It’s been a while … at New Caledonia Today

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

What the heck happened? Several among you have sent me messages to know if I am still in New Caledonia. Where did I go? Why did I stop writing? The truth is, 2015 hit us with a wallop. In mid-January I found myself in the emergency room and then a few days in the hospital with every battery of heart and brain test you can imagine. If anyone wants to know what medical care is like – or my experience of it – in New Caledonia, shoot me a note and I’ll think about blogging about it. Yes, New Caledonia has trained medical staff and all the modern equipment (if perhaps in limited quantities). Yes, hygiene is good. Yes, the food is bad (but isn’t all hospital food bad?). Yes, it’s horrible waiting around all day in a hospital bed. But again, I think it’s the same everywhere. Would I want to spend a lot of time in the hospitals/clinics here? No. But then I wouldn’t want to do that anywhere. February saw a world school trip to Vanuatu which was out of this world – and just ahead of Cyclone Pam. We were extremely lucky to see and taste and smell the beauty Vanuatu has to offer before it experienced such destruction. We met and spent many an hour with the locals on several islands (Efate, Malekula, Santo, Tanna) – and our minds and hearts will be forever etched with their kindnesses, with their pure happiness with next to nothing. March and April have seen full-on work and school for Pablo and I, without a break. We’ve learned that we are moving to the south of France for August of this year. And so starts the return move machine. We’ve purchased our around-the-world return tickets (they feel like around-the-world, but as we’re not returning to New Caledonia, they aren’t really), started sorting our things to sell and to give, have met with movers, talked with the quarantine about moving our pet and are facing the inevitable end of our stay here. What has been happening in New Caledonia?

And of course we still have the car accidents and the road deaths, the random fights and the stolen vehicles. We have the high cost of living and problems with the nickel plants, the polluted beaches and the political disputes. On the bright side, we have leopard shark love in central Nouméa (see below), the most beautiful weather you can imagine, stunning views, a pristine lagoon, clean air and a high quality of life. We are free of much of the crime we see on TV in the United States and Europe, we live simply, unconsumed by consumerism, we live with the sun and spend much of our lives outside. Would you live here, if you could (and you don’t)? I guarantee you would miss it, having had it for a few weeks, months or years. I’ll do what I can to keep writing before we leave. If there are any topics you’d like to know more about before this chapter closes, shout, and I’ll see what I can do to accommodate you. Knowing you’re there keeps me thinking about all the best things there are to share about life in New Caledonia.


Elections, an acid leak and Poindimié

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

It’s been a busy few weeks in New Caledonia.

Sunday saw the provincial elections much of Caledonia has been waiting for, resulting in 29 seats going to anti-independence leaders and 25 seats to the pro-independence leaders, narrowing the gap between those for and against independence for New Caledonia (you can see the full results from the election here in French). Next we will see if the 54-member Congress will see the three-fifths majority it needs to issue the first of three public independence (self-determination) referendums in the coming months.

Last Wednesday, the Vale nickel mine located in the south (Goro) had an acid leak (110,000 litres of effluent, some of it containing acid), the 6th in 5 years. Bad enough to close the plant and raise local tempers, we are waiting to hear what happens next. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) New Caledonia has said that risk management at the plant seriously needs to be addressed or the plant should be closed down; the area may not survive a 7th accident. Since the weekend, local residents have blocked access to the plant and are calling for its definitive closure. Kanak chiefs from the south were meeting about the matter today.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

In the middle of all this, we travelled up to the north-eastern coast of New Caledonia – to Poindimié. Cut off from the rest of the world, apart from public wifi access near the Reception at Hotel Tieti, it was next to impossible to know what was happening more than 10 metres ahead of us. This was our first visit to Poindimié and I have to say it was our best stay up north yet. Personally, I love the north and like to go up there as often as we can. I have enjoyed Hienghene and Poum and will most likely return to Poindimié again now that we had such a great experience there.

What did we like about it?

