Updated: 04/26/2014 23:43 | By Agence France-Presse

New Caledonia's indigenous leaders launch 'people's charter'

Indigenous leaders in New Caledonia on Saturday launched a charter setting out the principles of their ancient culture, with high hopes that it will be adopted in the constitution of the French Pacific island territory.

New Caledonia's indigenous leaders launch 'people's charter'

Kanak and French flags are pictured on July 27, 2013 at Ouvea island during a visit by French Prime Minister to New Caledonia - by Lionel Bonaventure

Traditional customs remain strong amongst the Kanak people -- Melanesians making up around 40 percent of New Caledonia's 265,000 residents -- and they overwhelmingly back independence from France, which took over the archipelago in 1853.

Ahead of an independence vote set to take place by 2018, the 30-page charter enshrines their clan system and scores of indigenous languages. 

It also sets out their myths and legends and the deep symbolism that their culture places on yams, as well as rules around traditional pardons and their connection to the land.

"It's a new approach for indigenous people," local lawmaker Raphael Mapou told AFP.

"The charter sets out our fundamental principles so we can strengthen our place in the modern political system," said Mapou, who has led the bid to push the charter through the Customary Senate representing leaders from eight indigenous zones.

The charter comes after three years of discussions between the traditional chiefs and the senate, which the French government is obliged to consult on matters relating to Kanak identity.

- Indigenous culture makes a comeback -

After 150 years of French presence, many Kanaks have adopted not only the language but also a fondness for French bread and Christianity.

But there has been a popular revival of mainstream indigenous culture over the last few decades. Twenty-eight indigenous languages are still spoken, the more common ones in schools and on the radio.

Senate president Paul Vakie said he hoped the contents of the new charter would eventually be adopted into New Caledonia's constitution.

"It's an expression of the legal and constitutional rights of the Kanak people," he said. "But these can only be properly recognised if there is real political pluralism in New Caledonia."

The charter was officially proclaimed on Saturday at a ceremony in the capital Noumea, attended by dignitaries from Paris as well as indigenous chiefs and New Caledonian government officials.

The document enshrines the primacy of collective rights above those of the individual within the Kanak community, as well as their right to self-determination.

"We don't question Western institutions -- but we do want Kanak traditions to be taken into greater account in public policy," said Mapou.

Kanak culture is based on oral tradition -- and with some irony, Mapou admitted that the writing of the charter itself has raised fears that their thousands-year-old traditions are in danger of being abandoned.

New Caledonia already has two bodies of law running side by side -- a civil legal system, and a "traditional" system that allows Kanaks to settle their own disputes on a range of issues including land and family matters.

The archipelago's colonial history has been punctuated by bitter disputes between the Kanaks and their European neighbours over land dispossession and huge wealth inequalities.

Many indigenous people live in poverty, despite New Caledonia's huge resources wealth -- it boasts a quarter of the world's known nickel supplies.

A wave of unrest between pro-independence Kanaks and French loyalists shook the islands in the 1980s, leaving an estimated 70 people dead.

Relations have improved since the Noumea Accords of 1998, agreed between the two sides, which led to greater local autonomy and paved the way for an independence vote to be held between 2014 and 2018. 

There has been progress in areas such as education, health and infrastructure in Kanak regions. But tensions remain over many issues, including the Kanaks' access to employment and their higher incarceration rate.

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