Little Scum Takes on Big Mining

Bruno Van Peteghem's campaign to protect the South Pacific island of New Caledonia has earned him both scorn and praise

  • Paul Tolmé
  • Jun 01, 2002

BRUNO VAN PETEGHEM is an activist forged by fire. Two fires, to be precise. The first came November 23, 1998, when his car mysteriously burst into flames inside his garage on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia. The second followed a few weeks later on New Year’s Eve. Van Peteghem, an airline steward, was in Tokyo and his wife and two children were watching fireworks on the outskirts of Noumea, the capital of this semi-autonomous French territory. The family’s Victorian home stood amid fruit trees on a hillside overlooking the city. Suddenly, as if touched by the sun, the house ignited. In 45 minutes, the family lost everything.

Van Peteghem suspects the fires were a message to fold the group he helped start to push environmental reforms on New Caledonia, whose unique landscape and vibrant reefs are being degraded by nickel mining. Or perhaps they were retribution for a lawsuit he filed that requires developers to tear down an apartment complex built illegally on Noumea’s Moselle Bay. Or maybe, as the police report hypothesized, errant fireworks started the car fire and Van Peteghem’s rice cooker burned the house down.

MINING HIS BUSINESS: Bruno Van Peteghem at a nickel smelter on the French territory of New Caledonia. Van Peteghem seeks to save the island’s natural treasures from the ravages of mining. His assertive style spurred a critic to call him “little scum.”


Whatever their cause, the fires did not deter Van Peteghem. He is now leading an international effort to protect New Caledonia’s 800-mile-long barrier reef by adding it to the United Nations’ World Heritage List. For his perseverance despite threats to his safety, Van Peteghem last year won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. The award, given annually by an American foundation, has brought new publicity to his campaigns—which may make him more of a target, Van Peteghem says.

“Perhaps,” he says, touching a spot between his eyes, “my destiny is a bullet in the head.” Grande Terre, the largest of the islands that constitute New Caledonia, is a 250-mile-long, cigar-shaped landmass midway between Fiji and Australia. Grande Terre is a sliver of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, from which it split 80 million years ago. Plants carried away from Gondwana have evolved in isolation for eons; an estimated 80 percent of the island’s 3,000 plant species live nowhere else. The amborella, a small, off-white flower, is the only known direct descendant of Earth’s first flowering plants. Araucaria pines, which look like giant mascara applicators, trace their roots to the planet’s first conifers. Huge ferns tower overhead. Biologists call New Caledonia a “botanical Galápagos” and a “living museum.”

By sea, the island may be more spectacular. The barrier reef encloses an 8,000-square-mile lagoon, the world’s largest, that is home to sea turtles, reef sharks, rays, dolphins, mollusks such as nautiluses, and the dugong, a lugubrious mammal that feeds in the mangroves. The barrier reef surrounds the island like a fortress wall and batters waves into submission miles from shore. As a result, New Caledonia is enveloped in placid waters that swirl with 2,000 species of fish, including colorful clown fish, parrot fish and butterfly fish.

“From a biological standpoint, the reefs of New Caledonia certainly deserve all the international conservation support they can muster,” says Timothy Werner of Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International. The reef system ranks in the top 10 in terms of biodiversity, he adds. Conservation International has placed New Caledonia on its list of 25 global “hotspots” in dire need of protection.

New Caledonia is also the island of nickel. Grande Terre holds as much as 40 percent of the world’s known nickel reserves, and it supplies 12 percent of the global output, about 90,000 tons per year. Vast amounts of earth must be processed to extract the nickel, however. Then millions of tons of tailings are discarded in the surrounding forests and river basins. Environmental regulations are virtually nonexistent, resulting in decapitated mountains and hillsides stripped bare by open-pit mines. During rainstorms, mined areas ooze toxic runoff and sediment. The runoff washes into rivers, some of which appear to flow red with blood, and eventually ends up on the reef. So far, damage is limited to small sections of the reef near mining areas, but every new mine pumps more pollution into the lagoon and onto the reef.

