New Caledonia’s “Coeur de Voh” is a heart-shaped patch of vegetation in Voh commune in the Northern Province of the island. (©cachou44/istockphoto)
Editor’s note: Human Nature is exploring the complexities of living in, using and protecting one of the planet’s most valuable types of ecosystems — tropical forests — in a series we’re calling “No forest, no future.” Read other posts in this series.
On November 22, 2016, a few weeks before New Caledonia’s rainy season normally begins, a night of unceasing rainfall in the island territory’s Néaoua Valley caused the greatest flood in human memory and numerous landslides that brought the earth crashing down on the 300 residents of two tribes in the community of Houailou. As the waters rose and hill slopes simultaneously collapsed, 70 houses were flooded and another 12 were buried or destroyed. Eight people disappeared, and the community found itself facing US$ 2 million in damages.
“The flood came up from the valley floor to my house so fast that I knew right away I couldn’t save anything; I only had time to run away,” said Kiki Marara from the Kamoui tribe. Maxime Poedi from the neighboring Goareu tribe added, “Within minutes after the flood hit my house, I heard a very loud noise, like an aircraft taking off — a wave of trees and rocks rushed down the mountain on the side of the valley. My brother’s house was eventually destroyed by this mixture of water, mud, wood and huge rocks the size of cars. We lost two people and are still missing two.”
What caused this devastating event? While several factors appear to have contributed to the damage, including increasingly extreme weather, poor planning and sheer bad luck, the role of ecosystem degradation and forest loss must not be overlooked.
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An island of trees
When you think of Pacific islands like the French territory of New Caledonia, you’re likely imagining sandy beaches,