On February 1st at 4am in the morning members of the indigenous Kanak Rhéébù Nùù Committee blockaded the entrance to INCO’s Goro Nickel site. This is the latest effort in a long-standing struggle by the Kanak population of New Caledonia in the South Pacific to force Canadian nickel giant INCO to respect local indigenous rights.
Recognised Kanak authorities representing the major Kanak institutions of the Senat Coutumier and the Rhéébù Nùù Committee demand that Inco: 1) halt recently resumed construction of the Goro facility, 2) initiate a negotiation process that will result in a agreement with recognized Kanak authorities that responds to their social and environmental concerns concerning the Goro project, 3) allow an independent assessment of Inco’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Kanak authorities have repeatedly pointed to the agreements INCO negotiated with the Labrador Innu and Inuit as an example of the process they seek with INCO.
By February 4th, both Raphael Mapou, Secretary General of the Rhéébù Nùù Committee and André Vama, President of the Rhéébù Nùù Committee, had been arrested by French security forces. The following information on the events following the arrest of Kanak leaders is drawn from dispatches from Jacques Boengkih, a Kanak advisor to the Rhéébù Nù Committee.
On Tuesday, February 8, people started filling the Noumea Court Hall where Raphael Mapou and André Vama were to face a “Tribunal correctionnel”. The court room was overflowing with supporters and the proceedings were well covered by media. The lawyers for Rhéébù Nùù asked that the trial be postponed to allow more time to prepare a defence. The lawyers asked that Raphael Mapou and André Vama be set free pending the new trial date (April 12, 2005) as they had promised that they will not disturb the peace.
Outside the court building André Vama and Raphael Mapou addressed the crowd, which demanded a march on Inco’s Goro-Nickel headquarters. Following a demonstration in front of the Goro-Nickel headquarters, a delegation was received by Ron Renton, Director general of Goro-Nickel and Laurent Chatenay, head of Goro-Nickel’s communication department. The Rhéébù Nùù delegation was made up of André Vama, president, Hubert Newedou, vice-president, Joseph Attiti (brother of late high chief Charles Attiti) and Fernand Ouetcho, members of the Goro council of Elders, Gabriel Kate, member of the St. Louis council of Elders, Jacques Lalie, member of Congress, and Jacques Boengkih.
A list of demands was presented to Ron Renton including the call for an independent team of scientists to review the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The delegation also denounced the New Caledonian Government’s decision to grant Goro-Nickel a local tax exemption. André Vama reminded Ron Renton that Kanak demands have not changed and have not been addressed by Inco. In response to the delegation’s request for a negotiated agreement between Inco and legitimate Kanak organizations, such as Inco has with indigenous peoples of Canada, Ron Renton replied that he is employed by Goro-Nickel, the New Caledonian company, and he knows nothing about agreements signed by Inco with the Innu Nation and the Inuit Association of Labrador. But he said he would pass on to the company’s headquarters the claim for recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights, and he would take the issue to Toronto.
From Goro-Nickel’s headquarters the crowd and the delegation went to the Southern province headquarters. The same delegation plus Raphael Mapou was received by Philippe Gomes, president, Sonia Lagarde, vice-president and Bernard Cherriou, special advisor to the president. After a long debate Philippe Gomes said he agreed with the principle of an independent team to review the EIA. As chair of the Southern province environmental committee to monitor the Goro nickel project, Philippe Gomes agreed to call for an independent scientific review of Goro’s EIA. The next meeting of the environmental committee was planned for the second half of March. Gomes specifically referenced the disposal of mine effluents into the lagoon. He said that if independent scientist could show that the quantity of heavy metals would be hazardous for the environment, then the Southern province would ask Inco to halt the marine dumping of waste.
The Kanak delegation also requested an Impact Assessment Commission on the model of the panel of experts that worked on the Voisey’s Bay Mine. Philippe Gomes said that the Southern province has created a steering committee made up of authorities competent in all matters such as health, cultural and social aspects that the project might affect. The delegation noted that the concerned Kanak people should be allowed to name their own representatives and that the Southern province authorities should stop creating division and confrontation between Kanak leaders and their communities.
Finally, the crowd and the Kanak delegation, now joined by Georges Mandaoue of the Senat Coutumier (the customary senate of the Kanaks) and High Chief Berge Kawa, marched to a meeting with the government of New Caledonia and subsequently to the French High Commissioner (who was away). Neither of these meetings seem to have been been fruitful.
For pictures of the blockade and demonstrations see www.rheebunuu.com.