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In the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, conflict and difference between Indigenous Kanak people and European settlers has existed at least since the 1850s. We interrogate the geopolitical ecology of these islands, which is deeply wedded to natural resource extraction, is instrumentalized in political debate, power struggles, conflict, and the mining sector. Territoriality, including changes to political borders and access to land, has promoted the interests of the key actors in shaping the future of the islands. Violence in the 1980s was followed by the Matignon Accords (1988) and three provinces were established (North, South, Loyalty Islands). The South Province is governed by a party loyal to France, and the others are in the hands of the Indigenous Kanak independence movement seeking full decolonization and independence. The strengthened regional autonomy that emerged from the creation of provinces has permitted the Kanak-dominated ones to control certain political competencies as well as to guide economic development much more strongly than in other settler states, notably through a large nickel mining project in the North Province. Provincialization has not diminished ethnic divisions as French interests hoped, as signaled by voting in the close-run but unsuccessful 2018 referendum on independence from France. We explore the ironies of these efforts at territorial re-ordering, which are layered on significant spatial and racial disparities. Re-bordering has enabled resurgence of Kanak power in ways unanticipated by the architects of the Accords, but without a guarantee of eventual success. Key Words: New Caledonia, geopolitical ecology, politics of mining, decolonization, Kanak identity
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The geopolitical ecology of New Caledonia: territorial re-ordering,
mining, and Indigenous economic development
Simon P.J. Batterbury1
Matthias Kowasch
Séverine Bouard
University of Melbourne, Australia and Lancaster University, UK
University College of Teacher Education Styria, Austria
New Caledonian Agronomic Institute, New Caledonia
Abstract
In the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, conflict and difference between Indigenous Kanak people
and European settlers has existed at least since the 1850s. We interrogate the geopolitical ecology of these
islands, which is deeply wedded to natural resource extraction, is instrumentalized in political debate, power
struggles, conflict, and the mining sector. Territoriality, including changes to political borders and access to
land, has promoted the interests of the key actors in shaping the future of the islands. Violence in the 1980s
was followed by the Matignon Accords (1988) and three provinces were established (North, South, Loyalty
Islands). The South Province is governed by a party loyal to France, and the others are in the hands of the
Indigenous Kanak independence movement seeking full decolonization and independence. The strengthened
regional autonomy that emerged from the creation of provinces has permitted the Kanak-dominated ones to
control certain political competencies as well as to guide economic development much more strongly than in
other settler states, notably through a large nickel mining project in the North Province. Provincialization has
not diminished ethnic divisions as French interests hoped, as signaled by voting in the close-run but
unsuccessful 2018 referendum on independence from France. We explore the ironies of these efforts at
territorial re-ordering, which are layered on significant spatial and racial disparities. Re-bordering has enabled
resurgence of Kanak power in ways unanticipated by the architects of the Accords, but without a guarantee of
eventual success.
Key Words: New Caledonia, geopolitical ecology, politics of mining, decolonization, Kanak identity
Résumé
Dans le territoire de la Nouvelle-Calédonie du Pacifique français, les conflits et les différences entre les peuples
autochtones kanaks et les colons européens existent au moins depuis les années 1850. Nous interrogeons
l'écologie géopolitique de ces îles, profondément ancrée dans l'extraction des ressources naturelles,
instrumentalisée dans le débat politique, les luttes de pouvoir, les conflits et le secteur minier. La territorialité,
y compris les modifications des frontières politiques et l'accès à la terre, a promu les intérêts des acteurs clés
1 Dr. Simon Batterbury, Associate Professor, School of Geography, University of Melbourne, Australia and Visiting
Professor, LEC, Lancaster University, UK. Email: simonpjb "at" unimelb.edu.au. Dr. Matthias Kowasch, Professor,
University College of Teacher Education Styria, Austria. Email: matthias.kowasch "at" phst.at. Dr. Séverine Bouard, senior
research fellow, IAC (Institut Agronomique néo-Calédonien), Centre de Recherche Nord Thierry Mennesson, Pouembout,
New Caledonia. Email: Email: bouard "at" iac.nc. Acknowledgements: Thanks to Prof. Joy Porter for comments on a draft,
Prof. Casey Walsh for comments and accepting the article, and the two referees for extensive reviews. Research was funded
by the CNRT, IAC and the French Embassy in Australia over several years. We are also deeply thankful to the Kanak
communities and other interviewees who welcomed us and who helped us with information and support.
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
Journal of Political Ecology Vol. 27, 2020 595
dans la construction de l'avenir des îles. La violence des années 1980 a été suivie par les accords de Matignon
(1988) et la création de trois provinces (Nord, Sud, îles Loyauté). La province du Sud est gouvernée par un
parti loyaliste, c'est-à-dire attaché à la République française et contre l’indépendance, et les deux autres sont
gérées par le mouvement indépendantiste kanak qui cherche à obtenir une décolonisation et une indépendance
complètes. L'autonomie régionale renforcée qui a résulté de la création des provinces a permis aux Kanak de
contrôler certaines compétences politiques telles que le développement économique beaucoup plus fortement
que dans d'autres États colonisateurs, notamment grâce à un projet d'extraction et de transformation de nickel
d’envergure international en province Nord. La provincialisation n'a pas atténué les aspirations
indépendantistes et les divisions ethniques autant que l'espéraient les intérêts français, comme l'a montré le
vote lors du référendum de 2018 sur l'accès à la pleine souveraineté, au résultat très serré mais sans succès.
Nous explorons l'ironie de ces efforts de réorganisation territoriale, qui reposent sur d'importantes disparités
spatiales et raciales. Redessiner les frontières et compétences provinciales a offert un espace d’expression du
pouvoir kanak d'une manière inattendue pour les architectes des accords, mais sans garantie de succès.
Mots-clés : Nouvelle-Calédonie, écologie politique, politiques minières, décolonisation, identité Kanak.
Resumen
In the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, conflict and difference between Indigenous Kanak people
and European settlers has existed at least since the 1850s. We interrogate the geopolitical ecology of these
islands, which is deeply wedded to natural resource extraction, is instrumentalized in political debate, power
struggles, conflict, and the mining sector. Territoriality, including changes to political borders and access to
land, has promoted the interests of the key actors in shaping the future of the islands. Violence in the 1980s
was followed by the Matignon Accords (1988) and three provinces were established (North, South, Loyalty
Islands). The South Province is governed by a party loyal to France, and the others are in the hands of the
Indigenous Kanak independence movement seeking full decolonization and independence. The strengthened
regional autonomy that emerged from the creation of provinces has permitted the Kanak-dominated ones to
control certain political competencies as well as to guide economic development much more strongly than in
other settler states, notably through a large nickel mining project in the North Province. Provincialization has
not diminished ethnic divisions as French interests hoped, as signaled by voting in the close-run but
unsuccessful 2018 referendum on independence from France. We explore the ironies of these efforts at
territorial re-ordering, which are layered on significant spatial and racial disparities. Re-bordering has enabled
resurgence of Kanak power in ways unanticipated by the architects of the Accords, but without a guarantee of
eventual success.
