Global Policy Forum

The Billion-Dollar Shack


Jack Hitt

New York Times Magazine
December 10, 2000

In a ferocious tropical heat, I stood a few feet from the front door of the building -- a shack, really -- that some say brought Russia to its knees and destroyed it as a modern nation. There is no plaque commemorating this achievement, and I may have been the first to make this pilgrimage. After all, there are only two flights a week out of Brisbane, Australia, that will even take you here -- here being the nation of Nauru, a tiny island 1,200 miles east of New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean, just south of the Equator. It may be about as far away from everywhere as you can get and still be somewhere.

Nauru is not a place you just visit. The beaches are raked with razorlike coral formations, and there is no natural harbor. Foreigners, who land on the airstrip left by Japanese conquerors in World War II, are confined mainly to Australian engineers who work at the island's nearly depleted phosphate mines.

Although this island is one of the most obscure places on the planet, Nauru has lately gained a name for itself in Western international-finance circles. Amid the recent proliferation of money-laundering centers that experts estimate has ballooned into a $5 trillion shadow economy, Nauru is Public Enemy No. 1.

The Group of 7, the organization of seven leading economic powers, has a task force in Paris that routinely ''names and shames'' the dozen or so nations -- from the Philippines to the Cook Islands -- that provide a haven to illegal money. In this rarefied company, Nauru stands out. According to the deputy chairman of Russia's central bank, Viktor Melnikov, in 1998 Russian criminals laundered about $70 billion through this shack in Nauru, draining off precious hard currency and crippling the former superpower. Just to put that in perspective, last year's Bank of New York money-laundering scandal, which rocked the financial world, washed $7 billion.

Half of that went through Nauru, too. As a result, Nauru is suffering under what are arguably the harshest sanctions imposed on any country, including those against Iraq and Yugoslavia. Western banks ranging from Deutsche Bank to Bankers Trust no longer permit any dollar-denominated transactions that involve Nauru. In the digital age, this action packs the same wallop as an old-fashioned gunboat blockade.

Nauru wasn't always an outlaw nation. A decade ago, it was an up-and-coming country in the old global economy -- having done quite well with a singular export derived from its geographical isolation. For a million years, migrating birds took a bathroom break on this coral sanctuary, leaving the island's interior hummock composting rich veins of dense phosphate. For a time, exports of this key fertilizer ingredient made Nauruans among the richest people per capita in the world. But with the mineral wealth running out, Nauru's finest minds have turned to the heady new-economy riches of international banking. Specifically, they've opted for offshore banking, whereby a country registers new banks with loose rules and permits them to operate anywhere in the world -- except onshore in the country of registry.

Nauru's new banking system was rumored to be entirely contained within a government institution called the Nauru Agency Corporation, which was said to be nothing more than a bunch of humming computers sitting inside . . . the shack. By knocking on its door, I hoped to look into the face of the new global economy.

Getting to this place wasn't easy. An official representative of the government told me that no journalist would be permitted on the island. So I went as a tourist. When I announced my status to the ticket clerk in Brisbane, she laughed in my face.

But Customs in Nauru -- I landed at 4 a.m. -- was too tired to care about my reasons for visiting, so I was cleared easily and caught a ride to the Menem, one of two hotels on the island. In my room was a printed notice asking guests to be considerate, waterwise, since the country was in its third year of a drought. My attempt at a shower ended 30 seconds later.

At 7 a.m., I decided to walk up the road about two miles to a knot of buildings that locals expansively call ''the capital city of Yaren.'' Wealth on a remote island manifests itself in peculiar ways. Every Nauruan seemed to own a car, but many of the houses were made of unpainted cinder blocks. Because of the drought, the yards were configurations of dirt. Trash, too expensive to export, was simply collected in piles in the back, as in Appalachia. Even at the shore's edge, many of the island's palm trees were dead from drought -- coconutless, frondless poles curving obscenely toward the sun.

Returning to the hotel, I set about trying to locate the Nauru Agency Corporation. None of the clerks had ever heard of it. The driver of the island's only taxicab didn't know either, but he did react to my laments about my roasting flesh by driving me to the only souk on the island that sold hats. A passing cargo ship must have dumped a pallet of them, all the same: bright red baseball caps bearing the slogan ''KGB -- The Secret Is Out.'' My covert walkabout was ambling into the realm of farce.

