Christmas Island needs help

To: "Birding Aus" <>
Subject: Christmas Island needs help
From: "Peter and Jenny Farrell" <>
Date: Fri, 17 May 2002 10:25:41 +1000
My sister periodically works on Christmas Island and has sent this down to
me. Can anyone help by writing to a few politicians about this wonderful
place before it is too late? We also need to watch out for the Environmental
Impact Statement for the new mining leases - it will be released late in the
year and is the only opportunity to formally object to the mining proposals"


Christmas Island, Indian Ocean, is one of Australia’s most precious
treasures.  Home to numerous endemic plants and animals, several of which
are endangered, the island is now faced with a barrage of major threats to
its environmental integrity.

If the proliferation of the crazy ant and its devastating impact on the
island’s special crabs and birds isn’t serious enough, now it’s construction
of a space station, proposals for a huge detention centre and 9 new mining
leases – which will result in clearing of 320 ha of primary rainforest.

Christmas Island is only small – no more than 20 km wide – but it is
remarkably rich in unique wildlife, fascinating and unusual plants within a
ruggedly beautiful landscape. In global terms, it is the only nesting site
for the IUCN red-listed Abbot’s Booby and other endemic species including a
Goshawk, Imperial Pigeon, Emerald Dove, Hawk Owl, White-eye and a Thrush.
These bird species and a whole host of plant species occur nowhere else. The
island is perhaps best known for it’s annual migration of millions of red
crabs, but it is also the habitat for a bizarre range of other land-dwelling
crabs including giant robber crabs and the remarkable blue crabs from
freshwater areas.

Naturally one would assume that with such a valuable and intriguing natural
heritage, the Australian Government would have strict conservation laws to
protect the island and would not permit developments that threaten the
integrity of the island’s ecology. Sadly this is not the case. Indeed a
policy of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ prevails and it appears that it has
little or no respect for conservation of the forest and the exceptional
fauna it supports. Even worse, it appears that the fast-tracking of several
developments suggest secret land deals have been brokered between the
government and private companies such as PRL (Phosphate Resources Limited)
that make a mockery of the Environmental Impact Assessment process and
legislation to protect internationally significant species.

The most pressing threat involves the proposal by PRL to acquire 9 new
mining leases on the island.  The ailing company (which funnily enough has
just relinquished Mining Lease 138 to the government during its urgent
scramble to find somewhere to put a detention centre) has commenced an EIS
in a bid to secure 448 ha of land for new phosphate mines. Tragically, 71%
of this area comprises 320 ha of primary rainforest.  This is no ordinary
forest, with majestic canopy trees 30-40m tall and emergents to 50m, their
straight trunks rich in endemic orchids and epiphytes. Beneath the canopy,
endemic species such as Lister’s Palm and Pandanus elatus occur, amongst
numerous other species of botanical interest.

The argument of the developer (PRL) will be that these forests occur outside
Christmas Island national park and do not include sites where the Abbot’s
Booby are known to breed. However, it is a condition of the current mining
lease that “NO MORE CLEARING of primary rainforest” is to occur.  These
conditions were imposed in the past in recognition of the previous tragic
destruction of over 2,500 ha of the island’s vegetation. Indeed, Parks
Australia North staff currently spend a great majority of their time and
resources in rehabilitating old mine sites, some of the many persistent
scars that remain from previous phosphate mining. Clearly, the argument of
any thinking person or politician who takes biodiversity conservation even
mildly seriously would be to object to any extension of mining on Christmas
Island.  One has to ask, is there is any good reason to revoke the current
conditions of the lease? Could an underhand land swap be a valid reason to
approve such a proposal?

Some background information:  Mining lease 138, the ill-chosen site for the
proposed detention centre (to house 1200 people), is completely surrounded
by Christmas Island National Park. (It is reminiscent of Ranger mine in
Kakadu.) Just to the north, less than 200m away, are rainforest areas where
Abbots Booby’s breed.  These remarkable seabirds are highly endangered –
there are less than 2,500 pairs left in the world – which may sound like a
lot until you find out that it takes 25 years for each pair to replace
themselves.  Nesting nowhere else on the planet, it makes such breeding
sites very special indeed.

Part of the Booby problem lies in the fact that they are very slow to breed
(taking approx. 18 months) and they have a very high juvenile mortality
rate.  They also have a particular set of requirements concerning tree
height and access  – being huge seabirds with webbed feet, landing in
treetops is understandably a tricky business.  One severe wet season storm
can knock chicks from their nests to the forest floor, thus wiping out many

Further, in the windswept landscape of the island, turbulence when landing
is also a big issue for this species. Reafforestation of old mine sites
reduces the turbulence created by such breaks in the canopy and increases
the available forest area suitable as nesting sites. Thus the importance of
rehabilitation of Mining Lease 138.  Fragmentation of the forest has had a
big impact on this species leading to their endangered status. More forest
clearing and artificial lighting (causing disorientation) could have
disastrous consequences for the Abbots Boobies of North West Point. In a
recent assessment of priorities for rehabilitation Parks Australia
recognised the ecological importance of MNL138 by ranking it highly
(4/10,where 1 = highest).

As a site for a detention centre this location is ill-chosen for other
important reasons.  The main road to the site becomes a highway for the
massive migration of red crabs every year.  Even the process of providing
services to this area will represent a major impact on the crabs.  The road
is currently closed every year to protect the red crabs from massive road
kills and traffic will therefore have to be diverted at this time. The more
circuitous route to the site may help in protecting the crabs in the
National Park but the considerable traffic to such a centre will instead
impact on the red crabs in other parts of the island! This alone would be
sufficient reason to consider relocating the centre. Incidentally, there are
other sites that could be more easily serviced which do not impinge on the
conservation values of the National Park.

For the lucky few that have visited this island, the demise of this
extraordinary place for short-term economic and political gain, is too awful
to contemplate. For all of us the possibility of clearing of primary
rainforest for mining and proposals to build a huge barbed-wire detention
centre in the middle of Christmas Island National Park is surely sufficient
motivation to act. Christmas Island urgently needs your assistance to ensure
that it remains intact.   Demonstrate that ‘out of sight’ is not necessarily
‘out of mind’ by :

Writing to:     The Hon Dr David Kemp
                Minister for the Environment and Heritage
                Parliament House
                Canberra ACT 2600

or anyone else that may have some influence.

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