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World Reports

Paradise traded for Canadian nickel

The sleepy village of Goro lies on the southeastern coast of Grande Terre, the main island of the French "overseas community" of New Caledonia. Goro's few hundred residents look out across a tropical lagoon, circled by the world's second largest barrier reef. Trade winds nourish the rainforest that climbs the island's mountainous spine. Not far inland is the Rivière Bleu Provincial Park, sanctuary for an assemblage of plants and animals unlike anything else on earth.

The outside world has left one mark on Goro: a dilapidated pier and two rusted cantilever loaders, relics of mining operations during World War II. New Caledonia's laterite deposits, controlled by DeGaulle's Free French government, were a key source of iron and chromium ore.

Now the miners are returning. Despite protests by the traditional leaders of the indigenous Kanak people and environmentalists, a Canadian mining giant is planning a US$1.4 billion operation at Goro for open-pit mining and processing of low-grade nickel and cobalt ore. International Nickel Company (INCO), in partnership with locally owned Goro Nickel and the French government (which has a 15 percent share), has already built a pilot plant for a new and controversial pressure acid leach process, using sulfuric acid. The mining consortium was promised a 15-year tax holiday and exemption from environmental laws. Despite corporate assurances that environmental costs would be minimized, the project poses a double threat of acid rain and heavy-metal contamination of the coral reef. And it gets worse: the 180-megawatt plant will be powered by Australian coal. Along with a second coal-fired project in the north of Grande Terre, the Goro facility will make New Caledonia, with its population of 211,000, the world's largest per capita producer of carbon dioxide. Coral rock from the reef will be used to treat the acidic mine tailings.

INCO, the project's major partner, has an unsavory history. Its Canadian nickel smelters are the largest source of acid rain in North America. The company has had cozy relations with repressive regimes in Guatemala and Indonesia. On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, INCO has been accused of seizing farmland without adequate compensation, fouling the air, and destroying lake, river and rainforest ecosystems. Sulawesi activists also claim INCO has reneged on promises of free health care, education, and other services for communities affected by the mine. Back home in Canada, the Innu people in Labrador have battled the corporation over its Voisey's Bay project.

The lure of 2,300 new jobs has not assuaged local concerns about the Goro mine. Last November, nine Kanak chiefs petitioned the French Secretary of State for Overseas Territories for a two-year permitting delay, to allow time for an independent environmental impact review. Kanaks and New Caledonian environmentalists have joined hands and planted native trees outside INCO's fence, and a delegation including the president of the Kanak Customary Senate (a council of tribal elders) and the head of Action Biosphere even traveled to Canada to present its case to church and union audiences.

Mine opponents were stymied by INCO's foot-dragging in releasing its three-volume environmental impact assessment, which was not made available until February 7, and then only in French. Jacques Lafleur, president of New Caledonia's Southern Province, had already let it be known he would green-light the project at the end of the 30-day comment period. Meanwhile, mining critics have been subjected to strong-arm tactics: journalists, including the editor of the satirical weekly Le Chien Bleu, have been physically attacked, and activists have received death threats.

Why are the stakes so high? Nickel is nasty stuff, so toxic the World Health Organization will not set a minimum human tolerance level for it, and the Goro project would be bad news anywhere. But in New Caledonia, a global biodiversity hotspot, it would be catastrophic. The size of New Jersey, New Caledonia harbors a staggering concentration of endemic species, including remnants of the flora and fauna of the ancient southern supercontinent Gondwanaland. When the BBC crew that filmed Walking with Dinosaurs wanted an early Mesozoic landscape, they went to New Caledonia. Looking at its natural riches, it's easy to see why Edward O. Wilson calls Grande Terre his favorite island.

As James Cook, sailing the Resolution on his second voyage of discovery, approached the coast of New Caledonia in 1774, his crew was baffled by strange objects lining the shore. John Reinhold Forster, the ship's naturalist, was convinced they were huge basalt pillars, like the Giant's Causeway in Ireland. Cook was correct in thinking they were trees, but no ordinary trees: huge conifers with short branches that gave them an odd columnar shape. They were araucarias, a species that became known as Cook pine. Cook christened the island for its supposed resemblance to Scotland, claimed it for the king, and moved on.

Araucarias - trees like the Norfolk Island pine, monkeypuzzle, and bunya-bunya - dominated the world's forests in the age of the dinosaurs. Only 24 species survive today, and 19 of these are restricted to New Caledonia. There are other primitive conifers as well, including one that has become a mistletoe-like parasite. When New Caledonia rifted away from Gondwanaland some 65 million years ago, it carried its cargo of relict trees into the isolation of the South Pacific.

