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In New Caledonia, the environment is bad... for business !

Hello everyone,

Situated in the South Pacific Ocean,
• 12 000 km from the East Coast of Australia and
• 12 000 km north-west of New Zealand,
New Caledonia is an archipelago, in the Melanesian region, which has about 235 000 inhabitants living on 20 000 square kilometers, or 40 000 square kilometers including the coral lagoons.

It possesses one quarter of the world’s nickel reserves, and the largest deposit of Gaz hydrats in the world.

The 2 main ethnic groups approach the environment in divergent ways, which can be broadly summarized in the following manner :

- One group, the Kanak, the first inhabitants, base their approach on the idea of harmonious, sustainable, united and balanced development : humans belong to the Earth ;
- The other group, the Europeans, who hold the political and financial power, base their approach on a productionist purpose : it is the Earth that belongs to humans.

This discordance engenders intercommunity conflicts which are expressed in the political sphere.

The French State, which has controlled the exploitation of nickel and cobalt for nearly a century, has never set up environmental legislation in this country.

Since the Noumea Accord, in November 1998, the fragmentation of environmental control into three partially sovereign provinces :
- the Loyalty Islands province,
- the Northern province,
- and the Southern province,
prevents any comprehensive ecological approach.

On this planet, many people talk about respect for the environment, but what are their real intentions and, most of all, how consistent are their actions ?

Well, in New Caledonia, it can be said that the environment is very bad... for business.

100 years of mineral exploitation, first by the Rothschild family, and then by the French State and the Société Le Nickel, a subsidiary of the Eramet Group, have ruined the local people’s social fabric, their health, and... it’s official... their environment.

Today, gigantic industrial projects are being carried out... thanks to authorizations obtained through a system closer to totalitarianism than to democracy.

Consider the following : the impact assessment provided to the community was a true provocation : a voluminous document of 2200 pages, indigestible to read, submitted for an opinion to be given in less than twenty days, during the school holidays – that was their support.

And despite the unfavorable recommendation given by the provincial administration, despite the pertinent remarks made by NGOs and the reservations of the Investigating Commissioner, the project’s executives paid no heed, placing their only faith in a minimalist report by experts from INERIS !

Similarly, claiming to oppose the classification of the coral reefs on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, on the pretext of fighting "for" the fishing rights of an indigenous people, was only the ultimate clowning of a desperate buffoon.

What was the environmental impact of the State’s laxness, and of a pre-totalitarian political regime ?

What’s happening in New Caledonia, which is a French overseas community in the South Pacific ? And which, supposedly temporarily, is still a territory on the UN’s list of countries "to be decolonised".

Well, the colonial empire persists through a pseudo democratic plutocracy, a club of billionaires who have built their fortune through mineral exploitation, who block any alternative form of economic development.

Since 1981, New Caledonia has been governed by a "French-style" socialist ideology which has done, or permitted, the opposite of what it said... or claimed to stand for ! And the democrat’s right is still intellectually indigent : they don’t like "ideas" !

And so, in this French Territory, a biodiversity paradise with colossal resources and potential, there is no environmental legislation.

Yes, you heard it right, an overseas community, which is "budgetarily" a part of France, and which is also under European governance, and which possesses, today, in 2006, no environmental legislation.

In the marine as well as the terrestrial environment, the known and identified species are nearly 80% endemic and, on the world scale, this little country is classified among the 10 "hot spots" of the planet where the environments are at once rich, and threatened. The same can be said of the lagoons and their associated ecosystems.

Unfortunately, as it has been heavily degraded by bush fires and forestry, only 1% of the sclerophyllic forest remains – a type of forest that comes straight from the former continent of Gondwana !

This attitude, which endangers a biodiversity treasure-chest, permits the validation of economic development that is unsustainable, not unified, with no responsible monitoring and oriented toward financial profit in the short term alone.

And all this is to the detriment of an economy which could be sustainable and unified, alternative, organic, based on eco-tourism, on the scale of a country peopled, I remind you, by only two hundred and thirty five thousand inhabitants.

Where is the logic ? Where is the respect of humankind and its environment ?

Clearly, we have not remained inactive. We have protested but, without any means to express ourselves, with no financial means or assistance of any sort, our words are lost in a media desert... and institutional inertia.

Plutocracy and environment don’t make a "good couple" in New Caledonia !

The weapons are too unequal for us, the little “marginalized” NGOs, and we don’t really "boxing" in the same category !

There is, nonetheless, an alternative... The classification of the coral reefs and associated ecosystems on the UNESCO World Heritage list represents a chance to save that which has not yet been damaged, to let it be known and to act in solidarity with these indigenous populations who reside and live in the dusts of the empire.

For a full classification, we had imagined the creation of the concept of "sacrificed zone" with a real legal status, and, for its management, the application of a special system which would have functioned on the model of the French Customs. (* need to explain only in French)

The application for a "partial" classification which has been officially submitted, by the French government, in January 2007, and for us that is, despite everything, a great satisfaction.

Meanwhile, the proposal for a charter, with the creation of an Office of Industrial and Commercial Ethics, together with its Monitoring Office, which we put forward to you, here and now, could become the cornerstone of an ambitious program on the European scale, as long as it is taken up, along with us, by major NGO lobby groups – the most well-known ones.

On a little island that is very rich in species and that has a very high rate of endemism, environmental destruction is synonymous with the disappearance of species. We are thus talking about, in the real sense of the term, a genocide.

Let us then take action, so that New Caledonia does not become :
"One of the most beautiful garbage dumps of the Pacific !" and so that the "Kanak-New-Caledonian" model of development becomes a global model of success that will inspire, without a doubt, the entire planet.

We do not own this Earth, we borrow it from our children... so say the Kanak elders.

I will end with these words from Elie Wiesel : "Any people that does not know its history, is condemned to repeat it."

Thank you for listening. I will be happy to reply to all your questions.

Pour Corail Vivant, lors du Colloque GECOREV (26, 27 et 28 juin 2006)
Bruno Van Peteghem
2001 Goldman Environmental Prize


"La bonne gouvernance – fondée sur l’État de droit et les principes de participation, de responsabilité et de transparence – est indispensable à la protection des droits des citoyens, et au développement économique et social. Elle n’est possible que si l’État, la société civile et le secteur privé rendent des comptes aux citoyens, ce qui suppose qu’ils opèrent dans la transparence et coopèrent entre eux."
Kofi Annan, Secrétaire général des Nations Unies, à l’occasion du 6e Forum mondial Réinventer l’État, Séoul, Corée, mai 2005.  

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