zealand and United Kingdom Governments. The part of the island which was most required for mining was acquired by compulsory purchase after the native people, who are known as Banabans, had declined voluntarily to do so. As always with mining activities, the mining led unfortunately to a great deal of dereliction of the land. That was not the principal problem involved.

During the Second World War the Banabans were the sufferers at the hands of the Japanese. They lost their island, and when the war was over they were placed not back in their original homeland but upon the island of Rabi, in Fiji. They were placed there somewhat precipitously and without very many resources. The tribulations and deprivations of war were made worse by the fact that instead of being returned to their homeland—I have indicated that it was others who benefited most from the mineral exploitation—they became, as it were, exiles and strangers in another territory.

The time is fast approaching when, in common with almost every other of the few remaining colonial territories which are without independence, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands will be granted independence. An interesting situation will arise and it is one which I think should give rise to considerable concern by the Government.

For some time the former inhabitants of Ocean Island, now in exile in Rabi, have been anxious to return to their island. Not only that, but they feel aggrieved that, as a result of their status as a component of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, the revenues derived from the royalties on mineral exploitation which ought to be in their hands are likely to be shared by them with the other members of the Gilbert and Ellice group.

The story does not end there. Unfortunately it now seems likely that the phosphate resources which have provided a great deal of the revenue will be exhausted within a short time. Even if the Banabans return to their homeland, it seems that they will return to a land where most of the resources have been depleted. If they are enabled to return they will find that the island has suffered damage through mineral workings. What was a quite fertile territory will inevitably require a great deal of restoration.

Nevertheless there is among that community not only a strong desire to return to Ocean Island, from whence they came, but also a desire to be considered an independent country. There are three options facing these people. They can remain in Rabi as part of Fiji, they can return to Ocean Island as a component of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands or they can return to Ocean Island and become an independent community.

As we move to the final stage of colonial rule it is often said that the most difficult task is not that of deciding when a people are entitled to independence—that argument has been settled long since—but of deciding what form the independence should take. In dealing with small communities it is frequently said that the question of economic viability provides the greatest difficulty. That may be so, but there have been a number of instances in recent sears when, for no doubt well-intentioned motives, different communities have been consolidated in federation against their will. This has led to a great deal of heartburn and in some cases conflict after independence.

The serio-comic situation of Anguilla a few years ago is the closest approach to the kind of situation I am seeking to draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister. As I understand it, the people of Ocean Island always thought, with some justice that the rich revenues and royalties derived from the mining of their homeland had been used deliberately for the benefit of the other Gilbert and Ellice Islands.

They feel that they are entitled to strike out on their own. They feel, too, that the British Government have been too free in their capacity as trustees in spreading that wealth around. It would probably be out of order when an action is pending to seek to determine exactly the rights and wrongs of the claim they have made to get their revenue. Suffice it to say that the Banabans feel strongly that they have been the victims of a number of injustices.

I am seeking from my right hon. Friend an assurance that when the time comes—and it obviously cannot be far off—that me Gilbert and Ellice Islands are being prepared for independence, if the Banabans wish to go their own way and become an independent territory separate from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands they shall be free to do so.

As a prerequisite to seeking that assurance, I seek clarification of the position of the people themselves, living as they now are in exile, in Rabi, Fiji.

This is an odd, even unique, situation in which, because of the ravages and difficulties of war, a whole community was uprooted and placed in another colonial territory, and when that territory, Fiji, became independent, as it did a few years ago, those people remained there and are regarded as strangers in a different homeland. There has been little move in recent years to return them. I am concerned not only with the task of returning them to the homeland from which they departed but with the question of their status when they return to the place which rightfully belongs to them. I hope that in his reply my right hon. Friend will not place too much emphasis on economic liability. The Banabans accept that they will be faced with considerable difficulties.

It is, I suppose, a reasonable proposition having regard to Government policy that when a small nation becomes independent on the winding up of the colonial empire generous economic aid will be forthcoming in any event to help in rehabilitation and to repair the damage done by mining.

The Banabans are prepared to go their own way. They believe that they have much to offer, and in terms of fishing and in other respects that may well be so. The important point is that they should be given the choice to live independently if they so wish.

If it is sought to resist that argument, I remind my right hon. Friend that the Gilbert and Ellice Islands as a whole represent a fairly modest area of the world's surface, but they will be severed into separate communities when they become independent. At least the principle has been accepted that when independence comes the Gilbertese will go one way and the Elliceans will go the other. In other words, they will each be able to take their place in the world as sovereign independent communities. The Banabans, as inhabitants of Ocean Island, seek to do the same.

