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Background

p. 12-16


Texte intégral

1Fabrice Colin, a IRD senior scientist from Cerege, was appointed to conduct an assessment mission by the French Ministers for Research and for Overseas in 1999, at the request of the local public authorities and the New Caledonian Mining Industry Union (Syndicat des industries de la mine de Nouvelle-Calédonie), in the context of generating economic development prospects and establishing a new balance, in line with the 1998 Nouméa Accord.

Mining policy in New Caledonia

2For more than a century, New Caledonia’s economy – particularly in terms of exports and employment – has been largely based on mining of its mineral resources, particularly nickel, although efforts to diversify into the aquaculture, fisheries, tourism and agri-food sectors are underway.

3Other substances, including coal, manganese and gold, have also been mined in an episodic but economically insignificant manner. Only nickel has been mined uninterruptedly since 1875, following its discovery by Jules Garnier in 1864. The silicate-rich ores known as garnierites were mined throughout the 20th century using the pyrometallurgy process (carried out by Société Le Nickel – SLN – part of the Eramet Group).

4In a depressed global context, complicated by Russian uncertainties following the devaluation of the ruble, new operators emerged. In addition to pyrometallurgy, they decided, well in advance of projections, to use new industrial hydrometallurgy processes to mine hitherto unexploited “lateritic” ores. This change of method is a decisive economic factor insofar as the announced operating costs are half those of pyrometallurgical processes, and hydrometallurgy enables the processing of lateritic ores, which have high iron but lower nickel content. Furthermore, hydrometallurgy enables the recovery of cobalt as a by-product, which is difficult to recover otherwise and has considerable added value.

5In New Caledonia, the accelerating decline of garnierite nickel reserves and the higher cost of the pyrometallurgical method have naturally led to a shift towards the mining and hydrometallurgical processing of laterites.

6At present, worldwide, nickel from nickel laterites accounts for 60% of world production.

Nickel mining area in Kopéto, New Caledonia.

Image

© IRD/C. Gay

Nickel ores (goethite and garnierite), Poro, New Caledonia.

Image

© IRD/J.-M. Boré

Nouméa Accord

7At the political level, New Caledonia entered a historic phase following the Nouméa Accord of 5 May 1998, signed ten years after the Matignon-Oudinot Accords.

8Prior to 2004, New Caledonia was required to draw up a plan for the exploitation of mineral resources, including a mining inventory and a plan for the mining of deposits, as well as environmental protection guidelines. It should be noted that authority for the “environment” and “economic development” was transferred to the provinces by the Organic Law of 1999.

The research situation in New Caledonia

9It had been observed that over a period of twenty years or so, the scientific community had almost totally neglected environmental geosciences in New Caledonia, with regards to lateritic regoliths and their functioning (as a source of nickel ores).

10However, research topics had been developing for several years on the behaviour of metals in soils (L’huillier, 19981), floristic diversity in mining areas, and ecology in mining areas (from Jaffré, 1980, to Jaffré et al., 1998)2. If we consider the biosphere (terrestrial ecosystems) to be a soil compartment, these studies are related to surface geosciences. This innovative global topic – one of the strengths of IRD research teams in tropical regions – was of particular interest to mining companies (Third International Conference on Serpentine Ecology, 1999, South Africa).

11A project on nickel and its environment would therefore enable the resumption of research activities, in close partnership with the mining sector, in a field that addressed a real need throughout the territory at that particular time, in relation to the development of new mining projects on a global scale and new processing techniques, all in the framework of an internationally acclaimed political agreement.

Report by Fabrice Colin: bases for the development of research in New Caledonia from 2002 onwards

12The founding report (Document 1)3, which Fabrice Colin submitted to the Ministries of Research and Overseas France in December 1999, presented a detailed assessment of the situation and recommendations for the future project. The main thrusts of the recommendations contained in this report are set out below.

13The review of the territory’s strengths found that such a project would require the local reinforcement of disciplines associated with water: hydrogeology, hydrodynamics, and hydrochemistry, and also with surface geology: supergene mineralogy, supergene geochemistry, geophysics, geomorphology, and agropedology. Three topics were broadly defined: exploration and mining, environmental impacts, and societal impacts.

14It was essential to provide research training for a certain number of New Caledonians through doctoral schemes, financed by specific grants for this project. In the same perspective, the expertise of organisations and universities (IAC, Cirad, Ifremer, IRD, IP-NC, and SME/BRGM, UNC)4 would need to be mobilised in order to generate the knowledge required to address the combination of local issues.

15The shortage of analytical resources in New Caledonia required the provision of additional large to medium-scale equipment and facilities for research and analysis bodies. These shared resources were both indispensable for the “Nickel Project” and also very useful for the maintenance and development of other research projects carried out in New Caledonia.

16From an organisational and operational standpoint, a nickel research centre “without walls” was proposed in order to address issues relating to nickel and its environment by conducting scientific, technical and industrial research, and to ensure that the spin-offs from top-flight research would meet the needs of the territory’s political and economic spheres. The general idea was that a robust research strategy would increase the potential of local expertise and generate knowledge to provide concrete solutions, enhancing New Caledonia’s influence and reputation. The expected scientific spin-offs would not be strictly confined to the nickel sector, and would benefit the “Mines, Environment and Societies” topic as a whole, which is relevant to many countries in tropical regions.

Notes de bas de page

1 L’huillier L., 1998 – Mise en valeur des sols dérivés des massifs ultrabasiques de Nouvelle-Calédonie. Détermination de la sensibilité des plantes cultivées aux métaux (Ni, Mn). Résultats sur des espèces maraîchères, fruitières et fourragères. Nouméa, Orstom Conv., Ici, Vie, Agropédo, 44, 40 p.

2 Jaffré T., 1980 – Étude écologique du peuplement végétal des sols dérivés de roches ultrabasiques en Nouvelle-Calédonie. Thèse universitaire. Paris Sud, Orstom, Paris.

Jaffré T., Boucher B., Veillon J.-M., 1998 – Plant extinction in New Caledonia: is the system of protection adequate? Biodiversity and Conservation, 7: 109/135.

3 The documents cited as evidence of impacts are referenced as “Documents” and numbered in order of appearance in the text (cf. complete list in the appendix). They are publicly available at the Research evaluation and programming mission (MEPR) at IRD.

4 Cf. list of acronyms in the appendix.

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