  • Just over 4 short hours outside Nouméa, and we feel like we’re in the Back of Beyond. With only 3 hours up to Koné and then 1 hour and 10 minutes across to the east coast through the mountains, the trip was more manageable than making the trek up further to Poum or to Hienghene. It actually felt quite quick!
  • The beach bungalows at Hotel Tieti are large, modern, clean and beautiful, with large terraces overlooking the lagoon. Complete with a shower and full bath, we felt we were in the lap of luxury itself. To us, Hotel Tieti was hands-down the best northern New Caledonia hotel yet.
  • Our meals were copious, a full, hot breakfast was included in the price of the room, and in our case, service was fast and pleasant.
  • The beaches in front of the Hotel Tieti are long, quiet and empty (even on a long weekend – though I’ve been told they are slightly busier in January and February, during the high season).
  • A 5-minute boat ride separates you and Ilot Tibarama, where you can dive and snorkel in what seems a tropical fish aquarium. A tiny isle, you can spend all morning there or part of the afternoon. We opted for the afternoon as a 7:30 departure felt a little too early.
  • In addition to diving and all-morning snorkeling outings with Tieti Diving (including a diving initiation for children 8 and up), you can also hike, hire guides, visit Kanak lands and the tribes and learn more about the region.
  • With such close proximity to the lagoon, we heard nothing but the crashing of waves at night.
  • Plenty to explore, quiet to enjoy, Poindimié was the perfect combination of activity and relaxation.

For those of you who are not familiar with, there are constant deals on the Hotel Tieti listed there  (an example of 1 night free for 1 night paid here, good through 30 June), which makes a drive up north definitely worth considering. If you end up going, or have been to Poindimié and would like to share your thoughts, please do. I’d love to hear from you!

Ilot Tibarama 2

French Prime Minister visits and reassures New Caledonia

Photo AFP / Lionel Bonaventure

Photo AFP / Lionel Bonaventure

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault arrived in New Caledonia Friday, 26 July, and left today, having seen and reassured New Caledonians about the independence referendum slated to start in 2014. Here on a visit between South Korea and Malaysia, he’s had a packed visit, speaking before Congress, visiting the nickel mine in the North and travelling to Ouvéa (one of the Loyalty Islands). He’s made a number of speeches, congratulating New Caledonia on its reconciliation (following “Les Evenements” of 1988) and reaffirming that the promised independence referendum will come to pass in 2019 at the latest.

With gross inequalities on the island – with significant inequality in income distribution and access to employment, he is reported to have said  that the challenge remains to provide a perspective for the future. But he underlined France’s commitment to the last phase of the Noumea Accord to help organise the independence referendum between 2014 and 2018. He also stated that Paris will remain neutral during the process. A parliamentary delegation is reportedly being sent in September to prepare the work.

Yesterday, Mr. Ayrault called for reconciliation at the Ouvéa cave that was the scene of a hostage-taking that ended in the deaths of 19 separatists, 4 gendarmes and 2 French parachutists in 1988.

“I wanted to be here among those whose mourning, remembrance and reconciliation have shown much promise for the future,” Mr. Ayrault said. “The forgiveness that has happened here is a great lesson for all, and the police and army have done the same on their side. I wish to unite these two memories in the same process of reconciliation and the same willingness to build the future of New Caledonia.”

Naturally, I found this discours very interesting. On the ground, I am not entirely sure that we have reached as much forgiveness and reconciliation as Mr. Ayrault perceives. And I find it extremely curious that we have all been speaking of the beginning of the independence in 2014 – but it seems clear with this visit, that the referendum will be pushed back to 2018 “at the latest”, meaning 2019.  I’ve even read 2022.

With France providing €1.6 billion a year to support New Caledonia’s 250,000 inhabitants, it’ll be interesting to see what local voters will decide whenever it does come to the vote.

Youth in New Caledonia search for identity in rapidly changing times

Members of USTKE, a union representing the indigenous Kanak population in New Caledonia. Photo: Marc Le Chelard/AFP/Getty

Members of USTKE, a union representing the indigenous Kanak population in New Caledonia. Photo: Marc Le Chelard/AFP/Getty

This photo and article below have been reproduced verbatim from The Guardian, 15 February. I don’t normally reproduce articles on this blog, but I was so taken by the fact that the international press is picking up on the social challenges New Caledonia’s indigenous population (the Kanaks) are facing.

The article presents a fair picture of what is happening here. I couldn’t agree more, while talking to the locals, both in Nouméa and at Ile des Pins and Lifou, that their challenge is about a loss of purpose. I spent some time speaking with a youth in Ile des Pins who despaired that “there is nothing to do, so we do things we shouldn’t do.”  Colonisation has left its mark here, as has Western modernisation, stripping the land not just of its minerals (nickel), but its people of its raison d’etre.