If they do that, they will not be the smallest independent nation in the world. One thinks of Lichtenstein, San Marino, Monaco and so on. The idea is not ludicrous and is not to be scoffed at. If we accept, as we have long since accepted, the principle of self-determination, we accept the right of people to decide what form their independence shall take. Anthropologically the Banabans are different from the Gilbertese and their island stands geographically some distance apart in this scatter of islands in a remote ocean area.

In several instances when independence has been granted, countries have subsequently gone through the processes of fragmenation. At one end of the scale there has been the fragmentation of the Indian sub-continent. We accepted the example of Pakistan from the outset and we have had to accept the breaking away of Bangladesh. We have seen the strains that certain other countries have undergone after independence as a result perhaps of our failing to comprehend the internal fissures that are sometimes obscured in the run-up to independence. One saw it in the Sudan some time ago. Those are territories of a very different scale of magnitude. The Nagas in India and the Karens in Burma are other instances. I suppose one quails at the cost of infinite fragmentation. Nevertheless it is for people to choose their own form of independence.

It is my intention, first, that the Banabans shall return to their land, secondly that they shall be adequately recompensed from the revenues from the phosphates that have been gained from their territory over many years and, thirdly, that independence when it comes shall, if they so wish, be independence on their own. If they wish to take their place as a small independent nation, it is not for us to stand in their way. It is for us to help them to stand on their own feet, if necessary alone.

9.50 a.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) for raising the subject of the Banabans—

Order. I think the Minister has already addressed the House during this debate. He therefore needs permission to address it again.

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to ask permission to address the House again.

I think that not enough time is spent on considering the problem of the remaining territories for which Her Majesty's Government and the House of Commons have responsibility. It was not our choice that the matter should be dealt with at this hour of the morning, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the subject.

The Banabans, who number rather more than 2,000 and who since 1945 have lived on Rabi Island in Fiji, are the original inhabitants of Ocean Island. Ocean Island has been administered by the United Kingdom as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate—now the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony—since phosphate was discovered there in 1900, and was the capital from 1907 to 1942.

As early as 1909 local British officials were expressing concern about the future well-being of the Banabans when the open-cast phosphate mining on Ocean Island made it impossible for them to live there. The Banabans, however, were quite naturally reluctant to leave their homeland, and for some years the project of resettlement was not actively pursued. In 1940 the Banabans themselves proposed the acquisition of Wakaya Island in Fiji, though they saw it more as a second home than as a replacement for Ocean Island. Wakaya was found to be unsuitable, and Rabi was purchased by Her Majesty's Government with moneys in the Banaban Provident Fund in March 1942.

The Japanese, as my hon. Friend said, occupied Ocean Island in August 1942 and the Banabans suffered severely, being very largely dispersed as slave labour. Following the surrender of the Japanese in October 1945, GEIC officials investigated Ocean Island and found that the island was, for the time being at any rate, not habitable owing to the absence of food supplies, the great difficulties of building up stores and the total destruction of all four villages. The Banabans, who had been taken to other islands in the Pacific by the Japanese, were brought together again on Tarawa, and they agreed, though reluctantly, to go to Rabi Island in December 1945 until it was clear what their needs were. It is true that conditions on Rabi Island, with inadequate houses and poor medical and educational facilities, were inevitably unsatisfactory at the beginning. In many parts of the world 1945 was a difficult year for everyone. I must stress, however, that when, in 1947, a secret ballot was arranged a large majority of the Banabans on Rabi voted in favour of making the island their home. They have lived there ever since.

In 1967 and 1968 the Banabans sought independence for Ocean Island but, as Lord Shepherd explained to the Banabans at the time, Her Majesty's Government felt that it would be wrong to go against the clear wishes of the elected representatives of the people of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony as a whole, who strongly opposed the separation of the island. Her Majesty's Government accordingly concluded at that time that it should not grant independence to Ocean Island.

In March last year the Rabi Council of Leaders, on behalf of the Banaban people, sent a petition to my right honourable Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, again seeking independence for Ocean Island. The petition laid particular emphasis on the fact that Her Majesty's Government had agreed that a referendum should be held in the Ellice Islands concerning their future relationship with the Gilbert Islands. The Ellice Islands will become separate by January 1976 as a new colony, not with full independence.

The Banaban petition was referred to the Governor of the Gilbert and Ellice Island Colony for advice and he duly consulted the newly-formed Council of Ministers which had been set up following the introduction in May 1974 of a new constitution in the colony. It replied that it did not consider that the question of the separation of the Ellice Islands had any bearing on the future of Ocean Island, which was considered an integral part of the Gilbert Islands. It added that it would oppose separation and independence for Ocean Island either now or in the future.

