Ouvea – looking back, looking forward

By Nic Maclellan in Fayaoue, Ouvea, New Caledonia

My legs haven’t seen much sun after a long Melbourne winter. So it’s always dangerous to end up on an atoll like Iaai (Ouvea), one of four making up New Caledonia’s outlying Loyalty Islands. The long, long sandy beach and blue lagoon are the ultimate tourist cliché, and the risk of sunburn increases every day when the ocean is just metres from your door.

Ouvea may look beautiful, but the island faces many challenges, from the adverse effects of climate change to providing education and employment options for its young people.

Beyond this, Ouvea carries a tragic burden of history. New Caledonia is moving closer to a referendum on self-determination on 4 November, the culmination of a twenty year decolonisation process that began with the Noumea Accord. This agreement, between the French State and parties supporting and opposing independence, was signed on 5 May 1998. That date is the tenth anniversary of the 1988 Ouvea massacre – a crisis that almost tipped the country into civil war.

Jobs and growth

Like other low-lying atolls around the Pacific, the changing environment raises questions for the future of food and water security on Ouvea.

The reef still teems with seafood, bur visiting the ocean side of the island near Saint Joseph, you can see the effects of coastal erosion. Local authorities have a key focus on addressing the immediate effects of climate change on water and food security – the provincial and municipal government run three desalination plants, with tankers delivering fresh water to homes and schools at times of water stress and low rainfall.

With limited waged employment, a number of working-age people seek education, employment or enjoyment on the mainland. At the last census in 2014, only 3,374 people were living on Ouvea, with many others migrating to the main island of Grande Terre.

Benjamin Malie is principal of the Guillaume Douare secondary college. He said that the lack of a senior high school on Ouvea contributes to this migration.

“We don’t have a lycée on Ouvea, so many families move to Grande Terre to assist their children complete schooling,” he said. “After they’ve finished, however, some of them don’t return, so many people from Ouvea are still living in Noumea or other towns on the mainland. Our college has dropped from 200 pupils to just 89 this year, and the Protestant and public schools have also seen reductions.”

Despite these constraints, there are a range of provincial and municipal initiatives to develop a sustainable model of development for the island. Members of independence parties have dominated nearly every provincial government in the Loyalty Islands over the least thirty years, in a province where the overwhelming majority of the population are indigenous Kanak. Local authorities are seeking to transcend the challenges of expensive transport and communications – a new wharf and warehouse on Ouvea now welcomes three boats a week to deliver supplies.

Like most outlying islands across the region, there’s a different pace to the hassle of the capital. Beyond their beauty, Ouvea’s beaches are a crucial economic resource – as a draw card for overseas and domestic tourists. In recent years, there’s been a particular emphasis on small-scale tourism, with gites (bungalows) set up in a number of Kanak tribes to tap the eco-tourist market or lure public servants from Noumea, looking for a beach escape during the school holidays. Locals run a range of small businesses, promoting walking tours, fishing or boating operations.

Despite this, New Caledonia’s economy is pegged to the obscene wages and bonuses paid to French public servants and the “value-adding” on imports undertaken by local business elites. Backpackers in the Loyalty Islands will find that the beer is cheaper in independent Vanuatu or Fiji!

Traces of history

Even with a focus on Ouvea’s economic future, however, you can’t avoid the traces of the past.

Driving along the island’s main road, you pass a tall green fence, topped with barbed wire, at the police station in Fayaoue. At nearby Hwadrilla, there is a roadside memorial “for the 19”, the Kanak martyrs of 1988. At the northern tribe of Gossanah, the old building for the Ecole Populaire Kanak (Kanak community school) is still festooned with banners, calling for non-participation in this year’s referendum, an echo of the boycott of New Caledonia’s last failed referendum in 1987.

Next to the sporting field at Gossanah, there’s the gravesite of Djubelli Wea, with a plaque that pays homage to death of three Kanak leaders in 1989 and the reconciliation that followed: “To all generations to come – remember that on the night of 4 May 1989, blood was spilt on Ouvea. Pardon – Haiömonu me ûsoköu.”