Key Words: New Caledonia, geopolitical ecology, politics of mining, decolonization, Kanak identity
1. Introduction
Imagine if almost half the population of Australia, New Zealand, Canada or the United States
were indigenous today, as the Kanak are in New Caledonia. How might it affect their "national"
politics? (Chappell 2003: 189)
In the light of this important qestion from historian David Chappell, it is important to remember that
struggles for Indigenous recognition and justice across the world take many different forms. Battles for
sovereignty in countries like Australia involve an Indigenous population that soon became a minority, suffered
at the hands of increasing numbers of settlers over time, and was progressively alienated from territory as well
as being denied equal rights. In the case of Kanaky/New Caledonia2 (Nouvelle-Calédonie) in the Pacific, the
2 The majority of Indigenous Kanak people call their lands "Kanaky", instead of the official name "New Caledonia" or
"Nouvelle-Calédonie" Moreover, the Nouméa Accord signed in 1998 included a provision that a new country name should
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
Journal of Political Ecology Vol. 27, 2020 596
Indigenous population were a numerical majority for over a century after French colonial rule, and this has,
along with a complex range of economic and political factors, led to a very different set of geopolitical
outcomes.
The particularity of New Caledonia's history, and its importance in debates about territoriality and
bordering is that in recent decades, the Indigenous Kanak minority have been able to turn natural resource
wealth some way to their own advantage. They have advanced their economic position somewhat further than
many other Indigenous groups in settler states around the world. This process has begun to involve capturing
revenues from extractive industries, and it has not been without costs, not least to the unique ecology of their
islands. This has been despite the presence of a colonial regime that, for well over a century, operated policies
that actively discriminated against the Indigenous population, overriding its territory and culture to secure land
and lucrative natural resources. In this article we explore key aspects of Kanaky/New Caledonia's geopolitical
history, with its strong link to natural resource extraction (mainly of nickel ores), in the light of debates over
territoriality and geopolitical ecology.3 This historical analysis reveals how there have been episodes of
struggle and attempted coexistence between Kanak people, European settlers, and other residents. We outline
in detail the complexities of Kanaky/New Caledonia's experiences with colonization and decolonization, which
have culminated in recent years with turning Indigenous control of territory into economic development activity
based on natural resource wealth. In the lineage of conflict around the colonial status of the islands, the creation
and alteration of political borders has played a role in reshaping ethnic and socio-economic boundaries in
colonial but also in postcolonial contexts.
We are particularly concerned with mining-led development and geopolitical contests. We argue that
the geopolitical importance of the large nickel sector on the main island has colored the decolonization process
it is the central element of a New Caledonian geopolitical ecology. This also has some significance for debates
in social science about strategies for resistance based on alternative ontologies the Kanak leadership have
used "… political strategies to defend or re-create worlds that retain important relational and communal
dimensions, particularly from the perspective of today's multiple territorial struggles" (Escobar 2018). We start
with a brief summary of colonial and postcolonial histories, including a focus on resource extraction. Then, we
outline rebalancing policies that have created and modified territorial boundaries in Kanaky/New Caledonia.
These are strongly linked to development efforts in the North Province, and to mining and land access. Some
broader geopolitical and economic reflections precede the conclusions.
2. Ecology, and colonial and postcolonial histories
New Caledonia is a settler economy of 271,407 inhabitants (census 2019; ISEE 2020). It remains one
of France's few 'settler economies', although there has been some devolution of powers since the 1980s
(Kowasch et al. 2015). It has had a relatively troubled history of conflict between francophone settlers and
Kanak peoples4, since the mid-1800s. The 1980s brought the islands to global attention when many Kanak,
particularly youth, were in open revolt against the French state and the population of white settlers (Winslow
1995). Since that time several post-conflict political accords and peace agreements were signed between the
leadership of both groups and the French government. New Caledonia or Kanaky, as Kanak call their
homeland, remains on the UN's list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, as a 'collectivité sui generis' French
territory residents still have French citizenship. In 2018, there was an unsuccessful referendum on full
be agreed on. Kanaky-New Caledonia has been proposed, but political authorities have not yet decided on a new name. We
use the term "Kanaky/New Caledonia" in this article to reflect the variance in thinking.
3 Our methodology includes numerous local surveys, long periods of residence, two PhD studies, and numerous research
projects (partly financed by New Caledonian CNRT funds), and analysis of New Caledonian materials, literature and
archives, all over the last 15 years. The bibliography contains references to some of our studies.
4 The Melanesian inhabitants of New Caledonia have 28 languages, and distinct cultures. The unifying term Kanak, which
they broadly accepted from the 1970s to demonstrate their historical similarities and unity, comes from the "Hawaiian word
for person, kanaka, which travelled around the Pacific on trade ships and plantations." By contrast, "The white settlers …
became known as Calédoniens (later Caldoches), from British explorer James Cook's decision to name the main island of
Grande Terre after Scotland (the old Caledonia)." (Chappell 2003: 188).
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
Journal of Political Ecology Vol. 27, 2020 597
independence from France, but the Nouméa Accord, signed in 1998 by representatives of the independence
movement, pro-France parties and the French government provides opportunities for a second and eventually
a third referendum. The next independence vote will be on 6 October 2020, and residents have a further
opportunity to re-define their relationship with France, and also their participation in the Pacific region (Fisher
2021). Of course, an eventual political independence would redefine the islands' geopolitical status and their
political boundaries.
The ecology of the largest island, Grande Terre (approx. 450km x 60km), is unique, although the
environmental politics surrounding its protection are tense, given a large nickel mining sector (Rodary 2021).
It consists of plains falling to the ocean on the west side, with short lateral river catchments. It has a mountain
chain to the center and the east falls to the ocean with fewer beaches and bays, on a coast that is rainier and
less accessible by land than the western side. The islands as a whole have the world's highest plant endemism
(3,380), but there were no land mammals remaining in immediate precolonial times other than a flying fox
(Pteropus vetulus) and bats. While there is an endangered virtually flightless bird, the Cagou (Rhynochetos
jubatus), larger ones (eg Sylviornis neocaledoniae) had already been hunted to extinction before European
arrival (Kier et al. 2009: 9325; Jaffre et al. 1997). Gondwanan flora from the late Cretaceous period still
exists. Grande Terre also has around 25% of the world's known nickel reserves exploited in around 20
opencast and mountaintop mines (Figure 1), and the world's second longest coral reef (1,100 km), part of
which is classified as a UNESCO world heritage site (UNESCO 2020). Nickel mining has impacted runoff,
river systems, reefs, soils, and air quality for decades, but environmental impacts (which include dust, water
abstraction and pollution, and formerly, spillover of tailings into river and reef ecologies and affecting
sedimentation patterns) are better controlled today than in the past (Rodary 2021).
