By Zohl de Ishtar
"We have come to protect you and bring you civilisation and peace." These are the words the French used in 1843 when 500 armed troops, under cover of four warships, marched through Tahiti, arrested Queen Pomare IV (queen of the Maohi people), hauled down the Tahitian flag and raised the French tricolour in its place.
It was in this spirit that French colonisation began in Te Ao Maohi, land of the Maohi people. It is a violation that continues today.
The Maohi, the indigenous people of Tahiti-Polynesia, are still waiting for the French government to act in a peaceful and civilised manner. Few would consider nuclear testing a symbol of civilisation.
In 1963, when the French announced the establishment of the Centre d'Experimentation du Pacifique, the Maohi people were unaware of the impending devastation that would be wrought upon their people and land.
Oscar Temaru, mayor of Faa'a (a suburb of Papeete) and leader of the Tavini Huraatira (Polynesian Liberation Front), remembers: "In 1962 it was decided by a French man, President de Gaulle, that our islands would be used to make French bombs. He didn't ask our opinion. Nobody did ... When the French army started to come here, people were not aware of nuclear radiation. We welcomed the military with leis of flowers. The French do not have the right to trick our people like that. It is criminal."
The nuclear powers were already very aware of the impacts of nuclear testing. As if the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not enough, nuclear testing had long since occurred in the Marshall Islands, Kalama (Johnston Atoll), Christmas Islands in Kiribati, and Monte Bello and Maralinga in South Australia. France had been testing for several years in Algeria.
The United Nations has estimated that 150,000 people have died, or are destined to die, as a direct result of nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Despite 74 atmospheric tests and 131 underground tests, France insists that Moruroa is less radioactive than Paris. But no medical reports have been released since testing began in 1966.
Stories abound of increasing cancers, increased miscarriages and children born deformed. The types of cancers experienced by the Maohi people are similar to those of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of the Marshall Islands and of the Aboriginal peoples from Maralinga.
Maohi woman Toimata, whose husband worked at Moruroa, described her experience: "My third baby was born at home full term but died there two weeks later. She had a skin problem. Her skin would come off immediately if it was touched ... My fourth baby ... died when he was two months old. He had diarrhoea ... when it stopped ... the baby became rigid, like wood. It was impossible to open his fists."
Toimata has lost six children to the French nuclear testing program. These experiences are not restricted to people who are somehow related to work undertaken at Moruroa.
There are many inhabited islands around Moruroa and Fangatuafa, the other atoll used by the French as a site for detonations. All have been affected by fallout from the tests.
In July 1966, when France began atmospheric testing — three years after the US, Soviet Union and Britain had agreed to limit testing to underground — it promised that the bombs would be detonated only when winds were blowing away from inhabited islands. This was a promise quickly forgotten. In one incident the French government even redrew the map of the Pacific in an attempt to cover up the fact that a test had contaminated inhabited islands.
Nor are these experiences restricted to Tahiti Polynesia. The Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Tuvalu and other nations of the region have all registered heavy radioactive fallout and are faced with an increase in cancers.
There are also the more indirect effects of nuclear testing on the environment and people such as ciguatera (marine food poisoning), which results in vomiting, diarrhoea, physical weakness, miscarriages, premature births and neurological disease in the newly born. It is sometimes fatal.
Ciguatera is particularly common in the larger fish that form the basis of the Maohi diet. It flourishes when reef ecology is disturbed, by either natural causes or human activities. Tahiti Polynesia suffers from a ciguatera rating six times the average of the Pacific as a whole.
On the atoll of Mangareva, the nearest inhabited island to Moruroa, almost all of the 528 locals have suffered from ciguatera poisoning, with a mortality rate of one in six annually.
French-Tahitian activist Marie-Theresa Danielsson told me about her visit to Mangareva. "Before testing began at Moruroa ... the lagoon teemed with fish. Only two years later all fish in the lagoon were poisonous, and many people sick from eating them, displaying all symptoms of ciguatera. Ever since the people have had to live on canned food, or, if they want to fish, to travel by small boats to Temoe Atoll, 25 miles to the south."
What about the impact of underground testing? Despite evidence to the contrary, France insists that underground nuclear testing is safe, that radioactivity from underground detonations is contained within the atoll.
In an underground test, a bomb is lowered down a shaft sunk into the coral 600-1200 metres deep. When it is detonated, it sends shock waves through the surface of the lagoon, causing a mild earthquake and the lagoon water to bubble and froth.
The fireball deep in the ground melts 10,000 tonnes of rock, changing the structure of the atoll. As a result, cracks are appearing below sea level; one is said to be nearly 1 kilometre long and 30 to 60 centimetres wide.
