Supporting article G: The Great Barrier Reefs under threat
Biodiversity Hotspot Reefs under Threat in Kanaky (New Caledonia)
Barrier reef in New Caledonia.
Kanaky or New Caledonia, a country under French rule in the Southwestern Pacific, is one of the most unusual biodiversity hotspots on earth. A remnant of ancient Gondwanaland, the main island, la Grand Terre, separated from Australia 85 million years ago and has existed in isolation from other land masses, surrounded by deep ocean trenches. Kanaky contains the largest concentration of nickel laterites in the world (approximately 20% of known reserves) and contains 75% of the reefs and lagoons under French control. Because of the country’s geological history, isolated location and unusual soils that are poor in key plant nutrients and rich in elements usually toxic to plants (such as chromium and magnesium), more than 75% of the country’s plant species are endemic. Some of New Caledonia’s terrestrial ecosystems have rates of endemism as high as 91%. Kanaky is home to astonishing “living fossil” plants and animals that date back to the age of dinosaurs.
Surrounded by an extraordinary barrier reef –the second largest in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — Kanaky contains one of the world’s largest lagoon systems. The location of Kanaky’s reefs has largely protected them from recent massive coral bleaching events that have had profound impacts on the reefs of neighboring Australia. This little-researched 10 million acre (44,000 km2) reef and lagoon system is home to a vast number of marine species including many found nowhere else on earth.
Recently, marine researchers discovered over 2,700 species of molluscs at one Kanaky site, alone – several times the number of species ever recorded from any other comparable area in the world. This discovery and other current analyses of Kanaky marine molluscs are likely to force an upward recalculation of the total number of living species on Earth.
In 2002, after pressure by courageous indigenous Kanak leaders and local environmentalists, the French government proposed New Caledonia’s reef ecosystems for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The same year, sixty-two coastal and marine scientific experts meeting in Hanoi placed the New Caledonia reefs at the top of the priority list for World Heritage designation in the Pacific. The UNESCO process, however, has since been blocked and the nomination has not progressed. The French Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development now prefers to “work with international mining companies…to ensure environmental protection” instead of working with UNESCO to secure the World Heritage nomination.
Large international mining companies are preparing to initiate massive operations on indigenous lands in this fragile island ecosystem. Canada’s Inco company has begun the construction of a $1.4 billion nickel-cobalt mining facility in the Goro region of Kanaky’s Southern Province, apparently without having secured the government permits necessary for mine operation. Inco plans to utilize an unproven and apparently risky Pressure Acid Leach technology powered by a coal-fired plant, underwritten by the publicly financed Agence de developpement français (ADF). The plant will be located in the midst of protected botanical reserves, adjacent to fragile reef systems proposed for the UNESCO nomination. This mine presents a tremendous threat to marine biodiversity. In addition, there are plans for the development of large-scale industrial coastal shrimp aquaculture operations. There are indications that both mining and aquaculture companies are attempting to secure international finance, including ECA support, for their proposed ventures.