The twinned cities of Dumbéa, New Caledonia and of Port Vila, Vanuatu wanted to build on their connection by creating a joint structure to facilitate exchanges between the French speakers of both shores. You may recall that Vanuatu was the site of the 11th Forum Francophone du Pacifique in September 2018.
Increased Economic and Cultural Exchange
In a majority English-speaking region, the aim is to provide tools to help economic, social, and cultural players who speak French (35% of Vanuatu’s population) find one another and work together.
A “Relais de la Francophonie” was formally created in December 12, 2017 by a financing agreement between AFD and the town of Dumbéa, via a FICOL fund (the French Local Authorities Financing Facility) for which cities in France’s overseas territories are eligible.
“While the recipient and manager of the grant (amounting to €700,000) is the town of Dumbéa, the ultimate beneficiary is Port Vila,” says Nolwenn Bodo, project manager at the AFD branch in Nouméa. “The remainder of the funding for the project, estimated at €1 million euros, is provided by the governments of Vanuatu and New Caledonia and by the South Province.”
Construction officially began in July 2019, on the site of the former Port Vila cultural center that was destroyed by Cyclone Pam in May 2015, with the center slated to open in 2020.
The project has two components: the Relais de la Francophonie itself, which is a multipurpose conference and exhibit space for cultural, economic, and event use; and housing units that can serve as a “pied à terre” for Caledonian institutions and companies while funding the center’s operations.
“The residential component falls under a sustainable construction model, based on Caledonian standards but replicable by local authorities in Vanuatu,” explains Laure Madesclaire, project manager for the Société immobilière de Nouvelle Calédonie (SIC), which the government of Vanuatu has entrusted with the residential project. “The strategic objective is to enable skill transfer between Caledonian and Vanuatuan stakeholders.”
Wood, a Green Alternative
In addition to contributing to French influence, through the Francophone community, the project aims to promote an alternative mode of construction suited to ocean-centric lifestyles, which takes into account issues regarding global warming.
“Through educational on-site training and skill transfer, this project is a way to help Vanuatu return to using wood construction, abandoned years ago in favor of concrete, which was vaunted as the only mode of construction that could withstand cyclones and earthquakes,” says Christina Marx, architect from the New Caledonian company, ACGM.
For this company, which designed the project, the challenge is to demonstrate that wood construction can be used to build spaces with high thermal comfort and low environmental impact that can withstand cyclones and earthquakes. “This mode of construction,” adds the architect, “which requires few resources (dry construction, almost entirely prefab), is particularly well suited to isolated, difficult-to-access sites.”
By building a bridge between these two Pacific shores, the new Relais de la Francophonie clearly illustrates a desire to develop close cooperation between the two communities across all sectors. The AFD branch in Nouméa, head of the regional Pacific division, is contributing both its expertise and provision of the FICOL fund to this cooperation.