New Caledonia’s nickel is shipped to Asian ports, where it is used to make steel, electronics and consumer goods. Minerals account for 90 percent of New Caledonia’s export revenue, roughly $300 million a year. Nickel has made many New Caledonians wealthy, and white islanders enjoy a high standard of living. As a result, attacking the nickel industry in New Caledonia is like criticizing Big Oil in Texas. “It’s a disgrace,” Van Peteghem says. “The big companies come here because there are no rules. Just money.”

For a tough talker, Van Peteghem, 48, hardly cuts a menacing figure. His battle attire includes pressed dress shirts of royal blue and sherbet colors, loafers and khakis. Acquaintances describe him as “charming.” But at the core of this genteel activist runs a deep vein of righteous determination. “I am like an insurance salesman,” he says with a laugh. “You close the door and I come to the window. You close the window and I come through the chimney. I always come back. I must.”

“Bruno is very direct,” says Lani Alo of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, based in San Francisco. “When he enters a room, he knows what he needs to say. And he is utterly convincing and passionate when he talks about New Caledonia.”

BANNERFISH like these are among the species activist Bruno Van Peteghem wants to save from the ravages of mining in New Caledonia.


So how did a Frenchman of Belgian heritage with no college degree end up embroiled in a South Pacific conservation struggle? By chance. In 1978, at age 23, Van Peteghem flew to Noumea, intending to stay a few days before moving to Australia. But he was seduced by the ease of life, the white sand beaches and the coconut palms. He found a job and spent his free time windsurfing and partying. His path to activism began in the 1980s when he quit his job at a Noumea casino and became an airline steward. The time off between trips allowed him to become involved in the community, and he grew angry when he saw workers filling in part of Moselle Bay for a new apartment complex. Van Peteghem formed the Moselle Bay Association and sued. A judge ruled the complex was built illegally on public property and must be removed. The court case brought Van Peteghem head-to-head with Jacques Lafleur, a multimillionaire politician who made his fortune in nickel and real estate.

Lafleur is the founder of New Caledonia’s most powerful political party (Rassemblement pour la Caledonie dans la Republique) and president of the Southern Province, which is home to Noumea and most of the island’s white-settler families. Lafleur won the admiration of Paris and the island’s whites by helping defeat an indigenous independence movement in the 1980s that threatened France’s hold on the territory.

Lafleur, whose family financed the apartment building, was outraged by Van Peteghem’s court victory. When the activist pressed the territorial government for monetary damages on behalf of Moselle Bay residents, Lafleur called Van Peteghem an opportunistic litigator and a “petit saligaud,” which translates roughly as “little scum.” Lafleur was fined for slander but remained unapologetic. “It is my responsibility as president of the province to expose the population to the blackmail exercised by Mr. Van Peteghem,” Lafleur wrote in the island’s largest newspaper in August 2000.

“Lafleur is an old-fashioned strongman who can, with one phone call, cause people to lose their jobs. People live in fear of his wrath,” says David Deutsch, a San Francisco lawyer who is helping Van Peteghem’s group with the World Heritage campaign. “I’ve spoken to a dozen people about Bruno and they are all cheering him on. But in private.”

Facing such difficulty at home, Van Peteghem knows he will need outside help if the World Heritage campaign is to succeed. In April 2001, the effort got a major boost when he won the Goldman prize—the environmental equivalent of a Nobel. The honor carries a $125,000 award and media exposure. In the months since, Van Peteghem has won support for a World Heritage nomination from Green parties in France, Australia and New Zealand, as well as backing from New Caledonia’s largest indigenous peoples’ party. The World Heritage List, which includes more than 700 natural and historic sites around the globe, is compiled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Although listing carries with it no extra protections, supporters hope the publicity of listing New Caledonia’s reef would force the territorial government to clean up or curtail nickel mining.

Van Peteghem and the French environmental ministry would like to see the entire reef and lagoon ecosystem included on the World Heritage List. Lafleur’s government, on the other hand, argues that only 62 miles of reef, in an area not affected by mining, should be designated. Critics fear that Lafleur’s strong ties in Paris, and the French government’s stake in a proposed mine on the island’s southern tip at Goro, will result in only a small portion, if any, of the reef being listed. “It looks good for France to ask for the inclusion of the whole reef system and then settle for a small chunk or two,” says Rick Anex, an environmental activist from California who moved to New Caledonia in 1984 and devised the World Heritage campaign. “That way, they allow mining projects to continue but still look as if they are doing something while actually doing nothing.”

In response to questions submitted by this writer to Lafleur, Vice President Pierre Bretegnier responded by letter that “it is a lie to spread rumors” that a World Heritage nomination is being blocked. Designating the entire reef would have serious consequences, he wrote, claiming that the environment of the Galápagos Islands has been damaged by tourist traffic despite its World Heritage listing.

Meantime, nickel interests are revving their bulldozers. When this article went to press, the Canadian firm Inco was ready to break ground on a $1.4 billion plant on New Caledonia’s southeastern shore. The facility will process millions of tons of soil with sulfuric acid. Mine effluent will be pumped into the ocean, and the tailings buried on land. Inco and government officials promise the project will not harm the environment. In his letter, Bretegnier wrote that authorities have imposed strict guidelines requiring Inco to “discharge nothing but clear water into the lagoon,” and to dispose of tailings, neutralized with calcium carbonate, in quarries with “no possible runoff into rivers or the ocean.”

Can Van Peteghem and his allies hold the government to its promises and protect the island’s natural wonders? Conservation is not high on the locals’ priority list, he notes. The Green Party chapter he helped form, Les Verts Pacifique, is struggling to gain members. The apartment complex on Moselle Bay remains, eight years later. A high standard of living and fun in the sun have bred complacency, he says. “The people here, they are sleeping.”

His enemies are not dozing, however. Van Peteghem insists the fires at his house were set by someone opposed to his activism. Police concluded the flames that destroyed his car and home were of “undetermined origin.” An arson investigator speculated in his report that a stray rocket from a fireworks display at a horse track several miles away landed in the garage and ignited Van Peteghem’s new Suzuki Vitara. The problem with this theory is that there was no fireworks display until New Year’s Eve. As for the house fire, the report said no trace of flammable liquids, which would indicate arson, could be found. Cause of fire: the infamous rice cooker. But Van Peteghem claims his wooden floor was burned through in three locations and some walls were incinerated to ashen white, indicating a fire that had been given a boost.

Van Peteghem tried to have the investigation reopened but a judge refused to overrule the police analysis. The case, Van Peteghem says in disgust, “is sewn up with white thread.”

An insurance settlement allowed Van Peteghem to rebuild on the same hillside over Moselle Bay. It was an act of defiance. “He works just over there,” the activist says, standing on his patio and pointing to a five-story government office building below. Lafleur has an office on the top floor. Sometimes, Van Peteghem sees meetings taking place and he wonders what Lafleur is doing. In July 2001, Lafleur held a news conference to announce that France will subsidize the purchase of two jumbo jets for the local airline, Air Calin. The jets will help the island economy by allowing Air Calin to fly more routes. As part of the deal, Air France, Van Peteghem’s employer, must pull out of Noumea in 2003. Not to worry, Lafleur assured residents. Of 117 Air France employees in New Caledonia, 116 are guaranteed jobs with Air Calin. Lafleur did not explain why one job would be eliminated, but Van Peteghem understood the math.

“I am Number 117,” Van Peteghem says, not the least bit surprised. “He thinks he has beaten me, but not yet. Not yet.”

Colorado writer Paul Tolmé traveled to New Caledonia to research this story as a fellow with the Ted Scripps Fellowships in Environmental Journalism.


Rare Bird

Ghostly Presence

Before European colonists arrived, the haunting yelps of the kagu signaled the coming of dawn, earning this flightless, nocturnal bird the moniker “ghost of the forest.” But predation, development, mining and agriculture have pushed New Caledonia’s national bird, which exists nowhere else, onto the endangered species list. Like the extinct flightless dodo of Mauritius, the gray, chicken-sized kagu has no natural predators.

Thanks to a captive breeding program in a provincial park, about 600 to 1,000 kagu survive. But unless its habitat is protected, the kagu could indeed become a mere specter.

Thanks to a captive breeding program in a provincial park, about 600 to 1,000 kagu survive. But unless its habitat is protected, the kagu could indeed become a mere specter.

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