One of those affected was Banaba, also known as Ocean Island.
It was so denuded by 80 years of mining that the British colonial authorities relocated its people to nearby RabiI (rham-beel) Island in Fiji.
Now, one Banaban islander and his Australian wife, whose family was involved in phosphate mining for four generations, have built up a company offering work for as many Banabans as the mining once did, and it's all down to coconut oil.
Presenter: Sean Dorney, Pacific Correspondent, Australia Network
Speaker: Ken Sigrah, Co-owner & Director, Nature Pacific; Stacey King, Co-owner & Director, Nature Pacific
On Australia's Gold Coast the Fijian flag flies outside a recently refurbished factory. The warehouse here is taking delivery of yet another container filled with drums of virgin coconut oil.
This container carries 16,000 litres of oil. I go through a container like this - almost four containers a month.
Business owner Ken Sigrah was uprooted from Banaba with the rest of his people and resettled in Fiji, when the island was rendered uninhabitable after 80 years phosphate mining.
["Ken Sigrah - Co-owner and Director of Nature Pacific"]
By the time they finished they actually destroyed almost 95% of the mainland. Now almost all you can see on Banaba is a forest of pinnacles - 80 feet high. You can't grow anything there! And, well, we were promised that our land would be dug up, would be reburied and replanted. We never get that. We are promised that we will be given compensation - that never happened!
Ken was the clan spokesman and the island's elders asked him to collaborate with Stacey King whose family had worked in the mine and she wanted to write a book.
["Stacey King - Co-owner and Director of Nature Pacific"]
Even though my great-grandfather worked as the chief overseer for the mining company he had taken glass plate photography of old villagers. It wasn't just of mining it was of the people. It was of villages. And I realised when I wrote the book this was all lost. This was gone because of mining. Because of what our families, all these Australians and New Zealanders, you know, we're all part of it. I'm a mining, I'm the daughter of the, the miners.
They say part of their motivation for starting the coconut oil company was to help the Banaban people.
And we tried to work out if there's some sort of kind of business that we can do in order to work with our people back home. And one of my adopted brother - he's a Fijian guy - who actually thought about, 'Why don't we start coconut oil?'
[Stacey King ]
Ironically this whole company started on these bottles here. And they're scented oil. All these fragrances go back to exactly what the Banabans do. So there's Frangipani, Ylang Ylang. These all grow in Fiji now. These simple little bottles that used to be $4.50 - we used to pack them in our garage - the next thing is the Australian Aboriginals got interested in our products and they started buying it. And it was through a major co-operative out of Darwin. We were supplying coconut oil into the remotest places in Australia. But, today, the biggest selling products that we have - if you come around here - are all our foods and especially this one - our oils.
And the business is booming.
[Sigrah:] This is our best selling product - one litre Virgin Coconut Oil.
[Dorney:] Where will this be going, Ken? Where will you be shipping this to?
[Sigrah:] Australia wide. That's how the oil should look. Clear. Golden. And it's edible, edible oil.
Turnover this financial year could top 3.8 million Australian dollars.
Every year we sort of jump another million or we're sort of doubling up. Our profit gains have been between 55%, up to 73%, to 113% so it's just gone beyond our wildest imaginations really.
And export orders are growing.
[Sigrah:] Germany now - we've already sent a pallet to Germany. And a few weeks ago I think we have a deal with Canada.
[Dorney:] Did you ever think when you started in the garage that you would end up having something like this?
[Sigrah:] Not for a moment. In my dreams, yes. But not in reality!
The product is mostly sourced from a farm in Fiji employing Barnabans.
They now employ 50 of our Banaban families. And that means they get a house provided, their families live there, they're educated at the school there. That's been exciting to see, 50 people. And they're always looking for more people to come over from Rabi and work there.
The company has also set up an education foundation for Banaban children back on Rabi.
The project has actually expanded to about 135 students. So we started with just the little primary school children and now it goes up to high school. Things that we could never even imagine at the start we are able to do now because of a simple coconut and coconut oil.