A formal reply to the Banaban petition was in preparation when the Banabans asked for a Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to receive their spokesman, the Rev. Tebuke Rotan, and their legal representatives. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs arranged to see the Banaban representatives in September, and they proposed that independence for Ocean Island should be combined with some kind of associated status with Fiji.

Let us be clear about this. The question of associated status with Fiji has been one of the alternatives canvassed. Can my right hon. Friend say, with reasonable clarity, just what that would mean?

That would be a matter for sorting out between the Banabans and the Government of Fiji if it were accepted as a viable proposition.

As I was saying, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State met the Banaban representatives, when they proposed independence for Ocean Island combined with some kind of associated status with Fiji. She agreed to look at the matter again in the light of this suggestion, but she also made clear that there was no basic change in Her Majesty's Government's position and that she did not envisage a change.

The Banabans also petitioned the United Nations last year, seeking support for the idea of independence in association with Fiji. The matter came up in November 1974, when the United Nation's Committee of 24 discussed the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, and particularly the report of the United Nation's visiting mission which had gone to observe, in August and September 1974, the referendum for the separation of the Ellice Islands. The Committee of 24 noted the Banaban petition, but did not otherwise comment on it.

Mr. Ratieta, the Chief Minister of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, accompanied by Mr. Roniti Teiwaki, the Member of the House of Assembly for Ocean Island, and also at that time Leader of the Opposition in the House of Assembly in Tawara, also attended the meetings with the Committee of 24. Mr. Ratieta explained very clearly to the committee why the Government of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were totally opposed to the Banaban claim, and why they did not consider that there was a parallel between Ellice separation and the separation of Ocean Island.

One is not trying to be cynical about this, but would not my right hon. Friend agree that the richness of the revenues from the royalties from Ocean Island was undoubtedly a potent factor in the attitude of the Gilbertese towards this matter?

I shall deal with that question later in my speech.

The Chief Minister recalled that Ocean Island and the Gilbert Islands were settled by Micronesian people long before Ocean Island was administered by Her Majesty's Government together with the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, and that the Banabans and the Gilbertese were sharing the same gods, the same language and the same cultural traditions long before they shared a common administration under Her Majesty's Government. He pointed out that there has always been inter-marriage, and that many Banabans own land in the Gilbert Islands in addition to their land on Ocean Island. He said:
"If there are now differences between the Banabans and the Gilbertese, they are the differences between the people of one village and another village in the same country, the differences between one family and another family in the same village. They are not the differences between one people and another."
Following the discussions in the United Nations Committee of 24, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands House of Assembly passed a resolution on 28th November 1974 in the following terms:
"that this House, in the fair belief that Ocean Island is an integral part of the Gilbert Islands, utterly rejects any claim by, or on behalf of, the landowners of Ocean Island for any change in the present status of that Island which would make it separate and independent from the remainder of the Gilbert Islands".
We are not without sympathy for the Banabans, but we do not think the picture is quite as some, including my hon. Friend, make it out to be. It is not all a story of colonial exploitation. It was only because the Queen's Regulations applicable to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were extended to Ocean Island early this century that further sales of land by the natives to non-natives were stopped. Had this not happened, the Banabans would almost certainly have sold their land, including all the phosphates, outright for the sort of trivial sums which then obtained. It is as a result of action by the Crown over the years that the Banabans remain to this day owners of the land on Ocean Island—albeit absentee landowners, as my hon. Friend said.

In support of their cause, the Banabans argue that they have been unjustly treated over the years in respect to their share of the phosphate revenues. As regards the present position, the Chief Minister of Gilbert and Ellice Islands explained at the United Nations Committee of 24 in November that of every million Australian dollars of proceeds from phosphate mining, the Banabans, who number a little over 2,000, receive approximately 65 Australian dollars per capita and the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders, who number about 60,000, receive only about 14 Australian dollars per capita. With the recent sharp increase in phosphate prices, it is likely that the Banabans will receive over 3 million Australian dollars in revenue this year. We hope that this, together with the prospect of further very substantial sums to come in the remaining four years or so of phosphate mining, will enable the Banabans to press on with the development of a prosperous and contented community on Rabi Island, which has now been their home for 30 years.

There has recently been some direct contact between the Banabans and the GEIC Government, and we understand that further contacts are expected to take place shortly. When the Rev. Tebuke Rotan saw my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs again last month it was agreed that a formal reply by Her Majesty's Government to the Banaban petition would be deferred pending the further contacts between Banaban and GEIC representatives. I am sure that it is right that we should not say anything today to prejudice such contacts or any conclusions that may flow from them.

Though I cannot give some of the assurances my hon. Friend asked of me, I assure him that everything he has said in the debate on behalf of the Banaban people will be carefully considered by my right hon. Friend before any final decision is taken.