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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (September 17, 2002 - (Oceania Flash)---At the weekend, controversial Goro nickel mine general manager Pierre Alla said workmen on the southern New Caledonia construction site had mainly been withdrawn to allow time for "readjustments" between the company and local stakeholders, RFO's Télé-Nouvelle-Calédonie reports.

Talking to local media, Alla said the decision, which was made last week by Canadian giant Inco from Toronto, was a "pause" that could pave the way for a "progressive" resumption of the works on the site, "possibly as soon as next week."

Alla also confirmed that the decision was made after a fact-finding mission earlier this month by Inco Chairman Scott Hand.

"During (Scott Hand's) visit, we realized our project needed to re-synchronize. There were growing discrepancies between the engineering and the actual work on the site. We have to rethink the whole project's organization to rectify this and take more into account realities on the ground... Such pauses are not uncommon when you're in charge of such complex projects," Alla said.

"We have also noticed that BTH encountered communication problems with our local sub-contractors, the trade unions and the surrounding Melanesian populations," he admitted.

"In the eyes of the local socio-economic stakeholders, Goro-Nickel is the counterpart. But in reality, it is our local partner, BTH. Therefore, Goro-Nickel now intends to be more committed locally, because its French-New Caledonian staff is more used to local specificity than BTH," he explained.

"Our main goal is to avoid further such blockade situations, due to communication problems.

"But I'd like to say those acts of blockades are irresponsible. They are being led by small groups of individuals who have no idea of the extent of their actions."

"progressively re-mobilize the teams"

"The target is now to progressively re-mobilize the teams. And a first resumption could happen as soon as next week", Alla said.

New Caledonia's territorial government late last week strongly condemned disruptions on what it terms "by far the largest investment ever made in New Caledonia."

"The construction of this plant and later of another one in Northern New Caledonia, will place New Caledonia on the way to a prosperity it has never known before," it said.

"I hope people will think twice. Engineers could not work normally, so they have decided to suspend work," New Caledonia's anti-independence RPCR party leader, Jacques Lafleur, said earlier this week in Paris.

Trade unions, including New Caledonia's workers union USOENC, accuse the investors of playing "social blackmail," USOENC's secretary general Didier Guénant-Janson told RFO.

About thirty members of Goro's staff who claim not to belong to any party or union have, on their part, called for a silent march on Monday in Nouméa.

Last week, Inco decided to withdraw around 600 (including about a hundred Australians) staff who were working on construction of the Goro-Nickel plant.

The Australians are part of a team employed by Goro-Nickel, a joint venture between New Caledonia's Southern province and Canadian giant Inco.

The site was scheduled to be operational late 2004.

1.4 billion U.S. dollars invested in Goro

The Goro site is now manned by about fifty workers, mainly tasked to ensure security and safety.

Inco stressed it had invested some 1.4 billion U.S. dollars on this project and therefore needed "a serene and efficient working environment" and "the support of New Caledonia's community."

Two weeks ago, indigenous Kanaks chiefs and traditional owners of the Goro land met Inco Chairman, Scott hand, who was visiting New Caledonia.

They lobbied Hand to give them priority in sub-contracting services in relation to what is described as one of the largest nickel mining projects in the world.

In recent months, local Kanaks have formed into small legal entities to bid on those sub-contracted peripheral activities.

A special legal status, the "specific law local grouping," was accorded to accommodate the situation and allow to bid for the nine-billion French Pacific Francs (around 70 million U.S. dollars) transportation market.

Local chief Robert Moyatea, who hails from troubled Saint Louis village, formed a company called Komwai and entered into a joint venture with an Australian firm, AFSPL (Australian Freight Service Projects and Logistics) and another group SOCAMOD (from Mont Dore town), to bid for the provision of transportation (including maritime) facilities to the Goro nickel complex.

"We think it is necessary that Kanaks participate in the southern project and that they should in fact be given priority in your future choice," Moyatea told Hand after the two performed a traditional welcome ceremony and exchanged gifts.

Moyatea also recalled that this was agreed in a letter from Hand two years ago.

He said Hand had confirmed this last week, "but we're still waiting."

In response, Hand was reassuring: "We'll not succeed unless we work together. But what is also very important is that we must have a very competitive operation, so that New Caledonia can become the number one nickel producer in the world.

"What I heard today was that people here want to work. They want to be very competitive and that's what we need to have to be a very successful operation in partnership here in New Caledonia."

Australian AFSPL representative Steve Dempster was hopeful the AFSPL-Komwai-Socamod bid would win the transportation market.

"With Socamod and Komwai, we have a local business and also traditional experience. So it's very encouraging to look positively into a relationship with them. Very early in the project, we've been very impressed by the way they conducted themselves and their own vision for their people. It was just a natural progression from there for us to get together and form a new company that would allow us work for that."

It is understood two companies, including AFSPL-Komwai-Socamod, have now entered a pre-selection phase.

In recent weeks, New Caledonia was the scene of massive demonstrations protesting against the environmental impact of further nickel prospecting rights that had been granted to Inco in Prony village, near Goro, in July this year.

Meanwhile, the current situation at the construction has also halted "until further notice" plans to fly in up to 3,000 workers from the Philippines, the daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes reports.

The first contingent of 22 Filipino workers was scheduled to arrive later this week.

To date, only half a dozen already are in the French Pacific territory and are awaiting a possible trip back to Manila, where an American company, Bechtel, is based.

Bechtel is part of the Bechtel Technip Hatch (BTH) consortium, which is in charge of designing and building the multi-billion-dollar Goro-Nickel plant.

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