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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
08/05/2015
Governance in the Indian Ocean Territories

BALLARD, Mr Neil Lewis, Cropping and Procurement Manager, MINTOPE

Committee met at 08:36.

CHAIR ( Mr Simpkins ): I now declare open this public committee hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories for its inquiry into governance in the Indian Ocean territories. Under the inquiry's terms of reference, the committee has been asked to consider the role of the administrator, consultation mechanisms and the best practice for small remote communities' engagement with Australian and state governments, the local government's role, and opportunities to strengthen and diversify the economy.

I would like to take this opportunity to welcome everyone and to thank participants for making time to speak with the committee. I also welcome anyone who may have come along to observe proceedings. Today's hearing in Perth follows hearings held in Canberra and on Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island in April, during which a range of issues have emerged—some long-standing and some newer ones. The committee intends to assess the situation in 2015 and to discuss ways to move forward.

I now welcome our first witness from MINTOPE. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, you should understand that these hearings are formal proceedings of the Commonwealth parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. Is there anything you would like to add to the capacity in which you appear today before you make an opening statement?

Mr Ballard : I work on the MINTOPE project. I am representing the project in the absence of Professor Howieson and Professor O'Hara, who are interstate and overseas, and Herve Calmy, who is on Christmas Island. I work on the MINTOPE project, and have done since it started in 2013.

In 2009 the Attorney-General's Department, then responsible for the IOT, commissioned a Crown land management plan for Christmas Island that included, in part, the following recommendations: the need to reduce the island's dependency on imported food and building materials by encouraging rural development, including agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture; the establishment of a research centre focusing on the sustainable production of equatorial land and marine food to assist in the introduction of agro-businesses into the island's economy; and an appropriate strategy that will encourage and allow the progressive transition from mining to agriculture in appropriate locations, and that this strategy is reflected in the local planning strategy.

With the assistance of the federal government's Indian Ocean development grants, we have, since 2012, been able to evaluate the scientific merit of establishing agriculture on exhausted mining leases on Christmas Island, and we have also conducted parallel research to determine if the soils and climate of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands were capable of producing agricultural crops.

We have been successful in establishing agriculture on exhausted mining leases, both pinnacle field and stockpile areas. It has taken us some time to refine the techniques due to serious compaction on the stockpile areas and working out how to manage the pinnacle fields. Only a couple of weeks ago we finished sowing a pinnacle field for the first time without the addition of any additional soil, which is the common practice for parks when they do the rehabilitation program for the government. They bring in four metres of topsoil to cover all that. Certainly in some areas that would still have to be done, but we were able to with the use of agricultural equipment, mainly a chisel plough. We were able to get enough of the soil up and physically pick out the rocks, and sow a crop into land that we can harvest with a conventional self-propelled header that we have up there.

The growth rates of what we have sown this year have been absolutely phenomenal. We have had a lot of problems in the past trying to ascertain the need for elements that are deficient—namely potassium, nitrogen, copper, boron, manganese. These are all very deficient in the soils. And of course all of the areas that have been mined are totally deficient of any organic matter, so it makes growth of anything fairly difficult. High pH in most of the land makes the phosphorus that is in the soil unavailable to plants until such time as you can get some form of acidification to make that plant available.

The project has been supplemented very well with a grant from the Australian Research Council to look at the microbial biodiversity on the island. There are microorganisms there that facilitate plant growth for the plants that are native there, and there are obviously other microorganisms that make phosphate available to the plants. Part of the ARC project is to try to identify those so that they can be collected and multiplied and used not only on Christmas Island but also in other places where rock phosphate can be used without having to be treated and put through the sulphuric acid process. That project started last year and it will go for three years.

Part of the difficulty of working with agriculture in an area like this is the time frame. You are dealing with different seasonal conditions and variable rainfall. The only things that do not vary much there are temperature and day length; they do not vary at all. It is a matter of finding (a) the right species and (b) the right varieties of those species to match the seasonal growing times and seasonal conditions. We have started off growing legumes to get the nitrogen production. We are growing cowpea, lablab, mung beans and peanuts, and we are just trialling chickpeas as well.