Nauru is a perfectly circular atoll, about a third the size of Manhattan. Midtown, more or less. But nearly 80 percent of the island's interior consists of abandoned surface mines and is uninhabitable. The nation's 10,000 residents dwell exclusively on a ring of green that hugs the shore, held together by a single loop of road.

Walking along this roadside, I passed the Nauruan golf club. Because of the drought, the entire nine-hole course was completely grassless, a three-par sand trap. I made my way to the post office, where I earned the trust of a postal clerk by talking stamps with him. He pulled out a map and directed me to the Nauru Agency Corporation. It was just around the corner.

Standing at last before the building that destroyed Russia filled me with a weird terror. The Nauru Agency Corporation was indeed a shack -- actually, half a shack. One side was rented out. Air-conditioners were stuffed in nearly every window, presumably huffing away to keep the computers cool. The place had the beaten look of a college sophomore's off-campus apartment. Yet I trembled when I walked up close enough to see the letters spelling out Nauru Agency Corporation on the door. Seventy billion dollars. Russian mobsters. Officials in Moscow had been machine-gunned for less.

I knocked on the door, and it opened slightly to reveal a woman holding a broom. The cleaning lady of the new global economy. She wasn't particularly hostile when I asked if there was someone inside I could talk to. But she said that there wasn't and that I should telephone. When I asked her for the number, she said she didn't know it and closed the door.

Money laundering comprises endless variations on a simple theme: taking money earned in illegal ways and moving it through one or more transactions so that it looks legal. Once cleansed, the funds can easily be spent on legitimate deals, like real estate or stock.

For example, say you're a drug dealer with $100,000 in cocaine-flecked 20's. You might enter a casino and buy $100,000 in chips, gamble modestly, then cash in your chips for a cashier's check. Because any bank transaction over $10,000 has to be reported, you can now hand over the casino check for deposit at a bank and, without too much suspicion, call it ''winnings.'' Another money-laundering method involves taking your drug profits and buying up cashier's checks with a value under $10,000. (Drug dealers typically employ squads of what law-enforcement officials call ''smurfs'' to perform this service.) This money can be deposited without fanfare and later wire-transferred to an offshore bank account.

In the 80's, the problem of money laundering at last began to be taken seriously. The first bill passed by Congress with the words ''money laundering'' in the title was in 1986. International organizations, like the Group of 7, began cracking down as well. As a result, some nations cleaned up their acts. Switzerland, for one, will no longer fully protect the identities of those old ''numbered accounts.'' But by going straight, the Swiss simply created fresh demand for their old service. And they did it on the eve of the digital revolution, permitting any sovereign nation with a phone line to get into the game. Scores of little countries like Nauru have seized this opportunity.

Nauru specializes in something called a shell bank, which exists only on paper. There are no teller windows, no A.T.M.'s. Indeed, much of a shell bank's activity takes place not on Nauru (or even in the shack) but in ''correspondent accounts'' in other countries. A correspondent account is just like a checking account -- except it's for an entire bank.

Since most banks are required by the country they are registered in to keep a record of every major transaction that goes in and out of such accounts, money can be traced. (Most banks are also required to report suspicious patterns of activity and to know the identity of their customers.) But Nauru permits its shell banks to operate without such encumbrances. While specific clumps of money may enter a Nauruan correspondent account at a real brick-and-mortar bank, the person charged with managing those transactions sees only an unidentified flow of funds passing through. And once the funds have passed on through, they become untraceable.

The recent Bank of New York scandal revealed not only the latest techniques in money laundering but also the critical role a tiny nation like Nauru can play. The scheme was designed by Russian bankers but was run by a married couple in New York -- Peter Berlin and Lucy Edwards, a vice president of the Bank of New York. (Edwards was born Ludmilla Pritsker in Leningrad.) Beginning in Moscow, two established banks, Sobinbank and MDM, opened two separate banks -- Depozitarno-Kliringovy Bank, or DKB, and Flamingo Bank -- to serve as the conduits for fleeing funds.