Because of this, Moruroa is sinking into the ocean. Between 1975 and 1981, it sank a total of 1.5 metres. Even before underground testing began, Moruroa was, at the most, only 3 metres above sea level! Radioactivity is already leaking from the atoll. Low levels of radioactivity have been detected spreading beyond the 19.4 kilometre territorial sea zone around Moruroa.
Now France wants us to believe that the further eight tests planned at Moruroa will not adversely affect the local population.
Bengt Danielsson, a Swedish anthropologist and resident in Tahiti Polynesia since the 1940s, warns: "It will take 20 to 25 years for the cancers caused by those early French tests to show up and longer for any pollution effects from leakage from the coral. Moruroa is the worst place I can imagine to conduct an underground test. The coral has been shattered. It is also very porous material which leaks easily. The seepage into the sea of radioactivity over the years will be quite massive."
France's nuclear testing program is made possible because Tahiti is a French colony. The issue of nuclear testing cannot be separated from colonisation. France has deliberately held the Maohi people hostage through a policy of economic dependency.
Before 1963, when the French military arrived to begin the nuclear testing program, Tahiti Polynesia provided for its people's needs. Now the majority of Maohi live in poverty; 70% of the nation's population crowd onto Tahiti Island, where the population has risen from 600 in the early 1960s to 114,000 in the late 1980s. Military bases and tourist hotels have taken up precious land, causing the Maohi people devastating social and health effects.
Oscar Temaru recalls: "When the French came, they changed everything. There were only 2000 people in Faa'a .We knew everyone. It was sort of a big family. It was a beautiful life. We made copra, went fishing and we planted.
"When the French army came here, people came from the outer islands looking for work. Then they would ask members of their family to come and join them. Later, when everything was built, there was no more work, everyone was laid off, but they stayed. They never went back home. Now they are living in the urban zone in a very precarious situation.
"We are 25,000 people — just in Faa'a! That's why independence of this country is our very urgent wish. French people are flooding into Papeete ... They take up housing and land, they have all the land on the flat and own the beaches. They make money while our children starve, our children have nowhere to play. Our people are dying of diseases because the living conditions are so bad."
The French presence has created a false society. As Maea Tematua observes: "Tahiti has come very far in 30 years, but this development has been for a minority of the population. There is an increased amount of money coming into the territory, but it is solely because of French nuclear testing."
It is for this reason that the Maohi are calling not only for an end to nuclear testing but for the end of French colonisation. Independence parties have begun to consider possible solutions to make the economy of Tahiti Polynesia a self-sustaining nation once again.
The local people of Tahiti Polynesia have repeatedly called for referendums on independence and nuclear testing, but their requests have been rejected by the French government.
Oscar Temaru, who has led the demand, says: "The idea of independence is growing fast. And the French government knows it. They say that the people don't want independence, but we are convinced that they do. Why do the French refuse to organise a referendum on the issue if they are so sure?"
The Maohi people have more than adequately voiced their protest against French nuclear testing. One third of the entire adult population of the nation has come into the streets to demand an end to nuclear testing. They are calling for us to join them.
There is a definite role for the international community to play in the ending of nuclear testing and French colonisation in the region. Fifty years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it's time to end all testing and make nuclear weapons illegal.
Numerous international agreements already state categorically that nuclear weapons are illegal. These include the Geneva Convention, the Nuremberg Charter, the Hague Declaration and the Charter of the United Nations.
In 1961 the UN Assembly declared: "That any state using nuclear or thermonuclear weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the United Nations, as acting contrary to the law of humanity, and as committing a crime against mankind and civilisation".
That resolution was reaffirmed in 1978 and 1980.
There is a campaign under way to get the World Court to declare nuclear weapons illegal. The World Court Project needs our support. We need to lobby our government to support the initiative. If we can make nuclear weapons illegal, then nuclear testing would be impossible.
There is also the global campaign for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Already decades old, it is now being picked up by governments. But we're being misled. Read the headlines today and you'd get the idea that the Clinton government has come out against French nuclear testing. What they're actually talking about is a treaty that will allow "low yielding" nuclear tests to continue. This makes a mockery of the intention of the CTBT.
Following the international conference which decided to extend the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, France and China refused to pledge that they would not test. They were asked to use "utmost restraint" prior to the signing of the CTBT.
China responded by detonating a bomb near the Tibetan border on May 16, while France announced, a month later, that it would detonate a further eight before signing the CTBT.
We can join the growing international protest against French nuclear testing by demanding: that the Australian government give its support to the World Court Project; stop supporting the French nuclear testing program by stopping the export of uranium to France; send an unarmed protest ship to Moruroa; take up the call to boycott the South Pacific Games, scheduled for Tahiti in August.
[Zohl de Ishtar has travelled extensively through the Pacific and is the author of Daughters of the Pacific, published by Spinifex Press.]