Senator BACK: Mr Ballard, if the peanut harvest looks like it is down a bit it is because of members of this committee.

Mr VASTA: And they tasted bloody good!

Senator BACK: Now we have your admission. Sorry to interrupt—

Mr Ballard : You have tried them, have you?

Mr VASTA: Yes.

Senator BACK: They went through them like locusts would be the way to describe it!

Mr Ballard : It is how good they taste, actually, and how tight they are in the shell, because they are growing so well.

In the cereal range we have sorghum maize, millet and dryland rice. The challenge with most instances there is the serious deficiency in nitrogen, but the sorghum has not been affected by that anywhere near as much as the others. We had some measurements done about a month or six weeks ago. The sorghum crop grew 70 tonnes per hectare of biomass in seven weeks and cowpea grew 24 tonnes of biomass. Both gave about 14 tonnes per hectare of dry matter in seven weeks, which is a significant amount of productivity—something that you certainly do not see in my part of the world.

Mr VASTA: And the pumpkins are growing?

Mr Ballard : Yes. I am sorry—I forgot to mention pumpkins. Pumpkins grow wild on the island, and the community collect pumpkins wherever they are growing. I convened a meeting of the seniors there in 2013 about what we could grow on the island to benefit the general community—where they would have a central place to go and pick it, rather than, especially the older people, going to have to find it in the jungle, or going to where they know it is and collect it. One of the comments about the pumpkins was that they had lost their taste through cross pollination. The ones that grow wild are fairly tasteless. We experienced that and so we took new seed up there and planted them around our main site at Airport 4, and the taste is phenomenal.

We have about 200 pumpkins to give out at our field day next Saturday. Tomorrow week we have a major field day there on the sites to take the community around to show them what we are doing, why we are doing it and to explain how a lot of these things happen. We are expecting over 200 people to come along. But, yes, we have a couple of hundred pumpkins for them to help themselves to and to take home when the day is finished. And there are plenty more yet—they are only the ones that are ripe so far.

Murdoch University's ethos, I guess, is community support and involvement, and that has been one of the driving forces behind the project—to do what we are doing for the benefit of the community on the island. We have had very good support from all sectors of the community. There was some scepticism in the first year, because a lot of these things have been tried before and failed either through lack of funding—lack of continuation of funding—or through just not getting things right.

We had a hiccup in the middle of our program due to the federal election and the government going into caretaker mode; the funding cycle missed a beat. So we had a 12-month gap, but we are back operating now. One of the things that we do strongly support is that the funding be in longer cycles. Because of the work we are doing, you cannot get all the answers in one year. You need to grow things, see if they are right and then change the variety or change the time of sowing. It is a good situation to grow things because there is a distinct dry period; harvesting the broadacre crops can be done—you have to get the maturity right to be able to do that.

We would like to see the Commonwealth commit to making land available for agricultural production on the island. The area of the land to be provided for this purpose should be guided by research that demonstrates agricultural production is a viable option. And we would like to see the Commonwealth government maintain its commitment to MINTOPE and enter into a joint-funding arrangement with Christmas Island Phosphates and Murdoch University to co-fund the research until 2018-19 to test its sustained commercial viability.

The role of the administrator—

CHAIR: Mr Ballard, we have the submission in front of us, and we will be finishing at five past nine. I think there will be a number of questions, so are you alright if we progress to questions?

Mr Ballard : Yes, that is fine by me.

CHAIR: Are we talking about all crown land at the moment?

Mr Ballard : Yes—or crown land that has been either a mining lease or is not a mining lease yet, but, sure crown land; you are not in the parks area.

CHAIR: What would be the percentages of funding for MINTOPE?