Funds from Flamingo and DKB were then funneled to a shell bank registered in Nauru called Sinex. (Yes, these names are real.) Sinex was founded in the early 90's by several Russians -- one of whom, Aleksey Volkov, eventually worked directly with Berlin and Edwards out of their New York office. Sinex opened a correspondent account with the Commercial Bank of San Francisco, which permitted it to operate in the United States. Payments from Sinex were generally made to a number of shell firms -- companies that did no business other than to receive these funds -- with running accounts at the Bank of New York. To avoid suspicion, Berlin and Edwards continuously created new names for these shell firms: Benex International, General Forex, Torfinex, Lowland Inc., Becs International. From there, money was dispatched to numerous offshore locations, where it rested as clean corporate funds, easily accessible.

One Russian suspected in participating in this scheme is Semyon Mogilevich, the notorious mafia head known as the Red Don. Not to put too fine a point on the quality of the clientele, but when Edwards pleaded guilty in New York to money-laundering charges earlier this year, she admitted, ''I was aware that personnel from DKB were on occasion . . . afraid to leave the bank because they said customers with machine guns were waiting for them.''

In the three years that Berlin and Edwards ran their operation from the top floor of 118-21 Queens Boulevard, they used three standard-issue computers to perform 160,000 transactions. For flushing $7 billion out of Russia, they were paid approximately $1.8 million in fees, which they ultimately parked in offshore accounts on the Isle of Man. Their scheme might still be working, except that a $300,000 ransom fee intended for kidnappers of a Russian businessman named Edouard Olevinskiy used the Benex pipeline to make the payment and set off an F.B.I. investigation.

Starting a bank in Nauru is simple and comparatively cheap. If you click on, you can get one going for just $25,000. (This outfit handles registration and payments to the Nauru Agency Corporation.) Benefits are wide ranging, according to the Web site: you can ''improve your image by owning your own bank'' while hiding your money from ''a vindictive ex-spouse.'' The pitch is clearly not aimed at the average investor. ''Seize your assets before your creditors even think of it,'' the site recommends.

Once your dirty funds have moved through a bank registered in Nauru, they are essentially liberated. No investigator can subpoena ''records'' to trace the flow of money -- because there simply aren't any. A Nauru bank is a firewall for any investigating official. What, exactly, was the transaction? Where did the money come from? In Nauru, the bucks stop there.

It's not difficult to figure out why Nauru would get into the offshore-banking business. The country had only one export and, like so many colonial dependents, relied upon experts from the developed world to exploit it and reap the benefits.

In the heyday of colonialism in the late 19th century, when every European nation with a boat charged to the Pacific to claim tiny islands, Germany was the first to toss its flag on Nauru's shore. According to legend, a colonial officer noticed that a big rock used as a doorstop was made of pure phosphate. Right away, tracks for a railroad into the island's interior were laid, and exporters began carrying off, shipload by shipload, the island's soil.

Australia seized the island from the Germans in World War I. The Japanese took it during the next world war and deported some 1,200 Nauruans to the Chuuk Islands, where 500 of them died as slave laborers. After the war, Australia resumed mining and earned enormous profits before the island achieved independence in 1968. The Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust raked in the money over the next decades. Health care and education were guaranteed to every Nauruan. Cars, air-conditioning and other imports were available nearly to all. By the early 90's, the trust had an estimated principal of $800 million, with real-estate investments in Oregon and Hawaii.

But in that volatile decade, a number of bad investments were made. One of the country's London financial advisers, Adrian Powles, embezzled $60 million from the trust. Nauru was also the chief backer of a London musical based on the life of da Vinci. ''Leonardo'' flopped.

In 1992, Nauru bought into a scheme of ''prime bank notes.'' This was a scam that lured investors with the promise that the superrich secretly traded these notes for enormous, fast profits. Nauru sank $30 million in the deal. The money, most likely washed through Antigua, is now untraceably gone.

Recent trust estimates reveal that it has plunged to roughly $130 million. And there is no other obvious economy in waiting. Tourism might have been a possibility once, except that a century of phosphate mining has left Nauru with probably the most devastated ecosystem on the planet. Without the intervention of some environmental white knight with Noachian ambitions, it's not just the island's economy that's in danger. It's the island itself.

At 5 a.m. the day after I arrived, my body clock woke me to full darkness. I stood on the beach watching the stars as the horizon blinked and a bloodred morning raced across the surface of the sea. In the brightening light, I decided to canvass the island before the heat became overwhelming. No sooner had I started walking down the road, though, than a car pulled over, and its curious driver offered me a ride. ''What are you doing on Nauru?'' he asked. ''Just visiting,'' I said. He looked at me sideways, then chuckled. ''Let me ask you something,'' he said. ''Have you ever practiced the profession of journalism?'' ''I. Have. Been. Known. To. Practice. Something. Like. Unto. Which. Journalism. Technically. Is.'' ''I wouldn't want to talk to a journalist who'd use my name,'' he said.

