MAC: Mines and Communities

Globalization of protest holds Inco back in New Caledonia

Published by MAC on 2002-09-23

Globalization of protest holds Inco back in New Caledonia

Massive August demo just the latest in a series of setbacks for Inco in its Asia-Pacific endeavours

Monday, September 23, 2002

by Mick Lowe

Stop me if you've already heard this one: Canadian-based nickel mining multinational acquires fabulous property in a remote corner of the world; begins billion dollar construction project before angry locals take to the streets, blockading the site, and shutting the project down. It was almost five years ago to the day that just such a scenario played itself out at Inco's Voisey's Bay property in Northern Labrador, and only last spring did the project get back on track.

But now it's déja vu all over again, this time in Goro, New Caledonia, where a coalition of aboriginal New Caledonians, known as Kanaks, women's groups, environmentalists, centre and centre-left political parties, and even employees of Falconbridge's New Caledonian operations have collaborated to shut down work at Inco's open pit nickel mine. The demonstration, which occurred on Thursday, August 29th, involved between three and five thousand New Caledonians, an amazing number on an island whose total population is only 160,000.

The dramatic developments in New Caledonia are just the latest in a series of setbacks for Inco in its Asia-Pacific endeavours. There are also indications that the company's Indonesian operation is fast losing lustre on a number of fronts, not least because the fall of the Suharto regime has opened the place up for protest and free speech.

And nor should the latest news from New Caledonia and Indonesia be of interest only to Inco shareholders or the residents of nickel producing regions of Canada like northern Manitoba, northern Ontario and Labrador. What we have here is the flip side of globalization, and the implications are quite remarkable.

By that I mean that globalization is a two-way street: capital and capitalists move with alacrity around the planet, but so do human rights, environmental, and aboriginal activists, not to mention their ideas and information via the worldwide web.

Freedom to speak, assemble, and protest often follows hard on the heels of globalization and democratization, and the optics of simply mowing down demonstrators in this age of the television satellite uplink make that proposition untenable to all but the most hardheaded of regimes. Globalization, in other words, contains the seeds of its own negation, and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the case of Inco's globe-girdling adventures.

Let's start with developments in Indonesia, where Inco's well-established nickel mining/smelting has been the recipient of some $2 billion in investment over the past 30 years.

There's growing opposition to the company on Sulawesi, the island where Inco's operation is based, which has manifested itself in public demonstrations and even blockades.

The issues are several, including pollution of nearby villages and lakes, remuneration for expropriated lands, failure to employ local aboriginal residents in any but the most menial of positions, and a growing sense that the mining game just isn't worth the candle in terms of environmental impact and social dislocation.

This is especially so in the Bahumatefe region in Central Sulawesi, where Inco had been granted a huge concession for exploration and possible development. Opposition to any development is widespread among residents there, at least without proper compensation.

But in the past few months Inco's problems appear to have worsened: the provincial and Indonesian governments have both threatened to strip the company of its Bahumatefe concessions if it doesn't complete the required exploration work forthwith.

For its part Inco claims to be short of cash, and unable to comply with agreed-to deadlines and commitments. This may be simple bluff and bluster, it may be that the company is stripping Indonesia, like Sudbury and Thompson, of capital to finance Voisey's and Goro, or it may be an earnest that the company is looking to gradually extricate itself from Indonesia altogether.

Certainly the bloom has come off the Indonesian rose for the global mining industry. "The Asia Pacific is becoming a'No Go' area for miners" trumpeted the Australian Financial Review, a business publication, just last Friday.

The paper lamented the increase in regulation, environmental restrictions, and growing civil unrest in countries like Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and proclaimed that Africa was a more promising haven for global mining capital.

Inco, of course, has been browbeating Canadian mining communities and now, it seems, Indonesia, with the nickel riches of New Caledonia for more than a century. "Either give us what we want or we'll move to New Caledonia," has long been the thinly-veiled threat.

This time, it turns out, Inco wasn't bluffing, and it has now committed to a billion dollar-plus investment in the South Pacific Island. But in less than a year Inco has come to encounter the same kind of community opposition it has faced in Sudbury, Voisey's and Indonesia. Just eleven months ago my wife and I hosted four New Caledonian anti-mining activists during their visit to Sudbury. I liked them a lot, but I have to say I harbored private doubts about just how much support their cause enjoyed back home.

My doubts were reinforced last March when, at the time of the vernal equinox they attempted to organize a human wall around the Goro project; all of twelve people showed up. The local regime, with which Inco is closely allied, went about its brutal ways, and several journalists were roughed up in the months that followed.

In response a street demo was held in June in the New Caledonian capital of Noumea. Three hundred people turned out, and that number made headlines, at least in the Asia Pacific region. Still, it was business as usual in New Caledonia. Inco prepared to import 3,000 Filipino workers to build the Goro site, work proceeded even though proper permits had not yet been received, and the government granted Inco a huge new property adjacent to Goro.

The Prony concession, as it is known, was sold to Inco for $22 million, a measly sum that outraged local public opinion, as did the foreign workers, and mounting environmental concerns. Even Falconbridge got into the act, for fear that its own New Caledonian property, Koniambo, will be swamped by the huge scale of the Goro-Prony development.

After the big demo on the 29th matters came to a head last week, when thousands more demonstrators physically blockaded the Goro property, a number of workers went on strike, 100 Australian contract workers were evacuated, and the site was closed down.

"Without consent from the Senat Coutumier ( the Kanak representative assembly) the Goro mine will not open," vowed Kanak leader Raphael Mapou. All very, very reminiscent of Voisey's Bay at the time of the extraordinary Innu-Inuit protest in September, 1997. It may or may not be a coincidence that those same four New Caledonian activists who were here last October flew directly from Sudbury to visit the Innu in Labrador.

Whatever the outcome in Goro, there's little doubt that things just aren't the same for the global mining industry. Oh, well. There's always Africa. . .Antarctica. . .the moon?

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