Santo leaders show interest in Vanuatu nickel project
A Vanuatu nickel smelter, involving companies from New Caledonia and China, is now looking more likely.
MPs from Sanma province in Vanuatu's north are showing keen interest in a controversial plan for a major local nickel development.
A joint venture was signed recently between a New Caledonian company, MKM, and China's Jin Pei, with plans to build a one-billion US dollar nickel plant on Santo where they would ship low quality ore reserves from New Caledonia.
When news broke of the deal, Vanuatu's lands Minister Ralph Regenvanu said the Government had not given approval, let alone been formally notified of the project.
Johnny Blades finds that more details have emerged:
A group of Santo landowners has reportedly given approval for the nickel plant, with the investors already having made trips to Santo to case out a site around the Big Bay region. It has also transpired that the Acting Prime MInister Ham Lini has met with the investors and indicated government interest. This is despite Ralph Regenvanu earlier indicating that as the sort of project which may impact negatively on the environment and jeopardise Santo's tourism assets, the nickel plant would not gain government support. A Santo MP, Marcellino Pipite, says the government doesn't have many viable development options at its disposal and therefore should consider the nickel project.
MARCELLINO PIPITE: We in our country, we want to raise funds, enough for the government to maintain services and also for people to have a minimum income, wages, to live. It's worth looking at. Let's do it. Let's find a way out.
Another Santo MP and former Prime Minister Serge Vohor believes the project has merits.
SERGE VOHOR: Maybe we have some reservations to see how this environmental impact assessment will show. And also maybe it's up to the landowners for the project but otherwise I think it's a very good project for the people of Sanma.
Ham Lini has invited the company to formally apply to the government to undertake the project in accordance with all necessary legal and environmental requirements. The Luganville MP, Kalfau Moli, says the way forward for this ambitious project is to have wholesale endorsement from the government.
KALFAU MOLI: An environmental impact study should be made and other economic impacts that can be done and that can affect the environment must be put in line so the project can be viable. But at the outset I am for any big project that comes and can create employment and can help the local economy.
Kalfau Moli says that there are a number of details that need to be attended to before the project can get off the ground.
KALFAU MOLI: We just only hope that the landowners that are currently involved in the initial stage of the investment will not fall out because past experience has shown that when discussions on such a project get to the first stage then the landowners just fall out over rifts or disputes, then it spoils the whole investment.
The emerging discussion about the nickel plant plan has tapped into lingering perceptions that in terms of national development efforts, Santo is often neglected in favour of Port Vila. Marcellino Pipite says Santo's population, particularly the rural people, need more opportunities for income.
MARCELLINO PIPITE: We have been crying for a long time... lately for the internatinal airport, not to be built on Port Vila, but to be built on Santo. It's the biggest island where.. you have many more islands in the north of this country, more than in the south.
Meanwhile, a statement from the office of Prime Minister Joe Natuman says the government stresses the importance of ensuring that landowners receive maximum benefits from the smelter if it is established, and that it does not adversely impact their environment, or compromise the lives of their future generations.
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