Phosphate mining on French Polynesia's Makatea step closer

9:59 am on 14 November 2019

Renewed phosphate mining on Makatea in French Polynesia has come a step closer.

Plans are afoot to resume phosphate mining on Makatea atoll

Plans are afoot to resume phosphate mining on Makatea atoll Photo: supplied French Polynesian presidency

Last week, the government drew up a new mining code and this week the assembly's mining commission is to discuss it as a government priority.

Amid resistance by environmental groups, an Australian-owned company, Avenir Makatea, has been lobbying for years to extract 6.5 million tonnes of phosphate over 27 years from the raised atoll.

The company's head Colin Randall promised earlier this year that he could offer sustainable development.

"This will also create employment, but more importantly for the land owners of Makatea you'll end up with a sustainable development and they can decide what they want to do with their land," he said.

His project is to resume mining on 600ha of the atoll - more than half a century after mining operations ceased.

Colin Randall of Avenir Makatea

Colin Randall of Avenir Makatea. Photo: Amelie David

Between 1906 and 1966, Makatea was ravaged by phosphate mining when it was stripped of millions of tonnes of phosphatic sand.

At the height of the mining boom in the first half of the 20th century Makatea had about 3000 inhabitants but the number has since dwindled to below 100.

In 2017, the mining minister Heremoana Maamaatuaiahutapu told local television that Makatea could not be left as it was because something must be offered to its inhabitants.

The president Edouard Fritch visited the island - about 250km from Tahiti - but being opposed to any mining, environmentalists were not allowed to join the sailing on the government ship.

The Association Te Rupe no Makatea was alarmed at the mining plans and small demonstrations were held in Papeete.

In a letter, its president Dany Pittman said with its rich biodiversity Makatea stood out as a raised atoll among the 77 mostly low-lying atolls and served as a refuge for an area threatened by sea-level rise.

She said apart from the rupe, a fruit-dove and a warbler were already vulnerable and could face extinction.

Two associations, Fatu Fenua no Makatea and Rupe no Makatea, petition against phosphate mining

Two associations, Fatu Fenua no Makatea and Rupe no Makatea, petition against phosphate mining in 2016. Photo: website

The mining project was also opposed by the Protestant Maohi church which raised the matter at its synod.

After a year's silence, Mr Randall announced in April that a new mining code was ready but days later the lands minister Tearii Alpha denied it.

Now, however it has been produced for the assembly commission's consideration and is expected to be approved.

An opposition assembly member and landowner, Moetai Brotherson, is alarmed as the proposed law mirrors what had been decided for the ill-fated Mahana Beach project.

"We have seen the same procedure when the previous government passed the law for what they called a priority economic zones," he said.

"We have seen there the same expedited expropriation process and they have just cut and pasted what they have put into that law for a priority development zone into the mining code. So I'm really wary for Makatea because we have a lot of landowners and inhabitants who are against the intended project that they are going to use that expedited process."

Moetai Brotherson, who is a member of both the French National Assembly and the French Polynesian assembly.

Moetai Brotherson, who is a member of both the French National Assembly and the French Polynesian assembly. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Walter Zweifel

The mining code is accompanied by a suggestion to be generous with the landowners to win their consent, meaning that compensation would be well above the legal minimum.

An advisory body, the Economic, Social, Environmental and Cultural Council, gave its assessment of the draft, pointing out that the impact of renewed mining is not known.

It also considered that the concept of rehabilitation is not defined tightly enough, which has been echoed by Mr Brotherson.

"There are still many, many pending questions. It's not because you add the word rehabilitation to what is basically a mining facility that it somehow becomes a green one. That is greenwashing."

The Council also referred to the Environmental Charter which needed to be taken into account as there was an obligation to protect the environment while the principle applied that the polluter has to pay.

In April, Mr Randall was adamant that it was up to the locals to decide.

"Do we want this project or not? This is not a decision by the government for the project 'yes' or 'no'. This is a decision for them to allow the population to vote. This is democracy at work," he said.

The Council said the views of the public needed to be taken into account. It went as far as saying that for the duration of the mining project there had to be information, and participation of the public.

But how this could be achieved is not clear.

Mr Brotherson said he feared the so-called SAGE (Schéma d'Aménagement et de Gestion des Eaux) process would be used.

"I would say it's a joke. You can only give your advice on the internet. It's a very complicated process. The people who don't have good internet won't be able to give their thoughts, and the time window is very tiny. I think they will use the same process here to pretend that they have consulted."

Two organisations oppose plans to resume phosphate mining on Makatea

Two organisations oppose plans to resume phosphate mining on Makatea Photo: FB

An online petition to stop mining has attracted almost a quarter of a million signatures.

It was launched by two associations, Fatu Fenua no Makatea and Rupe no Makatea, after it was reported four years ago that exploration was being done without the consent of the landowners.

It also came at a time when the government had teamed up with Avenir Makatea for a roadshow in a bid to drum up support for renewed phosphate mining.

For Mr Brotherson, such online polls had no value as there was a precedent.

He said a petition by Association 193 on the nuclear weapons problems was swiftly dismissed.

"The government answer was that it wasn't done according to the legal criteria that are embedded in our local statute and therefore it has no value and cannot be received as a proper expression of people's opinion."

Mr Brotherson expects that the consultation would be a sham and that with the expropriation clause, mining could be restarted.

"During my last question at the local assembly I asked whether they are supporting or not this project. They were just mute. They didn't want, I would say, to spoil the surprise."

Asked when he expects the bulldozers to get back, he said if Avenir Makatea has the funding lined up it'll be in 2021.

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