That settled, my new friend offered to take me on a tour of the island. For 20 minutes we drove the circumference of Nauru, stopping once at a small store whose empty shelves held only one thing for sale: white bread. As we drove, nothing was noted or pointed out. The tour took place in an eerily expectant silence because we both knew there is only one thing a visitor to Nauru really wants to see. Eventually the driver pulled up beside the phosphate factory. ''You want to see Topside, right?'' he asked, using the local nickname for the interior of the island.

We turned up a dirt road. You could still see where huge boulders were shipped in on the railroad to be roasted and processed into refined, powdery phosphate. We drove to a place atop what's left of the interior mound of the atoll, where we could see in one sweeping view the belly of the island.

There are no words or pictures that can adequately capture what mining has wrought in Nauru. To get out and stand there is to be scared, to feel the overwhelming fear of being alone in a coliseum. The small atoll has essentially been tonsured, sheared of all greenery and dug down to the rock. The thinning vegetation on the periphery -- the dead palms, the pandanus trees with black crowns, the grassless golf course -- is the good news. The entire interior of the island is a lunar landscape of excavated channels. With all the topsoil and phosphate gone, what's left are sinuous stone canals marked by sun-bleached limestone towers and coral outcroppings.

One environmental theory that explains Nauru's persistent drought is called the oven effect. The white hot plate of Nauru's interior creates a column of scorched air that rises up fast enough to blow away rain clouds.

We drove slowly with the windows down. The driver stopped and, scanning the skeletal landscape, told me how when he was a boy, all this was dense tropical forest. He and his friends would hunt black noddy birds with nets and then bring them home to prepare them in the traditional Nauruan style. Today, he said, there are few noddy birds left.

We sat in a hissing silence for a while. There was no breeze, just fine talc, airborne and stagnant, like particulate. It seemed to crackle and pop in the heavy, birdless air. Perhaps more unnerving than the landscape was the driver's stoic face -- absent of all affect, tensed by something unnameably sad. He held himself immobile, with an expression of shame I had never before seen. He and his people, perhaps unknowingly, had sold off their motherland. It was done gradually, by accretion, and amid the joy of sudden wealth. There were probably rationalizations and explanations, and yet it was an incomprehensible thing to see it and feel it. Imagine France paving Bordeaux; Israel plowing under Jerusalem; Spain salting the Castilian plain. The driver said he hoped that one day I'd get the chance to eat a noddy bird, then dropped me off at the post office.

I walked up the road to the shack to knock once more. No one answered. I worried that I might never get to look into the face of the new global economy. I was halfway back to my hotel, staggering under the equatorial sun, before I realized I had been looking at it all morning.

As the phrase ''Money Laundering'' implies, there are a number of cycles to the cleaning process. After procuring funds by some less-than-legal means, the money launderer first wires the money through a bank registered someplace like Nauru. But in the ''spin cycle,'' that money has to pass through an economically stable place with lots of clean money -- a place like the United States of America. When that money moves through our banks, it churns some easy profits. As a result, America's own money-laundering standards are, to put it nicely, confusing.

''Simply put, criminal money is illegal; corrupt money is not,'' said Raymond Baker, a money-laundering specialist with the Center for International Policy. If the money is derived from criminal sources like drugs, America officially opposes it. But if it is derived from corrupt foreign sources -- like Gen. Sani Abacha, whose family is believed to have washed billions out of oil-rich Nigeria in his lifetime -- then it's fine.

For most of the 90's, Citibank maintained accounts for the Abachas' billions. This was legal, because transferring money that is accumulated from bribes and extortion in another country is not a crime here. Citibank has admitted to handling billions of dollars from all kinds of corrupt leaders and their kin: Omar Bongo, the president of Gabon; Jaime Lusinchi, the former president of Venezuela; Raul Salinas de Gortari, the brother of Mexico's former president. Like most large American banks, Citibank has a special program for such wealthy customers: it's called private banking. Besides identifying customers only by secret code names to maintain privacy, private banking provides conveniences like ''pass-through accounts'' -- which allow unidentified money to be brought into the U.S. banking system momentarily before being wired to an offshore account.

