Mataiva atoll in the Pacific Ocean has an unusual morphology: its central lagoon is divided into numerous shallow basins by a network of slightly submerged coral shoals. This extremely rare geological feature, known as a reticulated lagoon, is now under threat from the global demand for phosphate, used in agriculture.

International companies and the government of French Polynesia have attempted to mine Mataiva's rich phosphate resources since the 1980s, but have so far been thwarted by its inhabitants.

Opposition was on the basis of the potentially disruptive effects of mining on the population's identity and on its culture of coconut farming and fishing. An 18-month test of the extraction process in 1986 destroyed and polluted fish habitats to the extent that people reportedly could not eat lagoon fish for 10 years. Island people also feared the loss of land rights, because their livelihoods depend on farming and drying coconut flesh (copra).

The government this year announced its decision to resume phosphate extraction. Resistance is now dangerously weakened as the atoll's elders dwindle and the younger generation moves away, severing the cultural attachment to the atoll's traditional way of life. The world's geological patrimony is again at stake.