IT CAN BE DONE!
REHABILITATION OF CHRISTMAS ISLAND
PHOSPHATE ISLAND ALSO MINED BY THE BRITISH PHOSPHATE COMMISSION
AUSTRALIAN AND NEW ZEALAND GOVERNMENTS)
The following in an extract of an article title 'Unholy
Alliance on Christmas Island' that was kindly supplied to
the Banaban Heritage Society by Roger Hart.
The article was published in
two parts in the 'Rehabilitation Forum'
of the 'Banaba/Ocean Island News'.
Part One appeared in Issue No.
15 May/June 1995, and Part Two in Issue No. 16 Jul/Aug 1995
Roger Hart, was at the time of
writing, the Rehabilitation Officer for the Australian Nature
Conservation Agency, Christmas Island, Indian Ocean.
Roger informed us in 1995 that
they were currently into their sixth year of operation of the
CIRRP (Christmas Island Rainforest Rehabilitation Program), and
seem to be achieving good results.
UNHOLY ALLIANCE ON CHRISTMAS ISLAND
A new beginning brings together
industry, the environment and the unions.
There are two ways to deal with
the scars left by extensive phosphate mining.
In Nauru, 50 years of
environmental neglect produced a decimated landscape and $107
million in compensation from the Australian government.
"An omen to all the people
on earth," was how the island's finance minister described
their sad history.
The once fertile, Pleasant
Island, reduced to little more than a moonscape. Plans for
rehabilitation are on the drawing board - long after the birds
In Christmas Island they've
found a better, and much cheaper, way.
Three unusual bedfellows;
industrialists, environmentalists, and the Mineworkers' Union
are cooperating to restore the island to its original beauty by
planting trees and bushes on the ravaged landscape. And they are
not just talking about it but actively making it happen -
replanting hundreds of thousands of carefully chosen trees,
bushes and shrubs on the disfigured mining grounds.
It's a unique arrangement and
one that could well be an inspirational model for our decaying
world. It also marks a reunion of industry and conservationists
- previously sworn enemies at opposite ends of the development
The central players who have
brought about this unlikely alliance are David Argyle, managing
director of the Christmas Island Phosphate Mining Company, Roger
Hart, specialist field officer of the Australian Nature
Conservation Agency (ANCA) and Lillian Oh, former Union
This unholy triumvirate, as
they are dubbed, share a common love of the Christmas Island
environment - the only home of the stunningly beautiful abbott's
booby bird - and birthplace of millions of red crabs.
"It's an environment worth
preserving for business reasons alone, beyond the obvious
This is the pragmatic view of
"The phosphate mine is a
bridge to the longer term economic security of tourism in
general and environmental tourism in particular," he
"To safeguard our future,
we have to be committed to more than short-term profit."
Christmas Island is an
Australian external Territory in the Indian Ocean, 2600
kilometres north west of Perth. It is the only nesting site in
the world of the endangered abbott's booby bird.
There are now over 3000 nests
of the endemic abbot's booby on the island. In 1966 a renowned
ornithologist estimated that only 100 pairs remained. The bird
nests only on Christmas Island. Their number had slowly declined
since 1895 when Murray and George Clunies-Ross discovered
phosphate in abundance on this 50 million year old extinct
volcano rising out of the Indian Ocean.
Mining of the phosphate
required stripping of the trees and this was particularly
threatening to the magnificent abbott's booby.
The need to restore the
island's tall trees to preserve the booby bird is explained by
the ANCA man responsible for the rehabilitation, Roger Hart.
"The birds needed high
nests because of their long narrow wings which allow the bird to
literally glide into a landing site. The wing size and shape
make it almost impossible for the adult bird to take off from
Abbott's booby birds also need
to land into the wind, rather like a conventional aeroplane -
restricting nesting sites to the north-western side of the
island in trees protected from the prevailing winds.
If the bird misses its approach
to land on a tall branch, it cannot regain height and often
falls to earth. Unable to take off from the ground the bird
could fact starvation.
UNHOLY ALLIANCE ON CHRISTMAS ISLAND
After arriving on the island 5
years ago, Roger Hart was aware of the problem facing the birds,
which were by now officially listed as an endangered species.
"By removing even some of
the trees from the dense rainforest the booby bird had to deal
with 'wind-shear' just before landing - equally unpopular with a
glider-bird as with any other pilot."
