Cocos Islands environment and heritage

Geography and climate

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands' atolls are classic coral atolls, the typical horseshoe shape formation is affected by the prevailing winds and oceans. Coral sand beaches are to the seaward and mudflats can be found on the lagoon side. It was here that Charles Darwin developed his theory of coral atoll formation.

The northern atoll consists of North Keeling Island, the island and the marine area extending 1.5km around the Island form the Pulu Keeling National Park. The Park was proclaimed in 1995 and is the smallest and most remote Commonwealth National Park. It is an important example of an atoll in its natural state and supports an internationally significant seabird rookery. It is also home to land crabs, turtles, and a range of flora, as well as featuring an intact coral atoll.

The climate is tropical with high humidity. Temperatures range from 23 °C to 30 °C. The average rainfall is 2000 mm per annum falling mainly from January to August. The south-east trade winds blow most of the year producing pleasant weather conditions.

Fauna and flora

Seabirds are usually the first animals to colonise an island formed by an oceanic volcano. North Keeling Island is the only seabird breeding area within a radius of 900 kilometres, and is therefore of unique importance to the Ocean's seabird biota as well as the Cocos (Keeling) Island's seabird population. The Cocos Buff-banded rail is the only endemic bird to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and can be found on North Keeling Island.

The southern atoll is home to a variety of seabirds, some of the most common include the Red-footed Booby, Common Noddies, White Terns, Frigate Birds and the Rufus Night Heron. Approximately 60 species of birds have been recorded on the two atolls.

The marine environment supports a wide range of corals, fish, molluscs, crustaceans and other species. Turtles, manta rays, reef sharks and common dolphins are regularly sighted.

Sixty one plant species have been recorded on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands with only one endemic sub-species, the Pandanus tectorius cocosensis. Strands of this pandanus can be found on Home Island and the southern end of West Island. Thirty two native species are found in Pulu Keeling National Park, and North Keeling Island has seven species not found in the southern atoll.

Some plant species are more abundant on North Keeling Island than on the islands of the southern atoll, either because of greater areas of suitable habitat or due to clearing over the last 160 years to make way for the coconut plantations.

Heritage

Many of the current inhabitants of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands descend from the original families who worked the plantations. The islands were isolated during much of their habitation and a unique culture and language has developed based on original Malay traditions and the Islamic religion.

In recognition of the long and unique history of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a number of sites are listed on the Commonwealth Heritage List.

Population

The Census of 2006 recorded a total population of 550 on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Approximately 80 per cent of the population resides on Home Island.

Home Island

The population of Home Island is mainly comprised of the Cocos Malays. The Cocos Malays descend from people brought to the Islands in the 19th century from Malaya, East Africa, China, Java, India and Ceylon. They are predominantly Malay, speak a local variant of Malay known as Cocos Malay and follow the Islamic faith. They have been an isolated community for most of the 160 years they have lived on the Islands. It is only since the Australian Government's purchase of the majority of Mr Clunies Ross' remaining interests in the Islands in 1978 that the Cocos Malays have had extensive contact with the West Island community and mainland Australia.

West Island

The population of West Island comprises employees of various government departments, contractors and their families. They are usually on short term postings of between one and three years. However, there is a growing number of people basing themselves permanently on West Island and operating a range of small businesses.

History

Although the Cocos (Keeling) Islands were discovered in 1609 they were not inhabited until 1826 when Englishman Alexander Hare established a settlement on the main atoll. The next year Captain John Clunies Ross a Scottish seaman and former employee of Hare settled on another of the islands in the atoll.

In 1857 Captain Fremantle of HMS Juno formally declared the Islands part of the British Dominions. In 1886 Queen Victoria granted all the Islands to John Clunies Ross' grandson George and his heirs reserving powers to the Crown to resume land for public purposes and to conduct cable communications.

The Clunies Ross family established copra (coconut) plantations and imported labourers from Asia to work the plantations. Home Island was the location for the Clunies Ross family, the Cocos Malay workforce and the site of the buildings and machines required in the production and export of copra and coconut oil.

In 1901 a Cable Station was established on Direction Island to provide a telegraph link to and from Perth. The equipment was destroyed in November 1914 when the German Raider the SMS Emden mounted a successful attack. However, before the equipment was destroyed a cable was sent and the HMAS Sydney engaged the Emden in a sea battle. The Emden ran aground on North Keeling Island, and the remains are now protected.

The Islands were occupied during the Second World War by allied troops including a company of Ceylon Light Infantry on Direction Island.

In 1955 the Islands, which had been governed through the British colonies of Ceylon, the Straits Settlements and Singapore, were accepted as a Territory of Australia. In 1978 the Australian Government purchased Mr Clunies-Ross' property interests in the Islands other than his family home and surrounding grounds on Home Island (approximately 5 hectares in total). The following year ownership of the village area of Home Island was transferred to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Council, the local governing body elected by the Home Island community to be held in trust for the residents. In 1984 the remainder of the land within the Islands, apart from land owned by the Commonwealth and Mr Clunies-Ross, was transferred by trust to the Council on behalf of the Island community. In 1993 the Commonwealth purchased Oceania House from Mr Clunies-Ross on Home Island. This property was sold privately in 2002.

On 6 April 1984 the Cocos community, in a United Nations supervised Act of Self Determination, voted overwhelmingly to integrate with Australia. The Government made a commitment at that time to raise services and standards of living to a level comparable with those on mainland Australian as soon as possible and in no more than ten years at most. The Commonwealth Grants Commission was selected as the independent arbiter to monitor progress in achieving this goal.

Following consideration of the Grants Commission report of 1986 and extensive consultations with the Cocos community and its legal representatives the Government agreed on a package of changes to bring standards and conditions on Cocos into line with mainland standards. On 7 March 1991 the Prime Minister and leaders of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands community signed a Memorandum of Understanding which set out the range of measures required to achieve equivalent standards of living in the Territory.