Even with guardrails in place, natural resource extraction remains a sensitive issue in New Caledonia. Nickel prices are up by about 25 percent this year, reflecting the mineral’s importance in the campaign to move away from fossil fuels. But so far, that has not led to greater profits for miners.
Goro’s previous owner, the Brazilian mining giant Vale, was desperate to rid itself of the mine. Tensions over who would buy the nickel processing plant led to protests that forced Goro to shut for months, the kind of supply chain disruption that could be disastrous for Tesla. The conflict also triggered the fall of New Caledonia’s government earlier this year.
“In the history of nickel in New Caledonia, a battle exists between the multinational and the local populations, and there is also the colonial history,” said Mr. Mapou, who took power after the Goro conflict and is the territory’s first Kanak president. “With Tesla, with the new ownership, we have a compromise now that makes it possible to open the Goro plant, but it remains fragile.”
The coastal road to Goro, meandering past a bay studded with colorful coral, is littered with charred cars. The dozens of burned vehicles are detritus from the monthslong struggle that idled the mine and led to the collapse of New Caledonia’s government in February. And they are a visceral reminder of the tense politics that could stymie Tesla’s efforts to secure a steady supply of nickel.
André Vama was one of hundreds of Kanaks who barricaded the road with burning tires and vehicles this year, strangling the mine’s operations.
“From the start, we have been against this mine,” said Mr. Vama, who is a leader of a local environmental alliance. “This is our national patrimony, our assets, and the Kanaks, who are victims of history, are not in control of what should be ours.”