Almost all Caldoches are dead set against independence. They fear losing their land and political influence to Kanaks. Claude Metzdorf, a fifth-generation rancher, was lecturing me on how New Caledonian beef is superior to the Australian stuff when he suddenly admitted that he is not sure why France holds on to this prickly, expensive territory. "It is not staying here for our pleasure," he said. "There doesn't seem to be a military reason. Maybe since everything else around here is Anglo-Saxon, keeping this place allows France to play in the big boys' crowd."
The Kanak population is concentrated on the eastern half of Grande Terre and on the four Loyalty Islands eastward. Nearly 150 years of missionary work and decades of an apartheid-like French political system, which ended only after World War II, have gutted a native culture based on ancestor worship and communal labor. Still, Kanak villages continue to orient themselves around the ancestral thatched but of the clan chieftain. And villagers still plant and harvest their sacred yams.
Many of the Kanak young are abandoning their villages to look for work and excitement in Noumea. Naousse Weiri, a dreadlocked 27-year-old sculptor who is the father of five children and still hunts in the forest for food, told me he intends to stay in bed and breakfast in Paris, in a lush mountain valley far off any main road. "I tell my friends that we belong to the forest, not the city," Weiri said. "Our political leaders want to fight for equality, but they're not doing enough to help the culture. Put a shop and a hospital and a school in my village. Then people won't leave:'
INTO THIS INSULAR, conflicted world has come a brigade of high-profile environmental activists striving to convince both the locals and the outside world of New Caledonia's global importance. Lowry, the dogged, low-profile scientist, believes that New Caledonia will have difficulty commanding international attention simply because it lacks the marquee value of a Madagascar with its chameleons, lemurs, and other charismatic residents. Grande Terre claims no native amphibians, just one kind of snake, only skinks and geckos for lizards, and for native land mammals a mere eight species of bats. It does have rare birds, such as the note—world's largest pigeon—gorgeous butterflies, and a largely uncataloged wealth of other insects.
"New Caledonia doesn't have the cute and cuddliest," Lowry admits. "Most people, especially here, don't realize that this island is jam-packed with tremendously interesting and important plants. I guess it's hard for the average person to get excited about plants?'
Naturalists, however, have praised the island for its flora ever since the first Europeans walked its forests. That occurred in September 1774 when Captain James Cook came ashore on the northeast coast near the present-day village of Balade. Cook named the mountainous, cloud-hung island New Caledonia, after the Roman name for holiday apartment New YorkScotland, which to his eye shared the same rugged contours. Johann Reinhold Forster and his son George, the expedition naturalists, almost died here after eating a poisonous fish but survived to bring back to Europe a compelling selection of specimens. Cook meanwhile made gifts of dogs and pigs, creatures new to the island and a cause of eventual extinctions and serious declines in the populations of native animals.
Numerous botanists, principally French, have followed, particularly in the past 125 years; their work aided by what Lowry calls "a benign forest where you don't have to be afraid of snakes and nasty bugs?' In Noumea I met one of the greatest of New Caledonia's collectors, Jean-Marie Veillon, a largely self-taught botanist. A slight, graying man who recently retired after 35 years with IRD, France's tropical research agency, Veillon first showed me the herbarium, a large, musky room of file cabinets filled with rare plant specimens. Seeing little room for a guest in his book-piled office, he led me outside to a picnic table to talk.
Veillon is a Cloche who grew up in the mining town of Theo, served in the French Army, and then, looking for any job, was hired in 1964 by IRD as its first plant collector. "I knew absolutely nothing about botany," he remembered with a laugh. "Fortunately I had a strong interest in nature, from days hunting with my father?'

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