It's not just the conifers that evoke ancient times. Five families of flowering plants are New Caledonian endemics. One species, a modest-looking white-flowered shrub called Amborella trichopoda, struck botanists as unusually primitive in structure. An ambitious recent project called Deep Green, an attempt to chart evolutionary patterns using plant genetics, confirmed that Amborella is the nearest living relative of the common ancestor of all flowering plants.

The roster of endemics also includes palms (all 31 New Caledonian species), orchids, and insectivorous pitcher plants. Three-quarters of the territory's 3,322 plant species grow nowhere else. Endemism is high (82 percent) in the Grande Terre's rainforest, even more so (up to 91 percent) in a unique botanical community called the maquis. Thrust faulting during the Eocene era capped much of the island with ultramafic rock - rock scraped off the Earth's mantle which is laden with toxic metals. The rock has weathered into nutrient-poor soil loaded with nickel, chromium, magnesium, and manganese. Maquis plants, mostly hard-leaved dwarf evergreens, have managed to adapt to this daunting terrain.

Many of New Caledonia's animals are local exclusives as well: all its 200-plus land snails, a whole family of spiders, a quarter of the freshwater fish. Reef and lagoon creatures include a unique chambered nautilus species, last of a long line of shelled cephalopods. As with most oceanic islands, amphibians are absent and mammals represented only by bats (although an enigmatic fossil marsupial tooth was discovered in the 19th century).

But the reptiles and birds more than compensate. Australian naturalist Tim Flannery has called New Caledonia "a sort of perverse Garden of Eden, with a scaly creature hiding behind every bloom." Two lizard families, the geckos and skinks, have radiated into over 60 species, with 86 percent endemism. The geckos, at least, seem to be of Gondwanan stock. Some have attained respectable size - the 16-inch-long Rhacodactylus leachianus is the world's largest - and specialized in unorthodox niches, feeding on flowers and fruit. Skinks run the gamut from small legless burrowers to Phoboscincus, the "terror skink," a formidable predator with a mouthful of long curved teeth.

As for birds, it's hard to top the kagu. This forest dweller resembles a stunted heron, with the floppy crest of a cockatoo and banded wings that it flashes in territorial and courtship displays. More often heard than seen, it has the voice of a small dog. The kagu is the sole member of its family, another old Gondwanan lineage. Its nearest living relative is the sunbittern of the New World tropics, although it appears closer kin to extinct New Zealand birds.

The kagu shares its habitat with 21 other endemic birds, including a giant pigeon called the notu, honeyeaters, parakeets, and rails. The New Caledonian crow may not be much to look at, but its behavior sets it apart from all other birds: it's a toolmaker, crafting hooks from twigs and probes from pandanus leaves, then using them to fish out insects and other arthropods from holes in dead wood. Ornithologist Gavin Hunt claims these birds operate at a level of technical sophistication that Homo sapiens did not reach until the Middle Paleolithic.

But what remains today is only a shadow of an even stranger lost world. Paleontologists have found subfossil remains of some truly odd reptiles and birds. Massive land turtles with cranial horns and clublike tails cropped the vegetation. There was a big monitor lizard and a smallish land-dwelling crocodile with blunt rear teeth which it may have used to crush the shells of land snails.

Among several flightless birds, the most impressive would have been turkey-sized Sylviornis, with a bony knob on its skull and a powerful beak. Archeologists in New Caledonia were baffled by hundreds of five-foot-high mounds on the Isle of Pines that contained no human remains or grave goods. It's been suggested that the mysterious tumuli were the nests of Sylviornis, which, like its living relatives the megapodes, buried its eggs to be hatched by the warmth of the earth.

There's good evidence these creatures were still around when Melanesian voyagers of the Lapita culture, whose distinctive pottery has helped track human expansion into the South Pacific, settled Grande Terre at least 3,500 years ago. Remains of the land crocodile have been found in archeological sites, and the Kanak legend of the du, an enormous flightless bird that did not incubate its own egg, may commemorate Sylviornis. (The du supposedly foisted the chore on a giant lizard, in cuckoo fashion). As in Madagascar, New Zealand, and Hawaii, the Caledonian megafauna was likely hunted to extinction or succumbed to habitat loss.

The ancestors of the Kanaks brought with them the staple crops of the islands. Over the centuries they reshaped the land, terracing the hillsides for taro planting and digging a web of canals and ditches for irrigation; terraces and mounds were also constructed for dryland yam cultivation. These vast agricultural works, along with coral-rock forts on one of the outlying islands, suggest a high degree of political organization. But the chiefdoms were fragmented, and the estimated 60,000 islanders were speaking 37 different languages when the Europeans arrived.

