Set amid the vast blue haze of the Indian Ocean, Christmas Island is a unique tropical melange of Chinese, Malay and European cultures. Its incense-scented Buddhist temples, bright green mosque and Malay kampong or village make this Australia-administered speck of rock the least Australian of places. Two-thirds of the population are ethnic Chinese, the descendants of those brought here in the 19th century by the British from Penang, Malacca, Singapore and Hong Kong. But the jungle-clad island, which lies closer to Java than Australia, fears that a decision made this month by politicians in far-away Canberra could spell the end of its distinctive way of life. The federal government announced a ban on new phosphate mining, the industry that has been the cornerstone of the island's economy since it was incorporated into the British Empire in 1888. Environment minister Malcolm Turnbull said there would be 'an unacceptable impact' on threatened species, including the rare Abbott's booby, the Christmas Island frigate bird and the endemic pipistrelle bat. The ban was hailed as a victory by conservationists, who were appalled by plans by the Christmas Island Phosphate Company to bulldoze pristine rainforest in order to extract the rich deposits of phosphate below. The new mine would have killed up to 1.5 million of the estimated 60 million red land crabs that inhabit the forest floor. Each year, the crabs go into a breeding frenzy, turning roads and beaches into a crimson carpet as they scuttle from the rugged interior to the sea, inspiring naturalist Sir David Attenborough to call the island 'kingdom of the crabs'. The end of mining will also enhance Christmas Island's boast as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, for the fearless boobies, tropic birds and robber crabs - the world's largest invertebrate - which inhabit its jagged volcanic cliffs and dense forests. But the ruling has dismayed many of the 1,200 islanders, who fear a mass exodus as 140 mine employees, their families and dozens of dependent businesses are forced to leave the tiny island in search of jobs. 'The whole population depends on it,' said Gordon Thomson, who heads the union of mineworkers. 'The economy of the island is the mine - there's nothing else. I think we could have done away with a few trees in order to keep this place going. I believe up to half the island will leave - there'll be nothing to keep them here. The community will slowly disintegrate.' The Chinese and Malays have either Australian passports or the right to permanent residency, and many have already moved to Western Australia's capital, Perth, 2,700km to the southeast. A few may find jobs at the highly controversial, multimillion-dollar refugee detention centre the federal government is building on Christmas Island to house asylum seekers caught trying to reach Australian soil. Dubbed by islanders the 'Dark Side' and capable of holding up to 800 asylum seekers, it is due to open by the end of the year. Although phosphate mining turns virgin rainforest into a virtual moonscape where nothing but scrub will grow, the pro-mining lobby argues that two-thirds of Christmas Island is already protected as national park. Sacrificing another 270 hectares - about 2 per cent of the island - is justified if it saves jobs, they argue. 'Any time you chop down a tree, that's a big decision,' said Alfred Chong, the mine's manager, rattling down a rough dirt road in a four-wheel-drive. 'But you have to weigh the environmental impact with the social impact. A lot of the older workers don't even speak English - they won't get new jobs in Australia. The community is going to be devastated - it will displace half the population.' Jimmy Yeow came to Christmas Island from Malacca 37 years ago and has worked in the mine ever since. 'It's crazy to close down the mine just because of a few bats. I've never even seen them,' the 64-year-old said, sitting with friends in the Poon San Coffee Shop. Another miner, who identified himself only as Huat, said islanders resented the fact that Mr Turnbull made the decision without even visiting the island. 'It's beyond our control,' said the 54-year-old, who came to the island 33 years ago from Penang. 'They're valuing bats and birds over people.' The mining ban has sharply divided Christmas Island, with many islanders supporting Canberra's decision and hoping to promote the tiny territory as an eco-tourist destination. 'This is the future for Christmas, not mining,' said Linda Cash, from the island's tourism authority, emerging from the sea after a scuba dive over corals and clouds of tropical fish. 'We can be a niche tourism market, bringing in people from all over the world to see the crabs, the birds and our amazing marine life, like whale sharks. From a tourism point of view, cutting down rainforest is a death wish.' Despite the expense of getting to the island - a return flight from Perth can cost up to A$1,800 (HK$11,500), and from Sydney, A$2,800 - others have even more grandiose plans. Russell Paine, the chamber of commerce's president, envisages a private hospital offering plastic surgery to wealthy Asians from nearby Malaysia and Indonesia. 'We'd be able to offer nips and tucks, knee jobs and boob jobs for the idle rich of Asia,' he said. 'Cut them up here, then send them to the Cocos Islands [a neighbouring Australian territory] to let them recuperate on the beach.' But the history of the island is littered with ventures that promised economic salvation then ultimately failed, including a casino, a Miss Asia pageant, a South Korean-run film studio and a satellite launching pad - still yet to be built despite great fanfare in the early 1990s. Nearly 50 years after Christmas Island passed from the British Commonwealth to Australia, there are still lingering reminders of the colonial era. Until recently, the administrator - the queen's representative - lived in a grand mansion overlooking the Malay kampong and picturesque Flying Fish Cove. Nearby is a gun emplacement and a plaque commemorating the murders of five British soldiers, who were killed by Indian troops in a mini-mutiny, which preceded the Japanese seizure of the island in the second world war. The present administrator, a former politician and mayor from Victoria, has dispensed with the trappings of empire. Neil Lucas says the future of this Australian outpost lies in a new age of eco-tourism, rather than the heavy extractive industry of the past. 'We have reasonably priced flights from Singapore, and there are a lot more people living to our north,' he said from his office overlooking Flying Fish Cove and the hulking, dusty phosphate-loading docks. 'We have a natural wonderland in marine and terrestrial life which makes us the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean. The challenge is to get that message over to people. This is one of the last frontiers of Australia.'