Fighting for the environment in French Polynesia


GABRIEL TETIARAHI is the national coordinator of the French Polynesian organisation Hiti Tau, which brings together 40 non-government groups working on environmental, sovereignty and social issues. He recently visited Australia, where he provided a broad picture of environmental debate and challenges facing French Polynesia. He was interviewed by CAROL COURT.

Tetiarahi: The main issue environmentally is nuclear testing. Since French President Francois Mitterrand decided to [declare a moratorium on] nuclear testing five years ago, all the political parties, and the government, have failed to put the impact of nuclear testing on the environment on the table. We really need to set up a commission on what really is the impact of the nuclear testing on the environment in Moruroa and Fangataufa. We are fighting against nuclear testing [there is growing pressure from right-wing French and local politicians, as well as the French military, for nuclear tests to resume].

The second thing is the impact of mass tourism on the life of our communities in Bora Bora, in Huahine and also in Moorea. One of the major issues facing Pacific island countries is how to encourage tourism without destroying the environment or local way of life. One of the instant impacts of large-scale tourism is sewage. Sewage from resorts is often simply pumped into lagoons. This method of waste disposal can cause destruction of the very assets that are attracting tourists, such as reefs and clean beaches as well as fish stocks in these areas.

Last month a very big project — a very big incinerator [the Tamara'a Nui incinerator in Papeete] — was stopped because of the activities of one of our NGOs. We succeeded in stopping the incinerator indefinitely because of pollution.

Are people very involved in environmental issues? Are they interested?

They are very interested. I saw that when we decided to involve people in environmental issues. With the local group in Bora Bora we published a small book on tourism and the environment. It was the first time in the history of Tahiti that the opportunity was given to our local groups to publish a book. We asked them "What is your opinion on tourism in your country?" And they have answered by writing a book on tourism and environment.

Is the environment a political issue?

The most important political issue now in Tahiti is sovereignty and self-determination. Will we continue to be a part of France, or be independent? People are very interested in seeing a future without France. Some want to remain with France.

What is the territorial government's role in environmental protection?

We have a minister for the environment, we have a public service for the environment. The problem is that this minister has no means. The money he gets from the territorial government is not enough to protect environment. Before [the minister] was an anti-nuclear person; now he belongs to a pro-nuclear government. For us, it is very symbolic that once an anti-nuclear activist becomes a member of the territorial government, he forgets his previous struggle.

So the role of NGOs is very important then?

Yes. The role of local NGOs is to bring people together to struggle, because we have seen in our country recently that political decision making does not include the opinion of the local groups. For us, NGOs are the best way to protect the environment."
[This interview — here slightly abridged — was first broadcast on Radio Australia's One World program, produced by Carol Court.]

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