New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea: Large-scale Mines and Local-level Politics


New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea are not always mentioned together. Despite geographic proximity, colonial history has cast them into two different scholarly camps. Split between Anglophone and Francophone researchers, the similarities between the two — namely their mutual economic dependence on mineral resource exports and the impact of large-scale mining on indigenous communities and local politics — have not been fully explored. A new volume from ANU Press, Large-scale Mines and Local-level Politics: Between New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea, seeks to bridge this gap.

The volume’s editors, Colin Filer and Pierre-Yves Le Meur, spoke to The Diplomat about the impacts of large-scale mining on local-level politics in New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea.

New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea are geographically close, what other similarities are there between the two states?

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Both countries belong to that part of the Pacific Islands region that was called Melanesia (“Black Islands”) by the French navigator Dumont d’Urville because of the dark skin color of the indigenous inhabitants. This superficial racial similarity conceals a huge range of linguistic and cultural diversity, so if the different islands of this region are equally diverse in terms of their indigenous languages and cultures, they are also quite different from each other for this same reason. Likewise, all were subject to European invasion and colonial administration in the late 19th century, but the extent and duration of European settlement (and indigenous dispossession) varied between them.

The similarity between New Caledonia (NC) and Papua New Guinea (PNG) that is of interest to the contributors to this book is the extent of their economic dependence on the exploitation and export of mineral resources and the efforts made by the political representatives of indigenous communities to obtain a “fair share” of the proceeds of such activity. Despite the current difference in the political status of these two countries, the emergence of localized forms of “resource nationalism” is essential to an understanding of local people’s struggles to achieve greater independence or autonomy within their respective political systems. The imminence of referendums on independence in both NC and the “Autonomous Region of Bougainville” (in PNG) is a sign of this convergence in their political trajectories, since the presence of mineral wealth appears to provoke a demand for greater local autonomy while posing a problem for the maintenance of local political solidarity.

As I understand it, New Caledonia has a nickel mining industry that stretches back to the 1870s whereas Papua New Guinea’s mining industry took off in the 1970s. What is the present state of the industry in both countries? Can you give a sense of the scale for our readers?

The extractive industry sector has accounted for roughly 80 percent of the value of PNG’s exports and more than 90 percent of the value of NC’s exports in recent years. Since NC is a much smaller country, with a population roughly equivalent to one of PNG’s 21 provinces, and is dependent on the exploitation of a single mineral commodity (nickel), the boom-and-bust cycle typical of the extractive industries has a much bigger impact on the local economy, but this is partly offset by the continued receipt of financial transfers from the French, whose relative significance is far greater than the foreign aid delivered to PNG. Both countries suffer from various symptoms of the so-called resource curse, but in the PNG case, these problems have been exaggerated by the tendency of the national government to spend mineral revenues before it has received them, and then to find that these revenues fail to meet previous expectations, not just because of fluctuations in the prices of different mineral commodities (including oil and gas), but also because of the benefit-sharing agreements to which the government has committed itself.

What are the costs and benefits of the mining industry in Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia?

The environmental costs of mining are huge and largely irreversible in both countries. A rigorous cost-benefit analysis should take these costs into account by recognizing the value of “natural capital” or “ecosystem services,” instead of treating such things as “externalities,” which is the way that they have long been treated by the mining companies. For the members of indigenous communities affected by large-scale mining operations in both countries, the separation of environmental from social costs does not make a great deal of sense because of the way that local people perceive the connection between their culture and their natural environment. This means that local people (or their political representatives) frequently make demands that seem irrational to policymakers and foreign investors, which only adds to the complexity and unpredictability of political contests over the distribution of costs and benefits. However, this is by no means a problem unique to countries and contexts in which mine-affected communities are also indigenous communities. The more that mining companies talk about the need to obtain a “social licence” from mine-affected communities, the more they encourage the members of these communities to resist an economic equation in which the short-term and long-term local costs of mining operations are outweighed by the local and national benefits that constitute a “greater good.”

What role has the mining industry played in local politics in both states?

Mining projects are often huge, and so are their impacts on the localities where they operate. The flows of material and immaterial resources they inject into local communities can have highly destabilizing effects, creating new forms of moral and political moral uncertainty, and transforming social hierarchies and cultural values. At the same time, local people invest in new economic opportunities and develop entrepreneurial activities that have political, as well as economic, goals. This is equally true for both NC and PNG, but in the latter case, the scale of mining operations and the relative weakness of state institutions has been more disruptive and generated more violence. The case of the Panguna copper mine on Bougainville is at once emblematic and specific as it conflates aspects of the Australian colonial legacy with mining impacts, land issues, and the politics of decentralization.

Papua New Guinea became sovereign in 1975, after more than a century under colonial rule, in various parts and periods, by the Germans, the British and the Australians. Meanwhile, New Caledonia remains a “special collectivity” of France (with the 1998 Noumea Accord setting a referendum for independence no later than November 2018). What has been the impact of these colonial legacies on the study of the interaction between large-scale mining and local-level politics in the region?

The long history of mining in NC is intrinsically linked with the history of settler colonialism, but it only recently emerged as a distinctive political issue in the negotiations between pro-independence parties and the French government. The Kanak political discourse of the 1970s and 1980s revolved around cultural recognition, land restitution and political emancipation, but when the mining issue came to the fore in the 1990s, the pro-independence parties negotiated a specific agreement with the French government (the 1998 Bercy Agreement) which paved the way for a new form of “resource nationalism.” When PNG achieved self-government in 1973, one of the national government’s first priorities was to renegotiate the terms of the development agreement for the Panguna mine, which was widely seen as a successful example of resource nationalism at work, but the benefits that were secured for the new nation as a whole came at the cost of a “micro-nationalist” movement on Bougainville that eventually forced the closure of the mine in 1989. For all the other large-scale mining projects that have been developed in the post-colonial period, the colonial legacy takes the form of mining legislation that has been continually amended to accommodate the demands of provincial and local political actors in order to avoid the prospect of an equally violent outcome.

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