Because of this thin distinction between criminal and corrupt funds, approximately $40 billion in corrupt funds is washed through American banks each year. As Baker sees it, ''We condemn one kind of money laundering while encouraging the other.''

Indeed, the punishments meted out for money laundering do not exactly qualify as a deterrent. For instance, the Bank of New York scandal has so far resulted in one prison term, for Svetlana Kudryavtsev, a secretary in the New York operation who was paid $500 a month to monitor shady accounts. Declaring that he wanted to ''send a message,'' United States District Judge Jed Rakoff sentenced her to jail -- for two weeks.

Because so many people can easily launder money today, the problem is rapidly worsening, a trend that worries many experts. Jonathan M. Winer, a former State Department official, described money laundering as a kind of cancer. ''It metastasizes and creeps into different economies,'' he said. He cited the collapse of Albania in 1998, when loosey-goosey bank regulations allowed a pyramid scheme to infiltrate the country's economy. In the end, when it collapsed, the people panicked, stormed the nation's armories and flooded the country with Kalashnikovs. These rebels spilled over into Kosovo, giving their anti-Serbian neighbors enough momentum and weaponry to start a war, which eventually required American intervention to end.

From the perspective of someone like Winer, an alarming number of recent crises -- the collapse of the Mexican peso in 1994, the looting of Russia, the destruction of Venezuela, the current bilking of Colombia by its drug lords -- have money laundering at their source. The Long-Term Capital Management hedge-fund crisis of 1998 is another example, closer to home. The fund invested billions in sleazy overseas deals involving some offshore-banking switcheroos. When the fund was on the verge of collapse, top financial officials, including Alan Greenspan of the Federal Reserve Board, argued that, no matter how unfair, the American financial community should bail it out. It did, at a cost of $3.6 billion.

Why? The fear, according to Winer, is that the instability that triggers such scandals might find its way into the American market, whose strength currently depends on confidence and certainty. This is why Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers now speaks so insistently about protecting the ''global financial architecture.''

But this effort isn't going to be easy. With so many fledgling nation-states appearing on the scene -- Nauru's neighbor Palau, a competitor in the shell-bank business, became independent only in 1994 -- selling sovereignty gets only easier. And for countries with few natural resources, the lure of the electronic-transfer scam is strong.

Indeed, even if the State Department manages to force countries like Nauru to clean up their acts, technology is threatening to make money laundering so easy that elaborate ruses like shell banks won't be necessary. A few years from now, a drug dealer might be able to have digital dollars zapped right into his Palm Pilot while cutting a deal in an alley -- and then have those funds transferred to Liechtenstein before crossing the street.

Though their work is clearly cut out for them, officials like Winer refuse to give up. ''We have to keep up the effort of policing the global-finance system, because you have to realize that banking is a kind of confidence game,'' he said. ''Your typical con artist has to win your confidence only for as long as it takes to get your money. But bankers have to win your confidence, and keep it, forever.''

After returning from Nauru, I learned that its president would be visiting New York to address the United Nations during the millennium summit. Bernard Dowiyogo has served in this office four times in the last decade of Nauru's turbulent internal politics.

A courtly man, Dowiyogo invited me up to his Park Avenue hotel room for breakfast. He and I sat together, along with Nauru's ambassador and some other government officials, and shared a plate of sausage and eggs scrambled in that flawlessly yellow hotel style.

''We cooperate with authorities when they come to the island with court orders,'' Dowiyogo told me. To be sure, Nauru has been cooperative in some fairly grotesque cases. In the 90's, a Florida outfit called Greater Ministries International, which was affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, operated a Ponzi scheme. Christians looking for easy profits invested in something called the Double Your Blessing program, only to have their money disappear through a Nauru bank. After the scam became public, Nauru revoked G.M.I.'s banking charter.

''We check every company's background,'' Dowiyogo said, an assertion disputed by the State Department. ''We check a company's credentials. It's not true what they say about Russian money and Nauru. If that money had come through Nauru, we'd have a gold mine.'' He adjusted the knife at his place setting. ''That money went through the Bank of New York.''

Because Nauru's bank system scrupulously avoids monitoring transactions, it can't really make any commissions off the size or number of transfers. Nauru's government collects only the crumbs: the one-time start-up fee and then annual renewal fees. ''It costs $1,000 to renew,'' Dowiyogo explained.