Mr Ballard : The total budget for the MINTOPE 3 proposal being submitted now is $530,000, with a request for an amount of $200,000. The balance is supported by Christmas Island Phosphates and Murdoch University. That is outside the ARC project, which is about $300,000 for three years.

CHAIR: ARC—so completely Commonwealth funding?

Mr Ballard : Not completely—it is supplemented by funding from Christmas Island Phosphates.

CHAIR: But fundamentally; it is probably 80 per cent?

Mr Ballard : Yes.

CHAIR: So you see this as a commercial, stand-alone business in the future?

Mr Ballard : Yes, I think there are opportunities. Part of the objective is to prove agricultural production can be economic, and then that people get the opportunity to lease land or whatever to have an agricultural venture. One of the things that I believe strongly is that we know already that we can produce feed for a feedlot, where animals can be fed and fresh meat can be provided to people on the island instead of having to pay $40 a kilogram for frozen meat. That would be of great benefit to the island.

CHAIR: Whether it is feedlot or crops, it is domestic market only?

Mr Ballard : Yes. There are some potential opportunities for export into South-East Asia. The yields are good. The quantities would not be enormous with perhaps the exception of things like pumpkins, because the acreage is not going to be enormous. There are only 2,500 hectares potentially available—it might be more than that. There are opportunities for other things further down the track. We are looking at insect farming and we are looking at timber production. Some of the sites have already been planted; some of the native timbers on the island have already been identified as suitable for timber production, and they grow very quickly.

Senator BACK: You mentioned soil compaction. Is that because of machinery operation in mining activities?

Mr Ballard : Yes. It is a unique soil—I have never worked with anything quite like it. We have learned that you do not go near it when it is wet. If there is a shower of rain, you just stop. After half an hour of sunshine you are back into it again. Even when we are chaining, with an anchor chain between two tractors, that is enough to compact the soil when it is wet and then you have to break it open again.

Senator BACK: You said you were sowing the other day. What did you sow down?

Mr Ballard : Soy beans and mung beans.

Senator BACK: Further to the Chair's question, you think the opportunity is there for local horticulture-type crops that could be grown by residents, and sorghum for stock feed, for feedlotting or intensive finishing. We were very impressed with what we saw—at least I was—

Mr Ballard : I did not realise you had been there.

Senator BACK: We were, just after Easter. We saw the peanuts ripening; we saw pumpkins everywhere. Rice is the other one I want to ask you about. You said dryland rice. If it was possible to get reasonable rice production on the island, with the ethnic mix of the population, that would be a real fillip.

Mr Ballard : Yes. We have run into problems with nitrogen efficiency. We did not have enough nitrogen on the island to feed it. I think that would be avoided if it was sown after a good legume crop where you would have the nitrogen already—

Senator BACK: In the soil, yes.

Mr Ballard : It does respond really well to nitrogen. We had three varieties, two of which were wetland rices, which are not suitable because the ground dries out too quickly. But the dryland rice variety has done reasonably well.

Senator BACK: Given that this is a pilot, how much land is there? You answered the question referring to crown land only, post mining. You also suggested pre mining—that you can actually see a scenario in which it would be possible to grow crops and then have the Christmas Island phosphate company occupy the land for their extraction purposes and then return it back again. But do you have any idea, in hectares, as to what realistically you think is available, having regard also for the topography? You can cut out the bits that are too steep.

Mr Ballard : The island is 13,500 hectares, and 65 per cent is national park. Of the other 35 per cent, probably 20 per cent of that would be totally nonarable. Maybe even more than that would be totally nonarable because of the—

Senator BACK: So, realistically, would it be a couple of thousand hectares?

Mr Ballard : Yes. They told us early in the piece that it was 2,500 hectares or thereabouts.

Senator BACK: Good, thanks. That was very interesting.

Mr VASTA: You were talking about livestock. Do you want to have a mix of cattle and goats? What were you trialling?

