"LITTLE SCUM" TAKES ON BIG MINING - Bruno Van Peteghem's Campaign to Protect the South Pacific Island of New Caledonia Has Earned Him Both Scorn and Praise

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BRUNO VAN PETEGHEM is an activist forged by fire. Two fires, to be precise. The first came November 23, 1998, when his car mysteriously burst into flames inside his garage on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia. The second followed a few weeks later on New Year's Eve. Van Peteghem, an airline steward, was in Tokyo and his wife and two children were watching fireworks on the outskirts of Noumea, the capital of this semi-autonomous French territory. The family's Victorian home stood amid fruit trees on a hillside overlooking the city. Suddenly, as if touched by the sun, the house ignited. In 45 minutes, the family lost everything.

Van Peteghem suspects the fires were a message to fold the group he helped start to push environmental reforms on New Caledonia, whose unique landscape and vibrant reefs are being degraded by nickel mining. Or perhaps they were retribution for a lawsuit he filed that requires developers to tear down an apartment complex built illegally on Noumea's Moselle Bay. Or maybe, as the police report hypothesized, errant fireworks started the car fire and

Van Peteghem's rice cooker burned the house down.

Whatever their cause, the fires did not deter Van Peteghem. He is now leading an international effort to protect New Caledonia's 800-mile- long barrier reef by adding it to the United Nations' World Heritage List. For his perseverance despite threats to his safety, Van Peteghem last year won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. The award, given annually by an American foundation, has brought new publicity to his campaigns--which may make him more of a target, Van Peteghem says.

"Perhaps," he says, touching a spot between his eyes, "my destiny is a bullet in the head."

Grande Terre, the largest of the islands that constitute New Caledonia, is a 250-mile-long, cigar-shaped landmass midway between Fiji and Australia. Grande Terre is a sliver of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, from which it split 80 million years ago. Plants carried away from Gondwana have evolved in isolation for eons; an estimated 80 percent of the island's 3,000 plant species live nowhere else. The amborella, a small, off-white flower, is the only known direct descendant of Earth's first flowering plants. Araucaria pines, which look like giant mascara applicators, trace their roots to the planet's first conifers. Huge ferns tower overhead. Biologists call New Caledonia a "botanical Galápagos" and a "living museum."

By sea, the island may be more spectacular. The barrier reef encloses an 8,000-square-mile lagoon, the world's largest, that is home to sea turtles, reef sharks, rays, dolphins, mollusks such as nautiluses, and the dugong, a lugubrious mammal that feeds in the mangroves. The barrier reef surrounds the island like a fortress wall and batters waves into submission miles from shore. As a result, New Caledonia is enveloped in placid waters that swirl with 2,000 species of fish, including colorful clown fish, parrot fish and butterfly fish.

"From a biological standpoint, the reefs of New Caledonia certainly deserve all the international conservation support they can muster," says Timothy Werner of Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International. The reef system ranks in the top 10 in terms of biodiversity, he adds. Conservation International has placed New Caledonia on its list of 25 global "hotspots" in dire need of protection.

New Caledonia is also the island of nickel. Grande Terre holds as much as 40 percent of the world's known nickel reserves, and it supplies 12 percent of the global output, about 90,000 tons per year. Vast amounts of earth must be processed to extract the nickel, however. Then millions of tons of tailings are discarded in the surrounding forests and river basins. Environmental regulations are virtually nonexistent, resulting in decapitated mountains and hillsides stripped bare by open- pit mines. …