According to the Treasury Department, Nauru has at least 400 shell banks registered on the island (half of them by Russian clients), providing half a million in easy annual revenues. That's not a trivial sum for a country with such a small population. But Nauru is planning some costly projects that should keep it in the offshore-banking business for some time.

Dowiyogo told me that his country hoped to rehabilitate Topside. As there is no topsoil left, such an undertaking would take 20 years and cost $300 million. ''One of the things we have in mind,'' Dowiyogo said, ''is that part of the dug-out area should be left as it is so that future generations can see what it was like.'' Like a museum, added the ambassador. So maybe there is a new economy ahead for Nauru after all: ecotourism, only in reverse.

I then asked Dowiyogo what other ideas were kicking around Nauru to make money. He said they were studying one proposal to slice the limestone pinnacles into cross sections, polish them and sell them in the West as coffee tables. When I asked what other business opportunities his country was contemplating, he took a bite of toast.

Another government official told me later that there has been talk of permitting the country's phone code to be used for 1-900 sex lines. Vanuatu, another money-laundering island in the region, has already gone this way. Nauru is holding out for the coffee tables.

Nauru's biggest holiday is called Angam Day. It celebrates the several occasions in the past when the island's population was 1,500 -- the magic figure deemed necessary for life to flourish there. Today, with 7,000 Nauruans inhabiting the island's green skirt -- and with an economic future contingent upon Western desire for limestone coffee tables -- I gingerly asked the president what might happen to the people on Nauru in the next 10 years. ''That's not a problem,'' he said, explaining that residual phosphate mining will hold them. ''What about 20 years?'' I asked. ''That may be a problem,'' the president said quietly. Soon after my chat with Dowiyogo, the group of 7 task force that monitors shady banking practices issued some rare praise for countries described as ''improving'' their bank laws. Notably absent was Nauru.

One senior Treasury Department official told me that Nauru had grown only more bellicose -- to the point of extortion. Dowiyogo had written the Treasury Department a letter claiming that since Nauru ''has been the victim of unfair adverse media publicity based on unsubstantiated allegations of money laundering,'' the country could not possibly ''go ahead with the implementation of its resolve to reform its offshore financial regime'' before America paid Nauru at least ''$10 million.''

Stuart E. Eizenstat, the deputy treasury secretary, responded in a speech: ''Nauru should not expect to receive a big check anytime soon.'' If anything, the financial blockade may soon become formalized. A bill written by Representative Jim Leach and currently waiting to get out of committee would empower the Treasury Department, without Congressional approval, to quarantine any nation that refused to meet America's banking standards. Nauru, in a sense, is the test case for the new global money police.

In the meantime, Nauru has ignored the West and shifted gears to pursue a very modern strategy: public relations. In October, I received an invitation from Helen Bogdan, a P.R. agent in Melbourne who represents ''the country of Nauru.'' She was flying to New York to appear at one of the tonier downtown clubs, Lot 61. There, she would show a 10-minute film, the kind of thing you might see on an airplane just before the movie.

The event started at midnight on a Saturday. I was escorted past a rope line where anxious club kids waited for the chance to enter and sip $10 drinks beneath lush motion pictures of smiling Nauruan children, swaying palms and turquoise waves. The brief shots of Topside were so fast-cut and tightly focused that the pinnacles resembled beautiful Polynesian totems. With numerous women in pastel fabrics grinning from thatched huts and a lot of outrigger boats pounding atop spangling waves, Nauru suddenly looked a lot like how Paul Gauguin might have imagined it.

I said hello to Bogdan, a platinum blonde dressed in all black with matching beret, and asked her about a rumor. I'd heard that Nauru had bought up land in Australia in case global warming threatens the island with flooding. Bogdan said the story was partly true, in that Australia had once offered the Nauruans an island off the Great Barrier Reef. The gift was declined because it required the Nauruans to surrender their sovereignty to Canberra.

But it seems likely that Nauru will have to plan for such a contingency. Even if Nauru were to become the next Switzerland, the money wouldn't wash up on shore fast enough. A rise in sea level of only a few feet would engulf the meager inhabitable ring of the island, leaving the coral boneyard of Topside all alone at sea, once again available to a million years of birds.

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