Much as people have reconciled since the armed conflict of the 1980s, you can’t understand the present without remembering the past. The 4 November referendum is the culmination of a twenty year transition under the Noumea Accord, an agreement signed by the French State, the independence movement Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) and anti-independence politicians led by Jacques Lafleur.

The date chosen for the signing of the Noumea Accord, 5 May 1998, was no accident. It honoured the tragic event from a decade before – the 1988 Ouvea massacre.

In 1987, in the midst of the French army’s militarisation of New Caledonia, the FLNKS boycotted a referendum organised by the French State, which purported to determine the future of the country. Despite an overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote to stay with France, the referendum was meaningless without the participation of the colonised Kanak people.

The following year, the FLNKS leadership call for a boycott of the 1988 French Presidential elections, which saw conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac challenge the incumbent Socialist Party President Francois Mitterrand.

As part of the FLNKS boycott protests, a local group of Kanak independence activists led by Alphonse Dianou attempted to raise the flag of Kanaky over the police station at Fayaoue on 22 April 1988. In the subsequent melée, three gendarmes were killed and another mortally wounded. Twenty-seven others were taken hostage and hidden in caves in the north of the island, near the Kanak villages of Gossanah and Takedji.

The Ouvea crisis led to a major military mobilisation on the island, with the torture and maltreatment of villagers by French troops trying to find the location of the hostages.

The assault on the caves to free the captured police co-incided with a final (and unsuccessful) attempt by Prime Minister Chirac to glean votes between the two rounds of the Presidential elections. On 5 May 1988, the Chirac government abandoned negotiations and launched a military attack, with elite police and an army commando unit storming the cave. Nineteen Kanak activists were killed, with at least three executed after surrendering. Their leader Alphonse Dianou was shot in his knee during capture, and left to die.

The Ouvea tragedy made all parties step back from the brink and incoming Prime Minister Michel Rocard proposed negotiations. The subsequent Matignon and Oudinot Accords, sealed by a handshake between FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou and anti-independence leader Jacques Lafleur, included a provision for amnesty for crimes committed before August 1988.

The legacy of grief and division after the Ouvea massacre contributed to the assassination of the Kanak leaders Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwene Yeiwene the following year. The two FLNKS leaders came to the island on 4 May 1989 to mark la levée du deuil, the end of a year-long period of mourning for the 19. At the ceremony, Tjibaou and Yeiwene were shot and killed by Djubelli Wea, an independence leader from Gossanah, who was immediately gunned down by Tjibaou’s bodyguard Daniel Fisdiepas.

It took a decade and a half to reconcile the families, clans and supporters of these dead, in a process led by customary chiefs, priests and pastors from the Protestant and Catholic churches. This cultural process of reconciliation and pardon has been vital in sealing a breach that could not be healed by judicial mechanisms.

Snubbing the President

On 5 May this year, President Emmanuel Macron travelled to the island of Ouvea. For the first time since the crisis of May 1988, a French President wanted to pay homage at the memorial to the 19 Kanaks killed by the elite special forces of the French army.

Meeting at his home in the Kanak tribe of Gossanah, Djubelli’s brother Maki Wea told me there was local opposition to Macron’s visit. Because of this, the French President left Ouvea without placing a wreath on the memorial to the 19 at Hwadrilla.

“They announced Macron’s arrival here without contacting the customary chiefs on the island, without contacting the families of the victims,” Wea said. “The FLNKS announced it in the media, but the people of Gossanah were surprised and we raised our finger to all the people over there. It was the first time in thirty years that we, the people of Gossanah, have not placed our flowers on the graves of the 19 on the anniversary. The High Commissioner even lobbied us over Macron’s visit. But we didn’t cede ground – we’re not like the people of the FLNKS who give in.”

Wea continues to advocate for IKS (Kanak Socialist Independence), the guiding slogan of the 1980s. Since July, he has been speaking out in public, calling for non-participation in this year’s referendum, as a member of the Parti Travailliste (PT) but also as “a child of Gossanah.”

Wea said: “Today, I can’t just act like an old man, working in the gardens, without saying something, because I think of the next generations, the sons of my sons and their sons after them. For they will ask: ‘Papa, what did you do when the French State and the local Right-wing parties and the leaders of the FLNKS moved away from the objective for which so many have sacrificed their lives – the goal of Indépendance Kanak et Socialiste?’”

He criticised those independence groups on Ouvea who campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote: “There are plenty of fine speeches out there: ‘Vote Yes, to remember those who died for independence.’ But we say no, this referendum is just neo-colonialism.”

“The Kanak people will end up as just another ‘community’, like the Wallisian community, the Vietnamese community, the Tahitians and others,” he added. “I don’t want that. When you talk about a referendum on self-determination, it should be the colonised people alone who place their paper in the ballot box.”

Getting out the vote

Hitchhiking up the 46 kilometre-long road that runs up the spine of the island, a young man stopped to offer a lift. We talked fishing and Australia and the weather and then drifted on to politics.

“I’m part of the generation who grew up after les évènements,” he told me. “So thinking about independence is different for me compared to my parents. We look differently at the referendum and I have questions about what it means.”

So will you vote No or stay at home on 4 November? “Oh no, I’m voting Yes, for independence. But we have to build this independence. We have to be involved to make it happen.”

Some people may go fishing on 4 November, but Wea’s call for non-participation is not accepted by most independence supporters on the island.

Activists from the largest independence parties Union Calédonienne (UC) and the Parti de Libération Kanak (Palika) have been out for weeks, seeking to mobilise people to turn out on the day. At the last provincial elections in 2014, only 65.2 per cent of voters on Ouvea went to vote, so the FLNKS is seeking to boost numbers, organising a number of community meetings to explain the significance of this year’s decision.

On a quiet night, I join a small team of activists at the tribe of Ouloup, near Ouvea’s airstrip. At a local community hall, 25 people gather to hear a presentation about the referendum, followed by discussion on reasons to vote (and to vote ‘Yes’).

The FLNKS has produced a short film, highlighting the economic and political milestones achieved by the independence movement since the mid-1970s (such as the 51 per cent local control of the Koniambo nickel smelter in the Northern Province, an unprecedented example of engagement with a transnational resource corporation in Melanesia).

Then there’s a PowerPoint, setting out the FLNKS vision of a sovereign Kanaky-New Caledonia, with the current Congress transformed into a National Assembly and an elected President replacing the French High Commissioner. There’s also a presentation on public finances and budgetary options for an independent state, attempting to calm fears that a Yes vote will lead to Paris turning off the financial taps.

And then there are questions and sharp comment, with a wide-ranging discussion over what independence might mean. Much of the discussion is in the local languages of Iaai and Fagauvea, leaving your correspondent adrift, but the tone of one woman’s voice suggest the FLNKS activists have some questions to answer about who will pay for her pension.

Ouvea’s deputy mayor, Robert Ismael, talks of the potential to give greater capacity to the local municipal council, if the Article 27 powers are transferred from Paris to Noumea (currently, New Caledonia’s provincial assemblies and local Congress come under the authority of the Government of New Caledonia, but the communs or municipal councils are still controlled and financed as French State institutions).

Ismael also cites the possibility to extend development partnerships with Australia, New Zealand and neighbouring Melanesian countries, such as the municipality’s current contacts with health authorities from Vanuatu: “We need to decolonise our heads and be proud like Vanuatu.”

With just weeks to go before 4 November, time is short to mobilise Ouvea’s 4,351 registered voters – some on the island and some planning to use “delocalised” voting booths in the capital Noumea. Local activists plan a major festival on the island for 26 October to promote a Yes vote, and will then join a major national rally organised by the FLNKS, to be held at Ko We Kara on 30 October.