Around 40% of the total population today are Kanak (ISEE 2020), and they are dominant on the outer
islands and the north of Grande Terre. Material evidence pottery shards from the Lapita site in northern
Grande Terre show they were present around 1,500 BC. Kanak operated a clan-based patrilocal society with
livelihoods based largely on tropical agriculture, some hunting and fishing, and island (and initially, inter-
island) trade. Control of territory and land has major significance for the clans, whose identity was registered
as an itinerary, as a series of places where families passed through and lived (Naepels 1998, 2006; Kowasch et
al. 2015). There were distinctive regional linguistic groupings, and small-scale inter-clan warfare was frequent.
Since formal colonization by France in 1853, more serious racial conflict and land disputes became common
between European settlers and the Indigenous Kanak clans. "Constant military expeditions" (Saussol 1988),
armed conflicts and battles went on for many decades, and Kanak resistance was met frequently with
imprisonment, displacement and genocides (Poady et al. 2021).
Anglican and Marist Catholic missionaries and priests, American whalers, and British sea cucumber
fishermen were on the islands preceding formal annexation of New Caledonia by France in 1853 (Kowasch
and Batterbury 2015). There was also a lucrative trade in sandalwood (Santalum austrocaledonicum) from the
1840s and to a lesser extent, copra. France's occupation of the islands was supported by military intervention.
French settlement advanced in several stages but advanced from present-day Nouméa, culminating in expelling
most Kanak from the western plains of Grande Terre, which were cleared of native vegetation, and became
devoted to cattle and small farms. Over a century, the French and a few other European-origin pioneers
comprising both free and penal settlers developed their own identity as Caldoche, largely but not exclusively
loyal to France and its interests. The economic success of European agriculture was limited, lacking a large
internal market or facing limited export possibilities, given the remote location and relative proximity to the
larger Australian economy, which also produced shared products like beef and tinned meats.
The discovery of vast nickel reserves in Grande Terre's ultramafic rocks in 1864, by the French engineer
Jules Garnier, set the scene for further 'accumulation by dispossession', elevating the island's geopolitical
importance. The first big mine was established on mountaintops around Thio at the East coast, opening in 1880
(Le Meur 2017). Waves of indentured and free labor came or were sent to work nickel deposits, mainly from
Japan, French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies (at the time, largely Vietnamese and Javanese), resulting in
some new settlement, whereas Kanak peoples had very little involvement in mining.
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Journal of Political Ecology Vol. 27, 2020 598
Progressively, white settlement on the islands increased in volume and spatial extent. Governor Charles
Guillain arrived in Kanaky/New Caledonia in 1862 to open a prison (bagne) and paved the way for a new land
policy. A "dual" definition of property emerged: collective for Kanak peoples and private for Europeans. The
colonial administration created Indigenous 'reserves' with a policy of cantonment (restrictions on Kanak
residence on Reserves, to facilitate land dispossession elsewhere) (Bensa 1990; Merle 2000). Indigenous
communities and clans were spatially relocated and their movements strictly controlled. Bensa (1990)
highlights that Kanak communities were herded together on less than 10% of the total surface on Grande Terre.
Only the much smaller Loyalty Islands (Figure 1) were not surrendered to colonial dispossession and suffered
less oppression as a result. France's convicts, imprisoned on Grande Terre, could be released from prison at the
end of their sentences to occupy farmland alienated from the Indigenous inhabitants. The historian Isabelle
Merle (1993) argues that France sought to replicate the Australian settler colonialism model, if anything
exceeding its harshness. This, with elements of North American treatment of Indigenous people, was unique
in the French empire (Merle 2000). The "dual" land policy led to socio-economic and political boundaries and
ethnic disparities that are still visible today.
Figure 1. Nickel mining and spatial disparities in New Caledonia. (Source: ISEE 2020;
cartography: Kowasch 2020)
Governance of the Kanak peoples remained brutal, culminating in the imposition of native regulations
(the code de l'indigénat) in 1887 (Merle and Muckle 2019). The code de l'indigénat, designed in Algeria and
extended to the majority of French colonies, was applied rigorously in Kanaky/New Caledonia until 1946
(Merle 2013). It applied to Kanak, together with contract workers from neighboring islands or Asia (except
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
Journal of Political Ecology Vol. 27, 2020 599
Japanese who remained "free", because they were protected by their government). The regulations included
racist policies, forced labor, reduced mobility (Kanak people were not allowed to leave the reserves without
permission from the colonial administration), imprisonment without trial, a head tax, and lack of access to
services and citizenship (Robertson 2021). Kanak resistance escalated over time against the loss of territory
and ancestral land, their forced relocation, and endemic discrimination. There were three major periods of
violence between settlers and Kanak warriors the 1878 guerrilla war (Douglas 1991), another in 1917 and
then again from 1984-1988, as described below (Paody et al. 2021). All insurrections were defeated by the
superior French forces and local Kanak allies.
Meanwhile, capital from mining was quietly accumulated by a succession of French companies over
more than a century, latterly dominated by SLN (Société Le Nickel, today a subsidiary of the French mining
group Eramet), who established a nickel smelter called Doniambo in Nouméa in 1910, adding additional value
to its mine sites (Figure 1). The smelter is operational to this day and estuarine and air pollution are still
worrying (Rodary 2021). Mining's manual labor, much of it non-European, has extended for over 140 years in
several large mines, but Kanak were almost never placed in management positions.
A break-point in this history was the Second World War, when up to 50,000 American, Australian and
New Zealander troops were stationed on the island, most after 1942, to counter the threat from Japan. Kanak,
for the first time, witnessed African Americans and other minorities working as equals with white soldiers, and
partly as a result of this visible difference to local norms, the code de l'indigénat was abolished just after the
war ended. This political change, combined with further growth of the nickel industry, saw a big increase in
French government funds for economic development, and led to more Kanak moving to Nouméa and other
towns, where they had not been allowed to live previously (Robertson 2021). Nonetheless, the first Kanak to
obtain a university degree did so much later in 1962 (Chappell 2003: 192) and the first Kanak woman graduate
was the writer and former politician Déwé Gorodé in the early 1970s.
One example of development measures and the involvement of Kanak people into the market economy
was the launching of coffee plantations by the colonial administration, which dated back to the 1930s. The
commodity began to reach markets overseas, and it seemed to be a success. On the eve of the Second World
War, coffee production peaked at 2,350 tons, of which 2,000 were exported (Leblic 2007). Nevertheless, niche
agricultural and social policies like this did not reverse marginalization and the gulf between Kanak and
European standards of living, services, and infrastructure remained wide (Kohler and Pillon 1988). The Second
World War led to a decline of coffee, and with the rise of nickel prices in the 1960s and more lucrative job
opportunities in that sector, production fell again.
