Nuke tests crack colonial grip
Sunday 03 September 1995
On board the Rainbow Warrior II was Oscar Temaru, the Polynesian leader of the main independence party who was taking his demand for the French to get out of his island country right up to the Mururoa nuclear test site, the ultimate symbol of French colonial rule.
The arrest of Mr Temaru on the Greenpeace ship infuriated his supporters on the main island of Tahiti 650 miles to the north.
The drama began to unfold as the clock ticked past midnight in Paris to mark the start of the eight month "season" when the French will explode seven or eight underground nuclear tests at Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls.
It was still midday in Tahiti. A group of 30 Polynesian women invaded the island's airport at Faa'a in a last-minute bid to stop the nuclear test explosion for which French scientists had already begun the countdown at Mururoa Atoll, about 600 miles south. Running towards French military aircraft lined up on the tarmac, they shouted: "If this nuclear bomb goes off, the Tahitian bomb will go off too. We don't want these tests. This is our land, our sea, our future."
Amid the clamour of international condemnation of the decision to resume nuclear testing in Polynesia, the voices of the Polynesians themselves have been drowned. But, after 175 nuclear tests in their islands over the past 29 years, 41 of them in the atmosphere, there are signs that they have had enough.
Polynesians comprise more than two-thirds of French Polynesia's population, most of whom live on the main island of Tahiti. The rest are French, Chinese or a mixture of all three groups. All are French citizens.
Over the past 30 years, Mr Temaru has watched life change dramatically in the country's 130 islands and atolls, scattered over an area of the South Pacific the size of Europe, ever since Charles de Gaulle, the former president, decided to turn Mururoa and Fangataufa into a nuclear testing ground in 1966. Before then the two atolls, 25 miles apart, were popular fishing grounds. After the first atmospheric explosions that year, each 10 times more powerful than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima, signs went up, banning swimming and fishing.
As a customs officer with the French administration in Papeete, Mr Temaru was sent to Mururoa several times between 1964 and 1975, the years of some of the biggest and "dirtiest" explosions. The blasts were conducted by remote control and workers were allowed back afterwards. Towards the end of 1968, two thermonuclear tests were detonated from balloons above Mururoa and Fangataufa, reportedly with yields of 1.2 megatons and 2.6 megatons, equivalent to roughly 190 Hiroshima bombs. The heat alone from the blinding flash was so intense that Fangataufa's lagoon was vapourised: its salt water and the marine life in it simply disappeared. The two atolls and the sea around them were so badly contaminated that all tests were suspended the following year.
"On one of my visits to Mururoa, soon after one of the very big atmospheric tests, I noticed that all the leaves of the coconut trees had turned yellow as if the trees had died," Mr Temaru said later. "It looked incredible. And then suddenly, new signs were put up which prohibited eating coconuts. Slowly, a sort of psychosis of fear spread. Some people were so sick that they had to be taken off the atoll. Later, people heard that some had died. That was in about 1969 or 1970.''
Atmospheric tests went on until 1974 before the French, under international pressure, finally decided to conduct them in underground shafts drilled in the atolls' basalt structures. What Mr Temaru saw convinced him that the atolls were being slowly destroyed and that the Polynesians in neighbouring islands were being exposed to health risks from drifting radioactivity. As a customs union representative, he wrote to the head of French military operations on Mururoa declaring that customs officers would no longer go to Mururoa in the interests of their health.
That action was the beginning of a political career which has seen him become the Mayor of Faa'a and leader of Tavini Huiraatira, the Polynesian Liberation Front. Founded in 1977, the party's two key platforms call for an end to nuclear tests and independence from France. At the last elections for the 42-seat Territorial Assembly, the local parliament traditionally dominated by pro-French interests, Mr Temaru's group took four seats, since increased to five after the defection of another representative to their ranks.
On Friday, as the Greenpeace ships were sailing towards the 12-mile exclusion zone with Mr Temaru aboard, a close associate, Nelson Ortas, a US-educated Polynesian economist, was helping to co-ordinate a four- day march by Polynesians from the villages of Tahiti. Marching under their star-spangled flag, they converged on Papeete for a big anti-bomb rally yesterday, joined by MPs from Europe, Australia, NZ and Japan.
During the last presidential election in France, for which all in French Polynesia were entitled to vote, Mr Temaru called on everyone to abstain from voting as a protest against continued rule from Paris. After French and military votes were subtracted, his party estimated that only 30 per cent of Polynesians voted. "This was a benchmark for the party," said Mr Ortas. "It showed a thirst for independence.''
But the thirst will not be quenched immediately. The independantistes are up against a local media dominated by French interests and an electoral system which gives votes of French civil servants, teachers and soldiers the same weight as those of Polynesians, whose roots go back centuries. The independence movement is stronger in Tahiti than in outer islands whose people depend on visits from the High Commissioner announcing the building of new schools, roads, bridges and hospitals, all at Paris's expense.
Since the tests started 30 years ago, French Polynesia's economy has lost its agricultural base and come to depend almost entirely on the bomb. The country exports very little, imports almost everything, including food, and lives largely on an annual injection of nearly pounds 1bn from France. No one pays any taxes. More than one third of the territory's jobs are now linked to the armed forces, revolving around the activities at Mururoa. In this artificial economy, it is little wonder that some Polynesians have turned a blind eye to the bomb.
The independence movement, though, is convinced that France's grip on the far-flung colony will to crack each time the volcanic structure under Mururoa shudders with a nuclear blast. Besides Oscar Temaru's party, a more radical group, Free Tahitians, revolves around Charlie Ching, who joined the women demonstrating at Faa'a airport. Mr Ching is the nephew of Pouvanaa A Oopa, Polynesia's most renowned independence leader whom de Gaulle's administration sentenced to eight years in prison in France. He died a national hero in 1977.
At the time of his death, other Pacific Island nations, once ruled from London, Canberra and Wellington, were assuming independence, leaving France the region's last colonial power. In a world moving towards a comprehensive test ban treaty, France's role in Polynesia looks increasingly anachronistic.
Where does this leave the Polynesians?
"The French military ruined the productive base of the economy by draining its workforce," said Nelson Ortas. "No one wants to go back to their farms or fishing any more. We are traditionally a pacifist people, but look at our society now. We have violent TV and a bomb that pays people's salaries. How much more tolerance do we have? When does the fuse light?"
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