Western contact was devastating. Cook's brief and amicable visit was followed in 1793 by that of the French explorer D'Entrecasteaux, who skirmished with the Kanaks and regarded them as thieves and cannibals. In the following century Australian loggers stripped Grande Terre and the Isle of Pines of their prized sandalwood, and "blackbirders" kidnapped Kanaks as plantation laborers. With them came diseases: smallpox, measles, leprosy, syphilis. By the time Napoleon III annexed New Caledonia in 1853, the indigenous population had begun to crash. At the nadir, in 1901, only 28,000 Kanaks remained. In the words of archeologist Christophe Sand: "To appreciate the extent of the demographic collapse is to revisit the autopsy of the destruction of a society."

French rule brought some stability, but the colonial regime was harsh, with forced labor and legal segregation. The Kanaks were pushed into small reservations in the mountains, away from their yam and taro fields. Independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou later described this period: "The tribes had nothing to do but die because there was nothing left to eat because there were no people left to work at growing things to eat." Catholic and Protestant missions enforced Western notions of proper dress and eroded traditional religious beliefs and the role of the clan chiefs. French settlers followed the missionaries and colonial administrators. Some came as convicts: 4,300 survivors of the 1871 Paris Commune uprising were deported to New Caledonia. Others were volunteers, attracted by promises of free passage and free land. Their descendants became the Caldoches, with their own distinctive culture (think Francophone Australians). The Kanaks were soon a minority in their own country; today they comprise about 45 percent of the population.

Kanak revolts in 1878 and 1917 were ruthlessly crushed, and the practice of traditional medicine was outlawed. But indigenous culture refused to die. World War II, when Allied attacks on the Japanese fleet were launched from Noumea, may have been a turning point: the Americans actually paid the Kanaks for their labor. A coalition of Kanaks and Caldoches launched a new political party in the 1950s, and Kanaks were elected to the territory's governing council. This began a long struggle for self-determination by Tjibaou's Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), climaxing in 1984-87 with a spasm of violence known euphemistically as the Events. A peace agreement in 1988 resulted in political reform, with a promise of an eventual referendum on independence. Later negotiations changed New Caledonia's status from a French overseas territory to something more like the US relationship with Puerto Rico.

Colonialism brought sweeping environmental changes. The discovery of nickel ore in 1864 made mining the engine of the New Caledonian economy. It has the world's largest known nickel reserves and is the third-largest producer, after Canada and Russia.

Open-pit mines have scarred the landscape and accelerated erosion. Russell Mittermeier, head of Conservation International, says he has never seen worse erosion anywhere, even in Madagascar, than in the nickel-mining areas of the Grande Terre. Other impacts have included the conversion of forest to ranchland, and the introduction of over 1,200 exotic species that prey on or outcompete the native flora and fauna.

By the time New Caledonia began to attract the attention of conservationists, its unique biota was in peril. Gavin Hunt says the kagu, poster bird for environmental protection, has been reduced to a population of less than 700. Botanists fear some plant species are already extinct, and the "terror skink" and some of the land snails may also have vanished. Less than a third of the original rainforest cover remains, and only fragments of the west-coast dry forest. The nautilus and other lagoon and reef creatures have been over-collected.

Conservation was never a priority of the colonial regime. On paper there is a system of nature reserves, but only the Riviere Bleu Provincial Park is effectively protected and key habitats are not represented. Some "reserves" are open to mining. Ironically, New Caledonia's political status as a French colony made it ineligible for funding from multilateral agencies.

Conservation does have a local constituency, though, and local heroes. In addition to Action Biosphere, the Association pour la Sauvegarde de la Nature Neo-Caledonienne has promoted research on the kagu and environmental education, and the Association Gondwana focuses on the unique flora. But the most visible action has involved the barrier reef, still largely intact and so far unaffected by the coral bleaching that has plagued reefs surrounding neighboring Australia.

In the early 1990s, activist Bruno Van Peteghem, founder of Corail Vivant (Living Coral) and the New Caledonian Green Party, began his campaign to protect the reef. His push to have the reef placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, supported by the leadership of FLNKS and the Kanak Customary Senate, was honored last year by a Goldman Prize. "Man and nature are inseparable", says Van Peteghem. "If we ignore this, we perish. Survival of the coral hinges on human activities everywhere - on land, in the sea and in the atmosphere. We still have time." In January the French government threw its weight behind the World Heritage proposal, but UNESCO action is at least a year away. Southern Province political boss Lafleur, whose multimillion-dollar fortune comes from mining, attacked the French proposal as "interference from Paris" that might provoke violence.

It's not just the reef, of course: The Goro mine and the Falconbridge project in the north would harm land and freshwater ecosystems as well. New Caledonia is a global treasure, and the further degradation of its already battered natural communities would be a global tragedy. It's heartening that Kanak leaders who may one day control an independent government recognize the need for sustainable development. Customary Senate President Georges Mandaoue summed it up during his visit to Canada: "We have to have a future vision for our people - how we can evolve with development. We have concern for our environment."

Joe Eaton is a Berkeley-based freelance writer.

   

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