New Caledonia’s indigenous leaders have protested an Australian company’s bid to takeover a nickel mine in the south of the French territory.

Melbourne-based New Century Resources has been in talks to buy-out the Goro mine from Brazilian multinational Vale.

A company spokesperson said it has a strong record of responsible mining practices and a commitment to sharing benefits with local communities.

But indigenous Kanak landowners say they prefer a local company to operate the mine, fearing that New Century Resources do not have the experience to manage the mine’s recycling plant.

Raphaël Mapou, an indigenous Kanak chief and secretary general of Rhéébú Nùù, a group tasked with negotiating with the mine’s operators, is one of those against the deal:

“For us New Century Resources does not have the technical, industrial or financial capacity to support this massive project,” Mapou told Pacific Beat.

Mapou says there’s a further concern, over what the sale of the mine means for New Caledonia’s possible independence.

“Countries can’t develop or find their financial autonomy if they don’t understand how to use their resources,” he said.

“The supporters of independence are seizing the opportunity to take control of these tools in order to help develop the country.”

New Caledonians will vote on whether they want independence from France on 04 October, and questions around New Caledonia’s lucrative mining sector are expected to take centre stage during the campaign.

Gregoire Asselin is the co-founder of New Caledonia Business, a website that aims to improve regional investment in the Pacific territory.

He says the importance of mining in New Caledonia has made the sector a hot-button issue for voters.

“It’s the most divided sector by far,” Asselin told Pacific Beat. “And there are a lot of interests at play.”

But for Asselin, whose website is geared toward improving trade between New Caledonia and other countries in the Pacific, the controversy surrounding the Goro mine highlights a need for New Caledonia to be more open to new, regional investment partners.

“We believe in regional integration,” Asselin said.

“And with Australia as the big neighbour, it’s also a big opportunity in the tourism sector which has not been developed or well done.”

Indigenous and pro-independence leaders are expected to hold another protest at the Goro mine this Wednesday, to mark the day before the deadline of exclusive negotiations between New Century Resource and Vale comes to an end

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