Despite the lifting of the indigénat regime in 1946, some expansion of the land available to Kanak and
a series of development efforts, the Kanak as a people still suffered inferior political and economic status in
the post-war years until the 1970s, when their political activism began to build again. The early 1960s, when
much of Africa was decolonizing, actually saw a decline of New Caledonian political autonomy in relation to
France, driven by representatives of the Gaullist regime in the metropole (de Gaulle remained in the French
Presidency from 1958 to 1969). This was expressed in a statutory reform in 1969 (the lois Billotte). Nickel,
chromium and cobalt were defined by this law as "economically strategic resources" (nickel is used in
armaments and by the aeronautic industries), and the New Caledonian municipalities were transferred to the
control of the French state, ending a period of greater tolerance of local autonomy (Forrest and Kowasch 2016).
Demands for independence rose among Kanak, along with their political consciousness and
understanding of their systematic marginalization, particularly when students studying in France returned to
the islands after the 1968 protests there (Chappell 2003). But between 1969-1972, the so-called "first nickel
boom", more than 8,000 French citizens arrived in New Caledonia for work, tipping the demographic balance
(Forrest and Kowasch 2016). In-migration was supported by the French government, still aiming to increase
the proportion of non-Indigenous residents. Indeed, the Kanak population were 51.1% of the total population
in 1956, but 46% by 1969 (Vivier 2009). The nickel boom with production records reaching nearly 8 million
tonnes in 1971 was followed by a deceleration in prices and demand until the 1980s, affecting SLN and
small-scale mining operations alike (Bouard et al. 2016). Thus, the fluctuation in world nickel prices disrupted
the value of New Caledonia's primary export, and local employment possibilities and wages.
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
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The first declaration of political independence by Kanak leaders was in 1975 (Graff 2012), when Kanak
organizations met in the village of La Conception and elaborated a statement for Kanak independence. In the
same year, members of different independence groups (i.e. the Foulards Rouges and Groupe 1878) founded a
Marxist political pro-independence party (PALIKA). But, by the 1980s the independence movement had made
little headway, and despite land reform started in 1978, Kanak communities were still cut off from much of
their ancestral land, except in the Loyalty Islands, which had no great commercial possibilities or European
settlement, and no nickel deposits. Grande Terre had considerable mineral riches, and land cover and soil
characteristics better suited for extensive agriculture. Land and sovereignty disputes were more intense there.
The ethnic divisions between Indigenous Kanak on communal land and private European settlers largely
remained in place, and racial intermixing or métissage has remained limited (although present). Health, life
expectancy, school outcomes and child mortality show continued disparities to this day. It was unsurprising
that the decrease of local autonomy occasioned by the big nickel boom coincided with an increase in political
conflict. Kanak youth, impelled by several pro-independence leaders and political parties, took up open
resistance to European settlers, farmers and pro-France activists, who were in turn, backed by their own
political parties (Connell 1987). For four years in the 1980s there was sabotage, roadblocks and violence, with
over a hundred people killed and multiple arrests. In 1984, the independence movement re-organized when it
created an umbrella party, the FLNKS (Front de Libération National Kanak et Socialiste), including PALIKA,
UC (Union Calédonienne) and other political parties and groups. The civil armed struggle, euphemistically
called évènements in France, was a low point in the history of the territory in the 20th century. The violent
struggles resulted attacks and in physical relocations; in particular, many European settlers in Kanak-dominated
North and on the West coast moved to the Nouméa metro area.
After a hostage tragedy on Ouvéa island (Loyalty Islands Province, Figure 1) in May 1988, where 25
people (19 Kanak, 4 police and 2 military personnel) were killed after human rights abuses by French army
forces, the Matignon Accords led to a negotiated peace (Waddell 2008). These agreements were signed in 1988
by FLNKS and its charismatic Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the anti-independence party RPCR
(Rassemblement pour la Calédonie dans la République) and the French government. Considerable concessions
were offered by France in a 'partial decolonization.' Given the persistence of hostilities, and the distance from
France, the uncompromising attitude of the French state had to change, making way for a deal that would end
the violence. One outcome, which did not please some independence supporters, was the splitting of the island
into three provinces (North, South and Loyalty Islands; Figure 1), making New Caledonia a small "federated
state", enabling the Kanak-dominated North and Loyalty Islands Provinces to control some of their own affairs
for the first time (Mathieu et al. 2016: 103). Pro-French and pro-independence parties perceived the Matignon
Agreements in different ways. According to Fisher (2021), the independence side hoped that with more time
they could develop the expertise and experience needed to lead an independent state. In contrast, the loyalist
side hoped that economic development and a policy of spatial rebalancing (rééquilibrage) across the territory
would lead the independence parties to see the benefits of remaining with France.
3. Re-bordering and rebalancing policies as a vehicle for decolonization
The provincialization was an internal 're-bordering' of the territory and it has led to more peaceful
political relations with France. But it has also led to an economically-driven development agenda for supporters
of Kanak independence. Kanak have secured substantial devolution of political power (Kowasch 2012a). They
now control two out of three provinces set up under the Matignon Accords. Since 1999, the North Province
has been governed by PALIKA and its charismatic leader Paul Néaoutyine, and the Loyalty Islands Province
by another pro-independence party, the UC. Financially, the French State had to provide most of the money
needed for the provincial authorities to operate in effect, subsidizing their operations, but proposing that
mining revenues could supplement these transfers. The North and Loyalty Islands provinces benefited from a
formula that was favorable to them, receiving three quarters of the total financial allocation from France despite
their low populations (Kowasch 2012b). The rebalancing policy provided by the Matignon Accords is strongly
geographical and spatial, aiming to reduce spatial disparities between the North and the South of Grande Terre,
although it has, of course, been resisted by Southern loyalist interests. In the North, rebalancing projects
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commenced in 1990, for example the construction of new roads linking the east and west coast through
mountainous terrain (Bouard et al. 2014; Kowasch 2012b). The increased human and financial resources
devoted to local development are shown by the explosion in the number of projects carried out, and greater
technical support to them (Bouard et al. 2016). The budgetary allocation formula in favor of the pro-
independence provinces has aided this. The New Caledonian elected territorial government (the Congress,
which sits in Nouméa) also gained the authority to set its budget, including taxation and allocations for
territorial projects. Moreover, the Matignon agreements also served to suspend the raising of the issue of self-
determination and a referendum on independence for a further ten-year period.
The New Caledonian economy grew from 1965-2010 averaging almost 4% per year, greater than
mainland France (Mathieu et al. 2016), but with several cycles of growth and decline, reflecting the fortunes
of nickel exports. Per capita GDP growth averaged 2.3% per year from 1990-2010, ten and fifteen times greater
than that of the Pacific islands closest to New Caledonia (Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu) and twice as high as in the
French overseas departments like La union and Martinique. Prices for consumer goods are high, and
Kanaky/New Caledonia qualifies as a 'developed' country given its GNI per capita, life expectancy, and other
measures. Nevertheless, there are still major ethnic inequalities and social-economic disparities between the
provinces, and especially between Nouméa, sometimes termed the 'Paris in the Pacific' in the South Province,
and the outlying regions.
