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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Polynesians Fight the Bomb

Air Date: Week of

In French Polynesia, the battle over nuclear testing by France has added fuel to a growing Polynesian independence movement. Johanna Eurich reports from Tahiti.


NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood. When Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the world's first nuclear explosion in the New Mexico desert, his first thought was of a line from the Hindu scripture the Baghavad Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." The Manhattan Project, under Oppenheimer's direction, brought the last great war to a close 50 years ago this week, with the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This week on Living on Earth, we explore the continuing impact of the nuclear age on people around the world, particularly on native communities, which have borne more than their share of the burdens of mining raw materials, testing bombs, and disposing of wastes. We start in Tahiti and French Polynesia, where the battle over nuclear testing by France has added fuel to a growing Polynesian independence movement. Joanna Eurich reports from Tahiti.

(Conch shells blowing)

EURICH: In July in Pepeete, the capital of French Polynesia, the annual Bastille Day military parade was upstaged by Tahitians in an antinuclear demonstration, blowing conch shells, playing drums, and preparing double-hulled canoes to welcome Oscar Temaru in the manner of a Polynesian chief. Temaru, a major politician and independence leader, had just spent 2 weeks on Greenpeace's boat The Rainbow Warrior, confronting French military forces at Moruroa, an atoll 1,200 kilometers from Tahiti. Most of the demonstrators remembered attending another march at the end of June, the largest in Pepeete history. Over 10,000 people tied up the arteries of the capital city in support of Greenpeace.

(Applause, speaker at a microphone)

EURICH: At a ceremonial feast spread out on a concrete dock with one of the biggest French naval vessels looming above, hundreds listened as Oscar Temaru encouraged his people to keep fighting against nuclear testing and for their independence. When France's President Jacques Chirac announced his decision to resume underground nuclear tests, he did not acknowledge the impact that decision might have on Polynesian politics. He spoke only of French interests and assured islanders that the tests were safe.

CHIRAC: Speaks in French
TRANSLATOR: When the tests are completed, all competent scientists can come and see for themselves that there are indeed no ecological consequences to these tests.

EURICH: Few Tahitians believe those assurances. The islands are full of anecdotal information about relatives and friends who are sick or have had stillborn children after working in Moruroa. None of this information has much scientific validity, because no health statistics were published from 1963 to 1983, a period covering most of the atmospheric and underground nuclear tests. Some recent data indicates an increase in the rate of thyroid cancer, leukemia, brain tumors, and stillbirths in parts of Polynesia. This, coupled with over 150 years of colonial rule, has resulted in a deep distrust of French officials which surfaced in several conversations.

(Boat motor)

TAHITIAN: I don't think that France have done the clean bomb. I think nuclear testing is bad, and there is impact on health, on environment. And I don't' think, I am not agree with the fact that they consider that the bomb is safe.

EURICH: Geologists say that a coral atoll with its shallow lagoon is probably one of the poorest places for underground nuclear tests. Thirty years of nuclear tests have severely weakened Moruroa's structure. In 1988, to keep the island from degenerating further, the French announced that the largest explosions would take place on another nearby atoll. In 1992, France suspended testing. Neither the decision to shut testing down, nor the recent move to resume, was made in consultation with Polynesians. And that, according to Temaru, is why the anti-nuclear battle and the fight for Polynesian independence are linked. It's a matter of control.

TEMARU: The issue of nuclear testing and the freedom, our independence, are linked. We cannot dissociate those 2 questions. I don't know if you have heard Jacques Chirac saying at the United Nations that Moruroa is a part of France, or saying that France is doing this nuclear testing at Moruroa and Moruroa is France. We really, we don't agree with what he said, and we want to tell to the entire world that Moruroa is our back yard, is our mother land, it's not part of France.

EURICH: The nuclear issue is only one of many behind the push for decolonizing Polynesia. A host of problems plague Polynesians, who for the most part occupy the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Few hold college degrees or high paying jobs. Many suffer disproportionately from health problems. These problems persist despite a huge annual subsidy from France amounting to about $112 million U.S. Recently Gaqston Floss, President of French Polynesia, announced that France would sweeten the pot upon completion of the nuclear testing by $70 annually for the next 10 years.

FLOSS: (Speaks in French)
TRANSLATOR: And because of that, I think that all Polynesia should thank President Chirac for this action on our behalf.

EURICH: That money may not be enough to keep demonstrators off the streets. Recent turnouts indicate that Chirac has handed independence activists a volatile issue. With the threat of more nuclear testing, many Polynesians like Hau Nui are willing to march and vote to protect their heritage.

NUI: Because we do that not only for us, and for our kids, for our babies, for our generations who come, you know? Will come. We do that for them first.

EURICH: In Pepeete, Tahiti, I'm Joanna Eurich.



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