Despite objections from
visiting naturalists, Australia needed more superphosphate
fertiliser for its wheat production particularly when prices of
petroleum-based fertiliser shot up in 1974. Mining operations
were moved from areas away from the birds' nesting sites to the
central and western plateaus. By 1980 one-third of the breeding
habitat had been destroyed.
Abbott's booby birds are
particularly sensitive to changes in their environment as each
bird has only one mate throughout their lifetime and together
produce only one egg every two years. Each offspring is nurtured
for up to 16 months in the nest.
Destruction of the rainforest
and extinction of this unique bird was proceeding apace when the
federal government closed down the mine in December 1987
claiming it was unprofitable. Forest clearing was sopped and
breeding areas of the abbott's booby came under direct control
of, what is now, the Australian Nature Conservation Agency
In 1991 the Mineworkers' Union
won the right to mine areas already cleared. They agreed that
part of the royalties should finance rehabilitation. At first it
seemed like a big step for miners to consider the long-term
effect of stripping away vegetation. Now mining chief David
Argyle give high marks to the dedicated environmentalists.
"We have a very good
relationship because they are practical people. We consult with
the nature conservationists all the time - even before we touch
a tree. They give us sensible rather than blinkered advice. I
appreciate that. We are a very good team."
From each tonne of the
phosphate sold mainly to Asian markets, the company pays $1.50
for rehabilitation of the environment. So far this has raised
$700,000 to plant 35,000 new trees each year. It has been
estimated that $6.5 million will be needed for complete
restoration of the landscape - but that certainly beats $107
million in compensation.
"I'd rather pay for
environmental rehabilitation than see it disappear into general
government revenue," points out the down-to-earth David
"We see almost immediate
returns and the good sense of doing it is obvious to everyone in
the community and beyond."
The initial solution was to
replant the tree to minimise the turbulence caused by bare areas
in the rainforest.
As ANCA's man Roger Hart
explains, "The original rainforest was perfect, but as this
was stripped, the exposed trees began to lose foliage and the
birds had to leave their traditional nesting ground. The future
of the entire species was threatened."
Roger originally hails from
Sydney. The results he has achieved are spectacular in anybody's
language. He hopes to see the first phase of the project through
to completion at the end of the current 10 year lease the
company has on mining rights.
"Complete restoration will
never be completed in my lifetime because the forest will take a
hundred years to return to it original state. The birds clearly
couldn't wait that long - they would have been extinct. We have
made tremendous progress in a short time," he says with
"We will leave a valuable
That the birds are now being
preserved by proceeds form the phosphate mine is perhaps a
perfect example OCS cyclical natural law, as the phosphate was
originally formed from bird dropping guano accumulated over
centuries. Proceed from those ancient bird droppings are now
being used as an investment in the future of the bird's
The third member of the
unlikely trio that combined to save the natural habitat of the
birds is Lillian Oh - formerly Union Secretary and now Shire
rehabilitation is seen as good for the long term future of the
island. Everybody here is pro-environment -even the
Lillian Oh came to the island
to help with union business after the Federal government closed
the mine. It took just over three years for the workers to
revive the mine.
"Only under worker control
did the mine start caring for the environment," is her
Even the operators of Christmas
Island's new casino recognise that in the gambling off-season
their beds need to be occupied by keen tourists wishing to see
not roulette wheel and playing cards, but booby birds and 3
million crabs. As John Farrow, the casino manager points out,
"In the off season for gamblers we see the environment and
rehabilitation of forest as an important part of our
"We will supply excellent
facilities for those people who come here each year to see the
red crabs and the booby birds."
It is a satisfying situation
when industry can work together with the preservers of Christmas
Island's National Park (which now covers more than 60 per cent
of the island). There is a common good recognised by the
hard-nosed business man, the bird lover and the unionist.
Nauru has been described as a
small island in the middle of a blue ocean whose birds have
flown away. Even hefty compensation won't bring the birds back.
On Christmas Island an endangered species is back from the brink
- thanks to the holy triumvirate.
A visionary solution on
Christmas Island will make the abbott's booby nesting areas
habitable again. With that kind of wider perspective, perhaps
big business and environmentalists may once again see that they
really are in the same camp.
Ko raba Roger for supplying us with this very inspiring
story on the Rehabilitation Program on Christmas Island. This
story shows what can be achieved when people work towards a
common goal. The sad thing about the comparisons between
Christmas and Banaba islands is the fact that Christmas Island
never had an indigenous population. It's amazing what effort has
gone in to protecting the endangered species of 'abbott's booby'
bird. It would be interesting to find out just how many species
were lost on Banaba over the years of mining.