New Caledonia has advanced urban primacy. The census in 2019 shows that out of a total population
of 271,407, 182,341 (67.2%) live in Greater Nouméa, which includes the municipalities of Nouméa (94,285
inhabitants), Dumbea (35,873), Mont-Dore (27,620) and Païta (24,563) (ISEE 2020) (Figure 1). Nouméa is
also economically and financially dominant. In total, 84.1% of employees in the country work in Greater
Nouméa and 74.9% of the enterprises are situated in the South, where 33% of the population is European and
"only" 26% Kanak (11% are Wallisians/Futunians5, 10% declared belonging to multiple communities and 20%
are 'others') (ISEE 2016). The main campus of the University of New Caledonia (UNC, part of the French
public system) and most secondary schools are located in Greater Nouméa, as well as most hospitals, firms,
and health services. Despite rebalancing policies, the Loyalty Islands still lack formal employment
opportunities, education and health services. Their part of total population decreased from 25% at the end of
the 19th century to 6.8% in 2019 (ISEE 2020; Chauvin and Gay 2012).
Paving the way for a new nickel mine and smelter in the North Province, as part of rebalancing, was a
precondition of the independence movement to start negotiation for the Nouméa Accord, finally signed in 1998.
The Kanak leadership, some of whom were radicalized and familiar with socialist economic ideas from their
time in France (e.g. Paul Néaoutyine, today president of the North Province, has an economics degree from
Lyon; Jean-Marie Tjibaou, assassinated in 1989, studied ethnology at the Sorbonne (Waddell 2008)), requested
active involvement in the nickel sector. The request came notably from PALIKA and the political authorities
in the North Province, whereas other independence parties such as UC or Parti Travailliste (Labour Party)
pursue other paths to political independence. The Labour Party for example asserts historical rights to the New
Caledonian territory, refers to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 2007, and believes
this mandates self-determination for Indigenous Kanak people. In contrast, PALIKA leaders have very rarely
been defenders of a fetishized tradition and identity politics that seeks recognition in law (Demmer and
Salomon 2013; Kowasch and Merlin 2021). By contrast, their stated aim is to use mining as a geopolitical and
economic engine for strategic Indigenous development, as a pathway to Kanak independence and a thriving
culture.
The idea to build a nickel processing plant in the North of the country was very much seen by these
leaders as part of territorial rebalancing, placing Kanak peoples in the formal economy, developing the region
and towns around the mine, and therefore providing capital to enable economic emancipation from France. The
5 The Territory of the Wallis and Futuna Islands is a small Pacific island group of around 12,000 people, that chose to
become a French overseas collectivity (collectivité d'outre-mer) from 1961. It was once under the administration of New
Caledonia. Remittances from expatriate workers in New Caledonia, primarily residing in metro Nouméa, are important to
livelihoods.
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
Journal of Political Ecology Vol. 27, 2020 602
Koniambo project can thus be seen as an economic re-bordering of the New Caledonian territory, which we
will analyze in the following section.
4. Mining as an engine for economic 're-bordering' and development
To build a processing plant in the North, the provincial PALIKA authorities looked for an industrial
partner to supply the know-know and financial means (Pitoiset and Wéry 2008). They found the Canadian
mining company Falconbridge (later acquired by Xstrata, then Glencore) and agreed on a 51/49% shareholding
model in their favor. The Koniambo nickel project was finally initiated in 1998 (under the Bercy agreement, a
complex swap of mine titles, see Kowasch et al. 2015) and it comprises mountaintop open cast nickel mining,
and a new smelter powered by a coal-fired power station (Figures 1, 2). It was forecast to have a production
capacity of 60,000 tonnes of ferronickel per year, and produced its first nickel ingots in 2013 (Kowasch 2017).
However, before the inauguration of the Konimabo smelter, another nickel processing plant began its
operation: Goro Nickel in the South Province, run by the Brazilian corporation Vale (shown on Figure 1). It
was in 2003 that the Canadian company Inco (later acquired by Vale) started to build a smelter at Prony Bay.
It has provincial government support, but it was less implicated in geopolitical strategizing and it was violently
contested by local Kanak communities before deals were struck (Kowasch and Merlin 2021). Another
difference is that it uses a hydrometallurgical process that has had serious technical problems, polluting the
reef and leading to long periods of shutdown. In 2020, Vale has an offer to sell the plant to the much smaller
Australian company New Century, which wishes to acquire the 95% Vale shareholding. We now return to the
northern Koniambo project that is more relevant to our argument.
The construction of the Koniambo nickel smelter has been accompanied by urban development of the
"VKP" region, comprising the three municipalities (Voh, Koné and Pouembout) and the smelter and industrial
areas. This regional growth pole in the north of Grande Terre is the center of Grande Terre's 'rebalancing' effort,
and includes ancillary businesses, retail malls, new housing, a hospital and educational and cultural services
(e.g. a cinema, library, and swimming pool) (Figure 3). The overall geopolitical aim of the Northern provincial
authorities is, as we have shown, to reclaim territory either as an independent nation, but if not, to demonstrate
the ability of Kanak politicians to create jobs and services in the North province to counter Nouméa in the
South (Kowasch 2012a).
Figure 2: Koniambo project, from the mine to the smelter, with reef beyond. Source: Kowasch
2016. Figure 3: Filling station and other economic projects on customary land. Source: Kowasch
2019.
This geopolitical strategy has been termed 'leading our own development', echoing some of Jean-Marie
Tjibaou's ideas for reclaiming Melanesian identity based on ancestral values (Waddell 2008). Kanak political
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
Journal of Political Ecology Vol. 27, 2020 603
leaders in the nickel-rich North Province have used their political power to achieve control over some mining
development on their own terms, even if the majority of mine titles across the New Caledonian territory remain
with the French company SLN. The goal is to shift and reshape economic boundaries and disparities between
the north and the south and as a result to involve Kanak communities in regional "development." A majority
public ownership was chosen as their strategy through the 51/49% shareholding model. Their investment
company SOFINOR (Société de Financement et d'Investissement de la Province Nord) possesses 87% of the
mining company SMSP (Société Minière du Sud Pacifique), which in turn holds the 51% shareholding in the
Koniambo project. The Swiss mining giant Glencore controls the other 49% and together with SMSP they form
the joint-venture KNS (Koniambo Nickel SAS) that operates the Koniambo smelter and mine.
Mineral revenues themselves represent only one source of economic benefit from mining, which also
include employment, business contracts, shareholding and infrastructure development (Banks 1996). These are
beginning to make their mark, creating what Bustos-Gallardo and Prieto (2019) refer to as a growing
"commodity region" reliant on sales to global markets.
