Henri Blaffart’s weather-beaten white Land Rover roars along a dirt road high in the mountains of New Caledonia’s
Province Nord. This Pacific island’s indigenous Kanak
people have established a political stronghold here, and enjoy a degree of independence from the French government. Turning skillfully along the winding rocky path with a drop several hundred feet on one side and steep cliffs on the other, he heads into the heart of New Caledonia’s central mountains, finally arriving at the village of Paana in a cloud of orange dust. Chickens scatter and a muscular Kanak man approaches him with a large machete. Blaffart smiles and shakes hands with Gabriel Teimpouene, one of the village hunters who has just been butchering a wild boar he killed that morning.
The conservationist has spent the past three years working with the Kanak tribes of Province Nord as part of a collaboration between New Zealand’s
Maruia Trust Foundation and Conservation International (CI), and more recently with the Association Maruia Trust de Nouvelle-Calédonie. As the two men walk past huts of wood and thatch, they pass a large solar panel array, which provides the village its electricity. It’s a clear example of the cultural crossroads the Kanak people of New Caledonia currently straddle. Like their island’s wilderness, their vanishing culture and dwindling population is returning and growing after centuries of conflict and exploitation by outsiders that saw their population shrink to fewer than 28,000 at the turn of the century.
One of the greatest continuing struggles for the Kanaks is reclaiming their ancient tribal lands, which were seized by the French, first for cattle pastures and later, when valuable nickel ore was discovered. Today Province Nord’s Mont Panié remains a powerful symbol of Kanak heritage. At 5,344 feet, it’s the highest peak on the island’s Massif du Panié mountain range, and a largely unexplored paradise of endemic rainforest plant and animal species
. Among the myriad vines and lycopod
fern species that thrive on Mont Panié’s slopes are found biological wonders like Amborella trichopoda
, thought to be the closest living relative of the still mysterious ancestor of all flowering plants. On the cloud-shrouded summit, enormous Agathis montana
conifers are old enough to have been known to the warrior ancestors of the Kanaks, and the mountaintop remains a taboo site, sacred to the spirits of the past.
Blaffart is setting up a local office in the shadow of Mont Panié in the northeast’s Hienghène valley, where he can regularly visit tribal leaders and villages, and hopes to begin a breeding and reintroduction project for New Caledonia’s national bird, the Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus
) a flightless, species that is endangered. For Henri, a trained forest
ecologist,working with the Kanaks has changed how he sees the world.
“The Kanaks have an incredible knowledge of their environment,” he says. “There are some old guys in these villages that have so much traditional wisdom they could be Ph.Ds in biology. I’m usually the one learning from them, not the other way around.”
As the late afternoon sun shafts through the high mountain valleys of the northeast, Blaffart drives to a Kanak village called Haut Coulna. He greets Chief Ferdinand Wanguene and his wife, Marie-Louise, who teaches at the tribe's primary school. The Wanguenes live in a modern house with conveniences like a TV, a freezer, and a cell phone, but he remains closely tied to his people down the hill.
Like the traditional Kanak chief’s hut, constructed around the trunk of a great tree, the village is supported by the chief’s strength. He and Henri talk about a huge nickel-mining project being launched in Province Nord by Falconbridge, a Canadian company. New Caledonia is the third largest producer of nickel in the world, and a large mine in the south will soon bring jobs to thousands of people and hefty profits to Province Sud. On the other hand, Blaffart points out that mining operations can permanently damage the land by using poisonous chemicals like sulfuric acid to process the ore.
Despite the lure of big mining money, the Kanaks and the government of Province Nord have been staunchly protective of natural sites like Mont Panié which is owned by several tribes. Blaffart is working with the Kanaks to find alternatives to traditional slash-and-burn agriculture. They include planting pines (Pinus caribbea
) in deforested areas as a source of lumber, and to protect the soil from erosion so native tree species can be reintroduced later. Solutions like this are appealing to the chief and many Kanak leaders, in part because it recognizes their own cultural values.
“Its important not to forget our traditions,” says Chief Wanguene. “CI reminds us about our responsibility to the land and its creatures. It makes us remember our ancestral ways of respecting the animals and the environment. That’s very important to us.”