New Caledonia is characterized by cultural diversity, and human occupation of the territory is divided. A Melanesian, Kanak agrarian society (about 40% of the total population), and a largely urban society, of European and other origins (about 60%), co-inhabit a territory of approximately 19,000 km2. The duality of occupation is also shown in the juxtaposition of common and customary land laws. These are the result of a painful history of land dispossession during colonial times and restitution of some land to the Kanak from 1970. Kanak identity is built on the clan’s history inscribed in a natural milieu where the environment, and land, has customary value, more than use value. New Caledonia has considerable mineral resources, especially nickel. Mining often creates conflict, as it raises the use value of land. Therefore, the establishment of a mine, refinery or industrial zone can often initiate assertions of clan ownership and land claims. Land rights are constantly updated, and can be renegotiated. The remodeling of the territory under mining pressures and new land allocations is a means for upward social mobility and prestige in Kanak society. These issues are demonstrated for the Federation “Djelawe” and two tribes (Oundjo and Baco) near the site of the future nickel ore processing plant and port (the Koniambo project) in the north of Grande Terre built by the local SMSP company and the Swiss Xstrata group. A discourse of environmental protection was used to restrain industrial activity but also to assert rights to clan land. But development pressures have also been used to achieve political control over land, and thus to increase clan recognition, and possible royalty payments. Thus, land claims are part of a game of prestige and power between clans and families. Socio-economic access to land, it emerges, is clearly more important in these cases than the protection of its bio-physical assets.
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