The strategy is risky, however, because first, Glencore financed 96.5% of the smelter construction and
controls day-to-day decision-making about the future of the project. Glencore is less dependent of the success
of the Koniambo project than its local partner SMSP. For the Swiss mining giant, stock market value is more
important than the revenues from these particular mining operations. Secondly, revenues only flow when the
nickel prices on the world market remain high. And future cashflow will be used by SMSP to reimburse
Glencore and also loans from French banks. Koniambo is far from being "the world most competitive
processing plant ever" as the SMSP Chairman, André Dang (sympathetic to Kanak independence), once
labelled it (Nacci 2015; Pitoiset and ry 2008). Nacci queries the economic model behind the project, its
governance and its huge cost, and it is true that it has suffered technical setbacks and diminished production
since its opening. Nonetheless, the achievement of control over mineral resources by the provincial authorities
is a significant win for northern and Indigenous interests. It has re-oriented control and power relationships in
the sector. The pro-independence movement party FLNKS wants Kanaky/New Caledonia to control its own
(mineral) resources and thus, SMSP is now eyeing up purchasing SLN's mining titles as well, if the opportunity
arises. According to the so-called "nickel doctrine", the nickel industry should fuel local development of benefit
to provincial citizens, not increase overseas corporate profit margins (David et al. 2016). This "doctrine" is
about halting exportation of raw ores (except to nickel smelters "offshore" where local companies have
majority shareholdings) and processing them in Kanaky/New Caledonia. The aim is to make sure a New
Caledonian investment company eventually obtains a majority shareholding (51%) in SLN (NC 1ière 2015).
Winslow, writing in this journal, noted a shift in Kanak engagement with the remaining forces of
colonialism and modernity in the 1990s, and this has certainly continued (Winslow 1995). The rise of the
France-trained, independence-supporting, socialist left before and during the violence of the 1980s, has echoes
in the current effort to create an economic growth pole in the north of Grande Terre, although some of their
radical sentiments were modified by Tjibaou's more conciliatory influence (Waddell 2008). The 'development
by industrialization' strategy they are pursuing is only now beginning to decelerate a little as the major
infrastructure is in place (Sourisseau et al. 2016). Its success is uncertain, but the trappings of modernity,
including fast communication networks and brand-new public facilities are already in place in Koné, the capital
of the North Province, and surrounds.
Regional development based on the Koniambo smelter and new infrastructures in the VKP area
certainly provide new opportunities for local communities including jobs, revenues, cultural facilities and new
health services. But it also has negative local effects for the natural environment, during construction phases
and subsequently, alongside social pathologies and problems that come with any mining operation. In addition,
mining is hardly a favored strategy to guide any form of sustainable development, at a time when the world is
seeking to reduce carbon emissions and, more locally, protect coral reefs and loss of biodiversity. Mining-led
Indigenous development has also led to newly emerging spatial inequalities and boundaries, for example
between the east and the west coast, between the extreme north and the VKP region (Kowasch et al. 2015),
between villages and urbanized areas, and between the employed and the jobless.
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
Journal of Political Ecology Vol. 27, 2020 604
5. Other "development" efforts, boundaries and political futures
Besides the provincial reorganization that, among other things, enabled the Koniambo project, land
reform has also contributed to the greater involvement of Kanak people in socio-economic development
(Kowasch et al. 2015) and has reshaped ethnic and spatial boundaries between Indigenous Kanak communities
and European settlers. Land reform, as we have noted, aims to restore ownership to Kanak clans, and started
in 1978. It has been slow but progressive, led by the public agency, ADRAF (Agency for Rural Development
and Regional Planning). ADRAF buys private land with state funds and returns it back to Kanak clans. Land
claims and distribution of titles often lead to conflict and require negotiation, because different land claims
overlap (Naepels 2006). ADRAF discusses competing claims with the actors involved and helps them to
negotiate solutions.
The proportion of Indigenous customary land on Grande Terre increased from 10% in the 1970s to
19.3% in 2019 (ADRAF 2019a; Kowasch et al. 2015). Considering that the Loyalty Islands Province was
always classified as "customary land", the distribution of the territory's total land area shows that 15.8% of the
territory is private property and 27.4% customary land, which is inalienable, unseizable, incommutable and
non-transferable. Anti-independence parties argue the land reform should be terminated, even as new claims
are still being made. From the perspective of many Kanak people, the colonial theft of lands represents a loss
of cultural identity, because the social identity of clans is territorial. For them, the restitution of land is still
incomplete. Claims and restitution have led to cross-clan tensions, especially since some were displaced by the
colonial administration and thus have lost connection to place (Kowasch et al. 2015). Legitimacy is always un-
fixed and non-finite (Lund and Sikor 2009) but some clans close to towns and mines have profited from relative
stability by developing some of their customary land commercially, as also occurs in Canada, the US and
Australia.
Urban development in the VKP region involves some customary land, encouraged by the provincial
Kanak leadership (Figure 3). The construction of shopping malls, filling stations and houses around VKP is a
limited commodification of customary land based on a capitalist economic system. At the same time, the
absorption of customary land and Kanak communities into the urban agglomeration constitutes a shifting of
(economic) borders. Kanak clans in Baco (a village close to Koné) for example have set up their own real estate
companies to benefit from future lease revenues. In rural areas the redistributed land often remains unexploited,
because Kanak communities do not need it for their everyday livelihoods. Because land has symbolic value in
terms of identity and land legitimacy, valorization and capital accumulation are not always the main goals
(Kowasch 2018).
The Nouméa Accord of 1998 stated that colonization had attacked the dignity of the Kanak people and
deprived them of their identity (Mokkadem 2013) and it was this Accord that extended the date of the
independence referendum further to the period of 20142018. Transfer of political competencies from France
(except sovereign powers that include defense, foreign affairs, currency, law and order, and justice) was termed
"shared sovereignty", linked to a "common destiny" (Forrest and Kowasch 2016; Mokkadem 2013). The aim
was to avoid the violent struggles of the 1980s, promoting more unity across the whole territory. While for
some "common destiny" is just an empty political slogan, resonating with a brief period in the 1950s where
such ideas were on the table, the Accord has at least acknowledged the violence and trauma of the colonial past
and officially recognized "Kanak identity", as well as strengthening the weight of Kanak customary authorities,
lands and law (Gagné 2021). Moreover, Kanaky/New Caledonia has acquired new symbols of its identity, like
a New Caledonian anthem.
The Nouméa Accord also reshaped mining legislation and competencies. The Organic Law, provided
by the Accord, delivered competencies governing hydrocarbons, nickel, chrome and cobalt to the New
Caledonian Congress, and only nuclear energy minerals (lithium, uranium and thorium) remained with France.
The competence for all other resources has been given to the provinces (Gouvernement de la Nouvelle-
Calédonie 2009).
