As All Eyes Are On Raiatea, An Australian Mining Company Moves Closer To Makatea

Commentary

By Nicholas Hoare

Just a week and a half after the French Polynesian marae, Taputapuatea on the island of Raiatea, has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, another French Polynesian heritage site has edged one step closer to ecological ruin with the arrival of an Australian-based mining company to the island of Makatea.

A widely recognised ‘hotspot for biodiversity’, Makatea is a raised coral atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago which despite being mined for over fifty years during the first half of the twentieth-century is now home to some of the richest avifauna in the region. The island’s unique geography and remarkable ecological recovery since the end of phosphate mining in 1966 are just some of the reasons Conservation International have labelled Makatea a site of major importance for endemic birds.

The island’s unique ecological status has been under threat since 2008 when Newcastle mining engineer, Colin Randall, turned his attention away from selling coal to the Japanese market and towards selling them phosphate instead. Randall has reputedly invested two million US dollars into the enterprise already and despite having the support of the pro-development mayor of Makatea, Julien Mai, and the mayor of Rangiroa (the commune to which Makatea belongs), Teina Maraeura, Randall has consistently come up against staunch opposition from many of the island’s fatu fenua (or landowners). Coalescing under two banners, Te Fatu Fenua no Makatea, and Te Rupe no Makatea, both associations have been fighting a grass-roots battle against the wealthy Australian who staged a lavish exhibition to promote his project at the French Polynesian Presidence in late 2016. 

Since then, Randall has been busy trying to convince the French Polynesian President, Édouard Fritch, that he has secured the support of the island’s landowners. Randall’s promises of 73 jobs over a 26-year period have not exactly won over a local population still carrying bitter memories over decades of phosphate mining followed by French nuclear testing in their region.

Randall and his associates arrived on Makatea last week along with a delegation of officials from the Rangiroa commune in an apparent attempt to further their aim of winning the landowners over. The party was joined by President Fritch for several hours on the Friday as part of a larger Government inquiry into the granting of a mining concession to the Australian. Unlike Gaston Flosse before him, who granted the initial prospecting license, Fritch had, until now, been cautious not to receive Randall or formally endorse the project. The visit was largely unannounced, leaving the two organisations little time to organise transport for their Tahiti-based members to return to Makatea and be heard. 

The jury is still out as to whether the concession will be granted. Despite the fact Fritch appeared to lend his support to the project on Friday, the final decision must await the results of a public inquiry and environmental impact report both slated for later this year. Already, high-profile figures in French Polynesian politics – such as Moetai Brotherson of Oscar Temaru’s independentist party, Tavini Huiraatira – have expressed their opposition to these developments.

While Fritch has rightfully garnered plenty of adulation for the UNESCO bid for protection of Taputapuatea, perhaps the most sacred site in all of Polynesia, it would be unfortunate to see this good publicity squandered by failing to protect what is possibly the most important environmental zone in the Tuamotu Archipelago.

Nicholas Hoare is a PhD Candidate in the School of History at the Australian National University where he is researching the history and contemporary politics of phosphate mining on Makatea, French Polynesia.

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