Nickel mining is being blamed for New Caledonia's soaring carbon emission rate and a nagging problem with pollution in the capital, Noumea,
Nickel represents over 90 percent of New Caledonia's overall exports and is the bedrock of the economy.
But as Johnny Blades found out, questions are being asked whether the territory's heavy reliance on nickel mining is hindering its prospects of a sustainable future.
For a first time visitor to Noumea, it hits you as you drive towards the city. It's different from many capitals in the Pacific region. You're driving a multi-laned sealed motorway, being overtaken by BMW SUVs and Audis, passing lots of big buildings, housing developments. Signs of money are everywhere, and as you near the city itself, an explanation as it why there's so much money floating around seems to present itself. The motorway winds around a large industrial complex with several tall chimneys belching dirty smoke into the air. So I pulled off the road to get a better look at it. It's the power plant and smelter facility of SLN, Societe Le Nickel.
DOMINIQUE NACCI: The state-controlled mining company, SLN. SLN was owning over 70 percent of the tenements of New Caledonia, so it's very important. And also New Caledonia owns about 25 percent of the world resource of nickel.
Dominique Nacci is the public relations spokesman for SMSP mining company, which is owned by New Caledonia's Kanak-dominated Northern Province. Having purchased old mines from SLN and started a major nickel development in the north, SMSP is trying to wrest some of the wealth created by nickel in New Caledonia back to its indigenous people. However, according to the WWF's Hubert Geraux, due largely to the growth in nickel production, the rate of New Caledonia's carbon emissions has almost tripled in less than a decade.
HUBERT GERAUX: With the new mining boom with nickel development, we will reach the summit of more than 30 tonnes of CO2 per person per year, so as Kuwait, as Qatar.
I'm walking around th e Noumea suburb of Vallee de Tir, which is just adjacent to the SLN nickel plant. And the smell of the stuff coming out of the plant is pretty strong. When the wind is blowing a certain way, dust from the plant becomes a factor, according to the people in the street.
MAN: Ma solution c'est de savoir que la pollution...
INTERPRETER: His first concern is about health. And his second concern is about the acid rain that is created when the water is falling on the dust.
WOMAN: Moi, j'habite sur le Mont-Dore...
INTERPRETER: She feels that she's suffering from [difficulty with] breath. With this air she has asthma crises.
MAN: Le vent et la poussiere...
INTERPRETER: They often have dust outside of their houses.
MAN: Il lache de la poussiere...
INTERPRETER: There is dust everywhere. Also when it's raining the water is bringing the dust. So his kids have got some asthma due to dust from the nickel plant.
WOMAN: Oui, c'est un probleme parce que pour les gens...
INTERPRETER: She worries about people that are sick because of the pollution of the air, and also because of the environmental problems.
I asked SLN what it is doing about the sulphur dioxide and dust that people living near its Noumea plant have to live with. SLN's communication manager is Olivier Beligon:
STATEMENT FROM OLIVER BELIGON: SLN has taken many actions in order to mitigate its atmospheric emissions, for example the use of low- sulphur fuel. Another is the new electrostatic precipitator which reduces the quantity of dust by another quarter and complies with the newest regulations.
However SLN has plans for a new coal-powered plant in the capital. Martine Cornaille of the NGO Together for the Planet has delivered a petition to New Caledonia's government with almost 7,000 signatures opposing this plan.
MARTINE CORNAILLE: This coal plant is going to replace the fuel plant, which is not going to solve the problem of pollution. Because the metallurgy plant is a very big emission.
Olivier Beligon says the new plant will be a 21st-century technology plant.
STATEMENT FROM OLIVER BELIGON: Its atmospheric emission will be reduced by more than 10 times compared with the existing power plant station. The shareholders of the SLN (including its Caledonian members) have taken the decision to use coal after having studied for the past two years all the others possibilities.
SLN employs 2,200 employees and 6,000 subcontractors in the territory. But its large profit margins are as much of an issue in the territory as the carbon emissions and pollution. As New Caledonia enters the final phase of the Noumea Accord which provides for a possible referendum on independence, the territorial government's secretary of labour, George Mandaoue, says too much revenue goes untaxed.
GEORGE MANDOUE: Independence is economically affordable because all the money has been taken out by the companies. Like the SLN, Vale and all this... There's a lot of money going out and it's not being taxed.
Wealth is very visible in Noumea. But scratch beneath the surface and you find that many people are struggling with the cost of living, and the indigenous Melanesians tend to dominate the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Dominique Nacci says SMSP's model - 51% partner in the Koniambo mine and two associated plants, one in Korea - is essential to the territory's ability to stand on its own feet.
DOMINIQUE NACCI: This is a struggle for access to mining, access to know-how and to get added value out of the mining resources. Nickel is providing New Caledonia with more autonomy.
Martine Cornaille says that SLN's decision to opt for cheaper forms of energy overlooks the huge costs to health and the environment.
MARTINE CORNAILLE: Right now New Caledonia is relying on more than 90% from imported energy. And this is really a suicide because we have wind, we have some sun, we have the ocean, and we should be able to be more autonomous, very autonomous in terms of energy.
There are signs that New Caledonia's government is responding to pressure from environmental NGOs to consult civil society and local communities over plans for new nickel mining facilities. But the decisions on SLN's vast interests in New Caledonia are largely being made by its parent company Eramet some 17,000 kilometres away, in Paris. As New Caledonia considers its readiness for independence, it must also answer the question whether it should seek to ease its reliance on nickel mining and invest in renewable energy, agriculture and other sectors.