Daily, Immediate Conflicts: An Analysis of Villagers' Arguments about a Multinational Nickel Mining Project in New Caledonia (1)

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INTRODUCTION: LAND, MINING AND POLITICS

Old Wapo: The causes of the most serious and most daily, immediate conflicts lie in the unlimited seizure of our lands. (Gope 2001:31)

Unquestionably, over the last five centuries and particularly in the past few decades, countless crimes have been committed in the name of 'progress'. Nonetheless it is a mistake to assume -- as academic and popular literature has often done -- that small rural groups, faced with exogenous industrial development, are static, homogenous units that are being destroyed by 'modernity' (see Banks 1997:26-30 for a discussion of academic representations of communities as homogeneous, traditional, and/or disempowered). Rather, these communities are, as they have always been, composed of persons, each of whom is adapting to new circumstances, new possibilities, and new desires. Many villages are active, dynamic loci of intense internal conflicts provoked by differences in residents' expectations from the agents of landscape-altering economic development, with whom they engage in reciprocal relationships. The complexities of intracommunity conflicts and villagers' attempts to direct or prevent resource development acti vities may be elucidated by examining the discourses that people implement and especially by paying 'closer attention to the ways in which land, and the identities it confers, are deployed as terms in the debate' (Ballard 1997:61).

This paper engages with issues often addressed in the field known as 'political ecology', as an examination not of the macro-level politico-economic forces behind environmental change but of the engagements of local actors, in the context of huge economic and ecological stakes, with global players and with each other. Specifically, I analyse the relationships of the residents of a few New Caledonian villages with a multinational nickel mining venture known as the Koniambo Project. Perceptions of this project's potential costs and benefits have both created strains within the community and catalysed dormant intra-community tensions into factional conflicts.

Because of their different positions within local social hierarchies, which inform their relationships with the mining company, villagers stand to gain or lose more or less than their neighbours. Although nearly all the villagers with whom I spoke expressed a desire for the economic development the project would bring, particular sub-groups felt the need to make sure that certain components of the project would not result in a loss of their control of the land. To support their positions, some local people emphasised the importance of maintaining local ecosystems and cultural heritage while others highlighted the project's economic benefits. They also worried to varying degrees about the importance of appeasing the area's spirits. These concerns were genuine; however, in my analysis, what underlay and conditioned them were the villagers' desires for respect of their customary and/or legal rights. They especially aspired to determine what happened to their land, the source of their identity and dignity -- thei r primary 'symbolic capital' (Bourdieu 1994).

PARTICULARITIES OF NEW CALEDONIA AND THE KONIAMBO PROJECT

The archipelago of New Caledonia, an overseas possession of France, lies just north of the Tropic of Capricorn (Figure 1). Grande Terre, the main island which measures 400 by 50 km, possesses phenomenal mineral wealth, primarily nickel, making the island attractive to both local and multinational mining companies. New Caledonia has no legislation specifically requiring royalties or compensation to be paid to customary landowners, nor are such payments regularly demanded by local people (see Henningham 1992:74-76). This makes the situation there a sharp contrast to that of its neighbours, notably, Papua New Guinea which has abundant mineral resources and where 97% of land is owned by local people, and where compensation agreements form a crucial part of any mining negotiations. …