Complex political negotiations occurred around voting eligibility in provincial elections and in the
independence referendum of 2018, prefigured in the Nouméa Accord. These were drawn-out, with Kanak
parties wanting to restrict the mandate of newer arrivals that could upset a delicate political balance. The
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
Journal of Political Ecology Vol. 27, 2020 605
arguments back and forth around the referendum soon became geopolitical (see Fisher 2013, 2021; Gagné
2021; Robertson 2021). Robertson (2021) highlights that the Nouméa Accord paved the way for expanding
suffrage restrictions beyond the referendum alone. Electoral borders were established. Consequently, French
citizens needed to have continuous residence in New Caledonia prior to 8 November 1998 (i.e. the date of the
Nouméa Accord vote). Those who did not were placed on an auxiliary list until they obtained ten years of
continuous residency. Exceptions were authorized for those whose residence was interrupted for valid
educational, medical or professional reasons (Robertson 2021). Despite a restricted electorate, Stastny (2018)
argues that the referendum does not represent a true process of decolonization. She highlights that the right of
self-determination, provided by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007,
has still not been respected. Therefore, the vote merely confirms that Kanak people are in the political minority.
The two principles of "rebalancing" and "common destiny" have made it possible to recognize and
legitimize previously marginalized population groups, leading to the introduction of differentiated public
policies (Bouard et al. 2014). By transferring powers to local authorities, the Nouméa Accord has responded
to (although not fully met) the Kanak people's request for autonomy, while preserving and strengthening
cooperation between political parties in the establishment of a relatively collegial elected government (the
Congress). Nevertheless, the decolonization process is not finished yet (Gagné 2021). The first referendum on
political independence of 4 November 2018 resulted in a loss for the pro-independence parties56.4% of the
list of eligible voters chose against independence. Nevertheless, many were surprised by the relatively high
level of support for independence, as a number of polls had pointed to at least 60% favoring staying with France
(Calédonie 1ère 2018; cited in Fisher 2021). Figure 4 shows the few municipalities with more than an 80%
vote against independence: Nouméa (with around 100,000 inhabitants the largest municipality in Kanak/New
Caledonia), Poya Sud and Farino (shown in redboth have strong loyalist communities). Leblic (2018)
highlighted that a number of voters of European origin actually voted in favor of independence. There will be
two more opportunities to vote again on independence, the next on 6 October 2020. And the tight referendum
result conceals, of course, a geopolitical ecology of struggle going back at least to the mid-1980s.6
On France's side, the current Macron presidency does not want to be forced out from a territory that
contains potentially vast marine mineral reserves, since the giant marine EEZ has unknown quantities of
hydrocarbons and seabed minerals. The conservatives in French politics are not keen to reshape (political)
boundaries in Kanak/New Caledonia, to lose economic advantage, or to provide new models of "development"
involving full political emancipation. While it cannot deny the realities of its colonial past, France has to
support the sub-population that are strongly loyal to it (the 56.7% of the voters who opposed political
independence in the 2018 referendum), and politicians are very aware that while retaining Kanaky/New
Caledonia costs a lot of money, the territory is surrounded by anglophone island nations with stronger
geopolitical and economic links to Australia, New Zealand and the USA. This is not an inviolate geopolitical
concern, but France has a history of resisting other Pacific-scale geopolitical interests, including anglophone
dominance and the growing power of China.
6. Implications
After a colonial period leading to familiar episodes of land dispossession, forced labor and genocide,
what is particular in the case of Kanaky/New Caledonia is the nature of the response from the Indigenous
leadership, the concessions Kanak people have already won, but also the socio-economic and cultural changes
that communities have undergone. There are three concluding points to make and as we have shown, the case
involves a classic territorial conflict between early colonists and Indigenous people, swayed by the aggressive
assertion of francophone power and the disruptions caused to longstanding customs and lifeways. But it has
now taken on new dimensions from which we can learn.
6 In 2019, legislative elections saw the emergence of a new party, L'Éveil Océanien, representing the Wallisian population,
and a gain of one seat for pro-independence representatives 28 anti-independence, 26 pro-independence.
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
Journal of Political Ecology Vol. 27, 2020 606
Figure 4: Referendum outcomes 2018. Source: Haut-Commissariat de la Nouvelle-Calédonie
2018. Cartography: Kowasch 2019.
The first lesson from Kanaky/New Caledonia is that territory, with an enlarged definition, is a vital
concept: it includes strategic and economic interests, legal doctrines, identity, values, and there are also
technical aspects to its governance and assessment (Elden 2019). If, following Lefebvre, there are "embedded
social relations in spatial formations" (cited in Usher 2019), then it is clear that the provincialization of the
archipelago is part of a long struggle for territory, and it has fostered the economic projects taking place in the
north of Grande Terre. Kanaky/New Caledonia offers an example of "breaking out of the bounded sense of
territory" (Elden 2019) impelled by a struggle for space. Despite greater provincial authority enabling economic
development including the Koniambo project, the dichotomy between customary (collective) and private land
remains. The recent restitution of land would perhaps have pleased Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who argued to the
world that land was central to Kanak existence and worldviews (Waddell 2008). Nevertheless, the land reform
started in 1978 is, from the perspective of Kanak clans, still incomplete. Land claims are still emerging, and
new, negotiated "borders" exist on the margins of their returned land. Political authorities of the North Province
want to imbricate customary land with urban development, but economic projects on customary land are mostly
driven by investments made by non-Indigenous businesspeople, the State (e.g. a new northern campus of the
University of New Caledonia) or European/Caldoche private companies. Thus, new boundaries on customary
land emerge between Kanak identity and land, and "economic investment areas."
A second point is that in Kanaky/New Caledonia's complicated mix of Indigenous aspirations, conflict,
and neo-colonial inequalities and control, mining is still central to the geopolitical game of decolonization and
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
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re-bordering. There are two factors of particular interest here. A mineral nickel is enlisted in circuits of
capital that spread from Kanak communities to Chinese, Korean and European manufacturing plants, and to
consumers and defense contractors. Nickel knows no borders. This, along with the poor environmental record
of the industry, are unsurprising now that we all occupy a multi-scalar, connected world in which there is plenty
of demand for scarce minerals. Nonetheless, given Kanaky/New Caledonia's position far out in the Pacific
Ocean, it often escapes attention in policy circles and among scholars as a major mineral supplier, or even as a
source of Indigenous revitalization and protest with ideas to contribute to ongoing struggles elsewhere
(Horowitz 2012).
Thirdly, the recent history of the archipelago also shows that control by Indigenous economic interests
of a huge mining project is not only possible but has partly shifted "scalar arrangements in ways that alter
existing political ecologies, power relationships and conditions of access and marginality" (Miller and
McGregor 2019). The control of the Koniambo project, and its spatial calibration with new housing and
economic development around a northern growth pole, is quite distinctive. Indigenous customary land is now
involved in economic development, which shifts economic boundaries established by the "dual" land policy.
In theoretical terms, it is an assertion of Indigenous territoriality by the North Province and its commercial
interests, as well as a major symbolic statement of identity and power. The Kanak leaders have, as Escobar
(2018) argued for Indigenous movements more generally, taken a political path to "defend or re-create worlds
that retain important relational and communal dimensions." Extended negotiations with clans resulted in the
Koniambo project taking over clan territory but gaining broader economic and political power. Practically, the
greater Indigenous control of mining resources has not yet resulted in a major change to political ordering
the dichotomy between independence and loyalist political parties is still in place, and the second of three
referenda on independence has yet to happen. Even the FLNKS does not talk of "Kanak independence" but
simply "political independence" these days. Moreover, the model of economic development is a capitalist one,
developed over many years by leaders familiar with Marx's transition of modes of production from feudalism
to capitalism to socialism, who nonetheless value renewed recognition of Kanak identity. Indeed, this
Indigenous form of geopolitical strategizing means a reliance on worldwide demand for minerals not quite
the anti-modernist, autonomous form of development that Escobar famously uncovered in Latin American
communities.
7. Conclusions
The North Province leadership has always regretted the economic vulnerability and the environmental
effects of their chosen path to economic self-reliance. In interviews and informal discussions with us, they have
sometimes also regretted the ongoing influence of businesspeople from the south in their northern economic
projects. A major material problem is that the partial transformation of the North Province's economy into an
industrialized one based on nickel, is not sustainable in the long term, once deposits are exhausted. It is, truly,
a transitional economic model. The technical difficulties encountered by Koniambo and the volatility of nickel
prices already call into question the short-term growth agenda based on the nickel sector (and also benefiting
from French subsidies, which could also diminish depending on politics in Paris, where budgeting is now
affected by Covid-19 downturns and militancy against Macron's policies). There is still a significant debate
over how to diversify economically (into other niches including tourism) but also deep questions about how, if
the sui-generis territory becomes an independent nation, currency devaluation would play out in the event of
losing the Franc Pacifique, a hard currency pegged to the Euro. The reinvestment of the incomes derived from
nickel must certainly be treated carefully (Sourisseau et al. 2016). Furthermore, despite economic development
in the north, spatial disparities are still marked, and the capital Nouméa remains the economic center of the
territory. Moreover, new cash flows, jobs and subcontracting opportunities resulting from Koniambo lead to
distribution conflicts within communities and clans. Discrimination and ethnic inequalities are not resolved
either: Kanak people still have far less opportunity in the better-paid labor market sectors compared to
Europeans (Gorohouna 2011). Racial and ethnic boundaries persist, even if there is more porosity than in the
racially divided past.
Batterbury et al. Mining, development and decolonization in New Caledonia
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The geopolitical struggle for Kanak independence is, as Chappell (2003) noted, quite distinctive in its
relationship with modernity, and its scale. It is perhaps best thought of as a form of Indigenous "resurgence"
(Nirmal and Rocheleau 2019) or in the case of Koniambo, the "development of alternatives" not really
"alternatives to development" (Escobar 2016: 25). We should remember, that mining-led development in this
and other resurgent contexts, like Timor Leste with its post-independence development now fueled almost
exclusively by oil and gas reserves (Scheiner 2015), takes place in an increasingly carbon-constrained and
warming world. The fragile local ecology is affected by the chosen geopolitical path to economic autonomy:
large-scale mining. Mining, political outcomes, the ecology all have uncertain futures on these islands. They
are certainly worth watching.
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... It is as if we do not exist." (Mahé 2021) The Matignon and Nouméa Accords New Caledonia has, as readers of this journal will be aware, experienced 'historic dualism' since its colonisation and occupation by France in 1853 (Bouard et al. 2020), the material advance of settler colonialism and mining onto the lands of Kanak clans since then, and the symbolic divisions that have persisted to this day (Batterbury et al. 2020;Bensa and Leblic 2000). The violent upheavals of the 1980s, now more than 30 years ago, were triggered by the marginalisation of the indigenous Kanak and euphemistically known as "les Événements" (the Events). ...
... New Caledonia, without due consideration of how a future independent government might actually choose to direct its foreign relations. In particular the expressed wish of independence leaders has been to continue to associate with France rather than China (Interview with Roch Wamytan in Oct. 2020, NC la 1ière 2020; see also Batterbury and Kowasch, 2021). ...
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The third and final referendum in the French overseas territory New Caledonia on December 12, 2021, was wasted. Although the vote was legal and the result was clear (96.5% voting against independence), we argue-along with various international observers-that the schedule did not respect Kanak cultural traditions and the vote should be considered as undemocratic. As engaged scholars with different scientific backgrounds (geography, agronomy, education) and of different origins (German, British-Australian, French-Caledonian and indigenous Kanak), we critically examine the circumstances of the third referendum and analyse the reasons for the non-participation of the majority of independence supporters. We offer a number of observations on future prospects for the interrupted decolonization process and recommend the consideration of new forms of partnerships between France and New Caledonia.
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L’indigénat évoque une triste histoire. D’abord, pour les colonisés qui subirent pendant plus d’un demi-siècle les effets de ce régime juridique répressif. Ensuite, pour la nation française qui dévoya en colonie ses idéaux démocratiques en refusant de les étendre à ceux qu’elle soumettait. Ce livre offre, pour la première fois, une histoire du régime de l’indigénat sur la longue durée, depuis ses origines les plus lointaines dans l’Algérie de la conquête jusqu’aux héritages les plus contemporains en Nouvelle-Calédonie. Dans ce pays, l’indigénat éclaire avec force les pratiques de la domination coloniale du point de vue de ceux qui l’exercent comme de ceux qui la subissent. Isabelle Merle et Adrian Muckle offrent une réflexion au long cours sur la fabrique de la condition indigène et de l’exception coloniale à travers l’histoire singulière de la Nouvelle-Calédonie, dont la mémoire continue de hanter les débats contemporains.
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Mining is associated with unsustainable development pathways and frequently, local communities are affected by environmental degradation and social upheavals. In many developing countries, its macroeconomic effects are negative and promote conflict. At the same time, the resource sector is an engine of economic growth. The Koniambo nickel project in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia is unusual compared to other large-scale projects worldwide. Kanak independence aspirations resulted in the Koniambo project, as an ‘instrument’ for their economic and political emancipation from France. The mining operator KNS, a joint venture of the local, Kanak dominated SMSP and the Swiss group Glencore, is taking measures to reduce environmental impacts, privileging local employment and supporting ethical business practices. I examine the success of KNS operations through its sustainable development report and based on several years of fieldwork in and around the site. I discover a mixed picture. Alternative economic practices of benefit to the Kanak population are less than successful, and social disparities within indigenous communities are widening. Customary land is being commodified and developed, driven by neoliberal goals. Like other large-scale mining companies in New Caledonia, KNS profits from tax exemptions. To contribute to a true sustainable development with less ‘green-washing’ Koniambo needs to provide solidarity-based criteria for subcontracting, and pay appropriate taxes to the New Caledonian administration. The political authorities need to establish a wealth fund for future generations and should initiate economic diversification before dividends from the nickel sector fill its coffers.