French Government cancellation announcement for World Heritage Site application for fragile New Caledonia reefs stuns Kanak leaders, scientists, environmentalists around the world – Government urged to reconsider.
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(Honolulu/Ottawa/Sydney) Organizations from around the world expressed shock and disappointment at the surprise announcement by the French Minister of Environment that the French government now plans to withdraw its January 2002 request for UNESCO World Heritage Site protection for the New Caledonia/Kanaky reef ecosystem — the second largest barrier reef system in the world (after Australia's Great Barrier Reef).
In a sudden reversal of official policy, Roseline Bachelot, the new French Minister of the Environment, stated last week that the UNESCO nomination proposal initiated by the former Minister of the Environment in January is now "a measure that is uninteresting because it has no binding impact." Bachelot stated that, instead of seeking World Heritage designation, France would protect the fragile and unique ecosystem by working with international mining companies — Canada's notorious INCO corporation amongst them — to ensure environmental protection. UNESCO officials, however, have indicated that they have received no notice from the French government of any change in the status of the nomination.
Speaking in Noumea on the occasion of the company's centennial, INCO's CEO Scott Hand predicted a 100 year future for INCO in New Caledonia following the 100 year history of the company in Canada.
"In Canada, Inco is in serious conflict with both citizens and the government as a result of decades of heavy metal contamination of the air and soil around its operations." says Dr. Catherine Coumans, Research Coordinator for MiningWatch Canada. "Residents of Port Colborne launched a class action law suit against Inco because of heavy metal contamination of the air and soil in the town. Citizens now face an 8-40% higher than acceptable risk of cancer in Port Colborne, but INCO is fighting the Ministry of the Environment's order that the company clean up the heavily contaminated soil and homes in the area. Government studies have now also identified unacceptable levels of arsenic and metals, such as nickel, copper, and cobalt, in the Sudbury area where INCO operates."
"We respectfully urge the French government to reconsider the decision announced by the Minister of Environment," said senior scientist Dr. Stephanie Gorson Fried of Environmental Defense, Hawai'i. "The international spotlight and public support generated by a World Heritage nomination serves as an important tool for the protection of reef ecosystems — and the traditional fishers who depend on them — from the environmental impacts likely to be associated with the massive new mining operations, such as the INCO mine planned for New Caledonia.
A recent official assessment of INCO's mining permit application, carried out by INERIS (The National Institute of Industrial Environment and Risks) for New Caledonia's Southern Province, found that the plans for the treatment of mine waste are "relatively finalized for the period of exploitation up to five years" but "outside of that period, it seems difficult to make relevant statements about the expected layout arrangements."
The French announcement was made shortly after a Paris visit by New Caledonia strongman and Governor of the Southern Province, Jacques LaFleur. According to a senior French official who wished to remain anonymous, the cancellation — if it occurs — would be of significant benefit to international mining operations and would likely be the direct result of LaFleur's pressuring the French government.
Last Friday, in New Caledonia, over 3,000 Kanak leaders, environmentalists, human rights activists, and ordinary citizens held a demonstration to demand that LaFleur's Southern Province withdraw its latest mine prospecting license for Canada's INCO nickel corporation and draft strong environmental laws. Protestors demanded that the French government continue to seek UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for New Caledonia's extraordinarily fragile barrier reef ecosystem.
"The environmental record of multinational mining companies in the Asia Pacific region is very poor. We are particularly concerned about the practice of allowing mine wastes and effluents to flow into rivers and seas. These practices are a threat to marine and coral reef environments and are illegal in the companies' home countries. It is hard to see how a company with INCO's poor record can be trusted as a partner in environmental protection," said Geoff Evans, Director of the Mineral Policy Institute in Sydney, Australia.
New Caledonia, also called Kanaky, is a territory of France, which contains at least 30% of the world's nickel ore and 75% of the reefs and lagoons under French control. Identified by the prestigious British scientific journal, Nature, as one of the world's top "biodiversity hotspots", over 76% of the country's plant species are endemic and are found nowhere else on earth. Surrounding the world's largest lagoon, the New Caledonia/Kanaky reef system occupies close to 10 million acres or over 40,000 km2. New Caledonia researchers are continually discovering marine species previously unknown to science in these rich waters. This fragile reef and lagoon ecosystem also provides sustenance for a range of traditional small-scale fishermen.
French, Australian, American, and Canadian contractors are poised to begin the construction of the $1.4 billion INCO nickel-cobalt mining facility in New Caledonia, utilizing an unproven, dangerous Pressure Acid Leach (PAL) technology in an area located adjacent to fragile reef systems proposed for nomination as a World Heritage Site.
Under such conditions of clear environmental, political, and commercial risk, it is likely that mega-mining companies such as INCO are seeking methods of shifting the risk burden to the public sector. For example, the French government's Agence Française de Développement has provided millions of euros of loans for infrastructure support for INCO's operations. Some of the AFD funds, while approved, have not yet been disbursed pending the outcome of an "environmental assessment". INCO and other international mining operations are thought to be seeking additional public export credit finance for what appear to be environmentally destructive and socially disruptive plans.
Australia: Geoff Evans 61 2 938 755 40 [email protected]
Christine Milne (Wilderness Society) 61 418 127 151
Canada: Catherine Coumans 1-613-569-3439 [email protected]
Hawai'i/USA: Stephanie Fried 1 808 262-7128 [email protected]