While the state spends a year and CFP 370 million [€3.1 million/$4.1 million] on re-sanding a beach (and tourist attraction, Baie des Citrons), our roads worsen, our indigenous youth quit school, hang out and get into trouble, theft rises (you have 1 in 130th of a chance of being broken into in Nouméa, a rise of 22.5% in 2012) and young women are the victims of rape and beatings in Nouméa proper.

I wonder where this country’s vision is and where it is going, as we creep towards an independence vote and a shortage of skilled and motivated individuals and groups.


Youth in New Caledonia search for identity in rapidly changing times

Indigenous population of France’s South Pacific archipelago caught between European individualism and collective tradition


Stanley Jemes would like to go back to his native island of Maré and plant sandalwood and yams, far away from the city “where everything comes at a price”. “On Maré we all live together, here at Tindu, it’s every man for himself,” says the 24-year-old Kanak (a native of New Caledonia). The archipelago in the South Pacific remains part of France.

Jemes has a six-month contract as a neighbourhood educator, earning 85% of the minimum wage. He counsels other young people from Tindu, a poor district in the north of Nouméa, the capital.

“Even in primary school there are kids who just hang out all day. I tell them I’m sorry I didn’t finish school, that there’s no point drinking and smoking dope. But often they don’t listen,” Jemes says. He has a four-year-old son and another child on the way. He applied for a council flat five years ago, but still does not earn enough, so he occupies a studio flat with his partner, son, his parents and a brother.

Jemes is worried about “all these Kanak kids running wild” on the housing estates round Tindu. In his tribe, the elders would speak to the young ones; they knew when to assert their authority.

In New Caledonia, where half the population is under 30, discontent among young people is a continuous problem.

The archipelago was colonised by the French in 1853. A period of serious unrest between Kanak separatists and the Caldoche (European) settlers was ended by the Matignon agreement signed in 1988, followed by the Nouméa agreement in 1998.

The French government hopes to take the islands to independence. With technical and financial help from Paris, local authorities are taking over areas of government, and a referendum on self-determination is planned before 2018.

In the meantime, the challenge is to give substance to the notion of a common destiny for New Caledonia’s young.

“They’re not suffering from the loss of culture, more a loss of meaning, which is far worse,” says anthropologist Patrice Godin. “Young Kanaks are not torn between tradition and modernity, they have to invent a whole new scheme of things. In Japan, for instance, society is very traditional and extremely modern.”

Bruno Calandreau, a psychiatrist at a youth treatment and drop-in centre, sees people who are “ashamed of who they are, worried about who they may become”.

“New Caledonia itself is an adolescent country, in search of an identity, gradually breaking loose from the motherland. It is changing very quickly, without really knowing where it’s going, its political future not being settled. This climate feeds young people’s anxiety,” Calandreau says.

Several forces are pushing the Kanaks into the modern world: urbanisation, with more than two-thirds of the population living in or around Nouméa; the booming nickel industry and the multinational firms it has attracted; and the internet and television.

Elie Pougoune was the fourth Kanak to pass the baccalaureate in 1964. He now heads a branch of the Human Rights League. For years he has been trying to draw attention to young people’s problems. “People just don’t realise what a terrible shock colonisation was. European ideas steamrollered our values, beliefs and paganism.”

Pougoune highlights the cultural duality people face: “Kanak society is based on the group, collective living and exchange. At school and in the European way of life, it’s the individual that counts. But our organisation leaves no room for youngsters to develop their individuality. They don’t know which world they belong to.”

In 2009, only 12% of Kanak secondary school students passed the baccalaureate compared with 54% of students of European origin. Although primary and secondary education is now the responsibility of local authorities, political in-fighting has held up work on a new education framework.

Richard Waminya, an educationist, points out: “Kanak students are still trapped in a scheme that does not suit them, because their thought processes are not linear but circular, taking the form of networks, relations between the individual and the object”.

On the island of Lifou he is achieving “spectacular results, thanks to an approach that maintains the link between home and school”. Waminya hopes parents “will once again take their role as transmitters of knowledge seriously” and stop seeing school as a white preserve.

With substantial investment, along with affirmative action, progress has been made – but more needs to be done to redress disparities between Kanaks and the rest of the population.

The last 20 years has seen a sevenfold increase in the number of Kanaks in managerial positions, but they still only represent a tiny percentage of the community’s active population. Kanak doctors, judges, architects and dentists are still few and far between.

• This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde.