Inco in New Caledonia: Protests Erupt Over Shut Down of Prony and Goro

Catherine Coumans

Ph.D. Research Coordinator and Asia-Pacific Program Coordinator

Prony, Inco's Troubled New Concession:

In July of this year, Inco was suddenly granted a six-year exploration permit (PRA) for a massive concession called Prony, which is adjacent to Inco's current Goro site in southern New Caledonia. Inco says this new concession could provide an additional 180,000 tonnes of nickel per year (Goro is expected to produce 57,000 tonnes of nickel per year). According to the president of the territorial government, Pierre Frogier, Inco could be ready to start mining Prony in 6-7 years (Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes, Aug. 28, 2002).

The sudden granting of the Prony concession to Inco came as a major surprise to New Caledonians — especially to indigenous Kanak leaders, who have continuously complained that they were never adequately consulted by Inco and their own government agencies over the Goro development. Kanak leaders have repeatedly protested the lack of consultation over Goro, including in a meeting with Inco officials (Stubbs and Napier) in Toronto in October of 2001 (see "What's Inco Doing in New Caledonia"). Kanak leaders point to the 1998 Noumea Accord that puts New Caledonia on the path to independence and that assures that Kanak perspectives and rights be respected through consultation over projects that will have an impact on traditional practices and values and relationships to the land and the sea.

Brewing unrest over Goro (lack of consultation, thousands of jobs going to imported foreigners, environmental concerns see below) has now broken out in full-fledged protests against Inco's exploration rights for Prony.

"Collective for Defence and Control of the Prony Heritage":

In August a powerful coalition was formed in New Caledonia in protest of the granting of Prony to Inco. This coalition is called the Collective for Defence and Control of the Prony Heritage (CDCPH). The Collective is an umbrella organization that is made up of political parties of a wide range of political persuasions, trade unions, environmental groups, traditional landowners, feminist groups, human rights groups and indigenous organizations. Its spokesperson, Bernard Duparc, belongs to the Parti Socialiste de Kanaky.

On August 29th the Collective organized a massive protest march in the capital city of Noumea. At least 3000 people took part (see pictures). The protest had three goals:

  • To petition the Southern Province to withdraw the Prony prospecting license from Inco
  • To ask the new French government to finalize procedures requesting UNESCO to place New Caledonia's reefs on the World Heritage list
  • To ask the territorial government to draft a bill on environmental protection

A petition with over 10,000 signatures was handed to vice-President Pierre Bretegnier of the Southern Province, the number of signatories is still growing. The petition asks the Southern Province to revoke the Prony prospecting license. Bretegnier apparently reacted to the protest saying Inco had made the best offer (around 22 million US dollars) for the site compared to BHP and Phelps Dodge (PacNews September 2, 2002). But the pro-independence FLNKS party and the Union of Kanak and Exploited Workers (USTKE) both said the prospecting license was tantamount to giving away New Caledonia's mineral resources: "This is totally unacceptable and unjustifiable. This deprives New Caledonia of its mining resources" said USTKE secretary general Gerard Jodar (PacNews September 2, 2002).

Human Rights League spokesperson Elie Poigoune said the population had been "ill-informed" on recent decisions regarding Prony and that "no serious impact survey" had been carried out on the site (Ocean Flash, August 29,2002).

The "Collective" is calling for another demonstration for September 27th.

Subjugation of Indigenous Kanak Rights:

A significant component to the protest is the recognition that indigenous Kanak rights have been violated through the granting of the Prony prospecting license.

  • On August 15, 2002, the National Council for Indigenous Peoples' Rights of New Caledonia (CNDPA) used the occasion of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa to launch an "Appeal for aid and international solidarity" (in English; also available in French and Spanish) that calls for the revocation of Inco's Prony permits, the application of international environmental laws in New Caledonia, and the listing of the "marine ecosystems" on UNESCO's World Heritage list.
  • On August 23, 2002, indigenous leaders from the Senat Coutumier (Customary Senate), Customary Councils, the National Council for the Rights of the Kanak Indigenous People and other Kanak organizations prepared a "Solemn Declaration by the Kanak Indigenous People affirming their right on space and the Natural Heritage of Kanaky (New Caledonia)." (unofficial English translation; the original French is also here). This statement addresses the traditional subjugation of the environment and of Kanak rights through mining in New Caledonia and declares:

"In the name of this historical heritage, the soil, the subsoil, land, marine and natural space, constitute the heritage of the Kanak people. The administrative and political authorities cannot decide to transform this heritage without prior, informed and written consent of concerned indigenous populations, which will be given it the required formats. For any project deemed unacceptable, the customary authorities will use their veto right."

  • According to the latest reports from New Caledonia, Kanak landowners of the Prony area have started to build traditional houses, install families and plant trees on the Prony concession as a form of protest. Former government member and indigenous Kanak leader Raphael Mapou, was forced to resign from the territorial government over his vocal opposition to the granting of the Prony concession to Inco.
  • Protest organizer Bernard Duparc said "No decision is irrevocable, especially when international institutions do recognize indigenous people's rights to manage their own natural resources as a priority" (PacNews September 2, 2002).
  • Reports from New Caledonia say that traditional Kanak landowners of the Prony area have started to build.

Inco Versus Falconbridge:

An interesting aspect of the protest of August 29th was the participation and presence of heavy equipment from Falconbridge's Koniambo mine site in the Northern Province of New Caledonia. Koniambo workers fear that Inco's control over the nickel resources of both Goro and Prony will put the Koniambo project, which is a partnership with the government of the poorer Northern Province, out of business.

Goro shut down, Inco does not provide shareholders and public with accurate information:

Blockade of Goro Site:

On Monday September 9th a protest blockade was called of the Goro site and simultaneously some contract workers went on strike. By Friday the 13th Inco had shut down operations, reportedly for indefinite time, and about 100 Australian BTH personnel have flown home. Reports in Canada's Globe and Mail of the 13th merely mention actions by "local contractors and suppliers" as the cause of the shut down. Inco has not provided shareholders or stakeholders with an accurate view of the broad based and long term nature of the local protests. Former government member and indigenous Kanak leader Raphael Mapou said that "without consent from the Custom [Customary Senate] the Goro Mine will not open" (PacNews September 2, 2002).

Imported Workers Issue:

One of the major sources of friction is the fact that New Caledonian laws were recently changed to facilitate the importation of some 3000 foreign workers at the Goro site, mostly Filipinos (Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes: Aug. 28,2002). The planned departure for Noumea, on September 22, of the first 22 Filipino workers with BHP in Manila has been halted until further notice. BHP has also halted the hiring process in Manila and complains that this is the first time the company has had to halt a hiring process in mid stream (Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes: September 16, 2002).

World Heritage Status for the New Caledonian Reefs:

In January 2002, the French government recognized the value of the New Caledonian reef system the second largest barrier reef system in the world by requesting UNESCO World Heritage Site protection. Jacques LaFleur, New Caledonian strongman and Governor of the Southern Province where Inco's concessions are located, has vehemently opposed the process to seek World Heritage status. It is widely believed that World Heritage status would impact on Inco's planned operations as Inco expects to dump mine effluent into the sea.

Shortly after a recent visit by LaFleur to Paris, and in a reversal of official policy, the new French Minster of the Environment, Roseline Bachelot stated that the World Heritage proposal is now "a measure that is uninteresting because it has no binding impact." She also noted that France would work with international mining companies to ensure environmental protection in New Caledonia.

UNESCO notes that it has not yet been asked by the French government to drop the World Heritage process for the New Caledonian reefs.

Financial Question Marks:

Currently the French Government (through Bureau de Recherches Geologiques et Minieres (BRGM)) owns 15% of the Goro project. In an agreement in principle with a consortium led by Sumitomo Metal Mining Company Ltd., Sumitomo will buy up 25% of the project and Inco has agreed to buy back the French Government's 15%, which it now says it expects to have purchased by the fourth quarter of 2002 (Nickel Australasia: August 21, 2002). At the same time, the strongman of the Southern Province, Jacques LaFleur, has been having meetings with French Minister of Economy, Finance and Industry, Francis Mer, on the purchase of the BRGM stake by New Caledonia. The French group Eramet has already made an offer for the 15% share but the price has not been revealed (Nickel Australasia: August 21, 2002).

Problems in Indonesia - Inco Over-committed Financially?

Inco is also facing ongoing demonstrations against its planned expansion in Sulawesi, Indonesia. According to its Contract of Work, Inco must conduct exploration activities at its operations in Central Sulawesi. The affected communities of One Pute Jaya and Bahumotefe are actively opposing intrusions on their land. Chief Executive Officer of PT Inco, Edward Hodkin complains that instability in the region has made it impossible to secure the necessary financing "This makes it impossible for us to conduct exploration in Sulawesi" (SKH Nuansa pos-Rabu, August 7, 2002). A local House of Representatives member and veteran politician, Yus Mangun, has stated that if Inco cannot fulfill its exploration commitments "they should just back out — there is [sic] still many foreign investors that want to invest their capital in Central Sulawesi" (SKH Nuansa pos-Rabu, August 7, 2002).

There is some question whether Inco's apparent inability to secure funding for work in Central Sulawesi is solely related to political unrest or whether Inco has prioritized finding financing for Voisey's Bay and the New Caledonian concessions.

EIA process and permitting update

In March Goro's EIA (Installation Classée) was released by the New Caledonian government for a one month public commentary period. Kanak leaders (the Sénat Coutumier) and local NGOs called for an independent scientific review of the EIA. On November 21, 2001, nine Kanak leaders, representing the entire Kanak population and landowners around Goro, signed a petition calling for a two year moratorium on the Goro development to allow time for a comprehensive assessment of the environmental and social risks involved. (See MiningWatch Canada's January press release.)

Between April and July of this year representatives of two French government agencies, INERIS (Institut National de l'Environnement et des Risques) and IFREMER (Institut Français de Recherche pour l'Exploitation de la Mer) studied all aspects of the Goro operation on behalf of the New Caledonian and French governments. On August 10th the results were presented in a press release.

The INERIS report outlines 38 recommendations. Among other flaws, the report indicates clear gaps in the necessary baseline data needed to evaluate potential impacts on fauna, flora and marine sediments as a result of marine disposal of process effluents. INERIS identified:

  • lack of adequate information regarding sea current patterns in the dumping site
  • a lack of adequate data to interpret the potential impacts on the marine environment of suspended particles (turbidity) and nutrients from the mine effluent
  • imprecision in the data regarding possible chemical contamination of the marine environment preventing, among others, conclusions on the behaviour of some hazardous metallic elements
  • no baseline data was gathered on the flora and fauna of the lagoon, especially of the benthic organisms

To date, Inco has not received the necessary operating permits but this has not stopped the company from starting construction at the site.