The Ouvéa Factor: Who Cares about Political Independence in New Caledonia?
In the early eighties, it was the chosen setting for a film called 'The Closest Island to Paradise'. In the mid-eighties, the yacht used by the French commandos who blew up the Rainbow Warrior carried its name. In the late eighties, it was the scene of the bloodiest operation by a European army that the Pacific has seen since the end of World War Two. Today, the New Caledonian island of Ouvéa is fast developing a reputation as the cannabis capital of the Pacific. Two-metre high hedges of the outlawed herb can be found as features in elaborate and carefully tended gardens around people's houses. In the village of St Joseph, a very healthy specimen is thriving in a sunny, well-drained plot between the street counter of the local shop and the ancient logs that surround the courtyard of the high chief Nekelo. It is so widely consumed that after every rainfall, stray seeds germinate where they fall - in people's lawns, driveways or gardens - and often they have already become sturdy little plants by the time they attract their first human eye. In the rest of this French territory, cannabis is as illegal as it is in France. Possession of a single joint leads to arrest and a criminal conviction. But on Ouvéa the situation has got so out of hand that the best the authorities can hope for is to contain it by searching the bags of passengers arriving from Ouvéa at Nouméa's Magenta airport. 'It could be cleaned up very quickly,' insists Alain Charassier the head of the Ouvéa Gendarmerie. 'But I'd need another whole platoon (of gendarmes) over here, and nobody wants that'. New Caledonia's peace accords, the 1988 Matignon Accords and the 1998 Nouméa Accords, have always been at their most brittle in Ouvéa. The gendarmes and their political masters in Nouméa and in Paris are left with only two possible approaches to enforcing the law on the island - very heavy-handed or very easy-going. They are choosing the latter.