Mr Ballard : You could have cattle, goats and possibly sheep. There have been pigs on the island before, but I think the Muslim sector of the population would rule out that happening now. Certainly there is plenty of opportunity for cattle and goats. It is a matter of finding the right variety or breed of sheep that would tolerate those conditions. It happens in other parts of the world, so we know how that that can be done.

Mr VASTA: When will that program start to be brought out? Is there any time line—

Mr Ballard : We have trials going at the moment on silage production. I sowed one when I was there a couple of weeks ago. It was a mixture of sorghum, cowpea and lablab. That is a common silage mix in Queensland. That will give some very good silage. We have other grains—maize, millet and sorghum.

Mr VASTA: Would you have chickens as well?

Mr Ballard : There have been chickens in projects there before, but it was mainly for eggs. They eventually stopped because of lack of viability due to the cost of importing feed. It is the same with aquaculture. There is a small aquaculture project there now, but it is marginal due to the cost of imported feed. Mung beans are part of the diet in the pellets. Challenger TAFE at Fremantle are happy to work with what we produce to develop a pellet for fish. That would make the aquaculture both on Christmas Island and on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands more viable.

Mr VASTA: Excellent. Well done.

Mr SNOWDON: So you have done some work on Cocos?

Mr Ballard : A little bit. We only had one small part of direct funding for Cocos, but we are doing some work there. Again, lablab is a standout there.

Mr SNOWDON: So the prospect is to potentially have some small enterprises and home gardens or a common garden?

Mr Ballard : Yes. There is a community garden that we are now helping them with. A lot of home gardens have suffered in the past from low productivity. They have blamed nematodes as being the main problem, but nematodes generally attack plants that are not well for some other reason. The fertiliser that is available at the local hardware store does not meet the needs of the soil's high potassium, copper, boron and manganese requirements. We have developed a fertiliser mix. We will be making small packages of that available to the islanders at the field day to take home and try on their gardens and see how much difference it makes. There is a lack of inoculation. They grow quite a few beans, but they do not inoculate them and so you do not get proper growth and proper nitrogen fixation.

Mr SNOWDON: So you have minimised the input cost being imported and maximised the opportunities on the island to bring down the food costs.

Mr Ballard : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: Yes, thank you.

CHAIR: If there are no other questions—

Mr SNOWDON: I have just one other question. Who initiated the project? How was it initiated—let me put it that way?

Mr Ballard : I think Herve Calmy, when he was working on the island's planning strategy, was made aware of the project. I think it was the federal government's crown land management plan that included agriculture and education and those sorts of things. I think Murdoch University is very keen to establish an—

Unidentified speaker: An institution—

Mr Ballard : institution on the island, maybe using some of the facilities that are underutilised.

Mr SNOWDON: How did the mining company become involved?

Mr Ballard : Probably through Herve's influence as well, but they have a very strong community focus. On the island they employ most of the island within the company, and they are very keen to see something as an exit strategy from mining. Rather than wait until it is too late, they are involved now. They are very strongly committed, very heavily involved and help us out wherever they possibly can.

Mr VASTA: Do you think there is a finite time for phosphate mining on the island?

Mr Ballard : At the moment I think they have leases until 2025, or something like that, and there is no guarantee after that that they will get any further leases. Some of the crown land that is there now that has not been under mining lease would be good for either agriculture or for mining in exchange for some of the other leases that they already have that are not being used. The site that you saw at airport four is a site that has not been mined. We used that because they had to clear it because their clearing permit was due to expire and it needed to be cleared. The intention is that we will farm that until they are ready to mine it. If they had cleared it, it would have been overrun with weeds, and the way things grow there they would have had to clear it again, and so it goes. We will maintain that weed free, which is the good thing about some of the things we are growing. They just smother the weeds so that the weeds do not get a chance.

CHAIR: Thank you for attending and giving evidence to the committee at today's hearing. If the committee has any further questions for you they will be sent in writing to the secretary.

Mr Ballard : Thank you.