France Drops an Economic Bomb on Tahiti

By Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 14, 1995 | Go to article overview

France Drops an Economic Bomb on Tahiti


Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


IN the capital of this remote island in the South Pacific, a club sandwich costs $18. Fish once drawn from local waters are now flown in from New Zealand. And school teachers, policemen, and city clerks take home double the salary they could earn in Paris.

For many in the heart of French territory of Polynesia - a scattered grouping of 138 islands with a population of nearly 200,000 people - such is the impact of life with "the bomb" since France began nuclear testing near here in 1963.

Once-self-sufficient Polynesians have become dependent on an artificial economy boosted by France's military expenditures. Unlike environmental activists around the world, their greatest fear about nuclear testing is not radiation but how they will survive without French subsidies once testing ends for good next year.

'Economic pollution'

"The biggest impact of 30 years of French nuclear testing was not environmental pollution, but the pollution of our economic environment," says Jacqui Drollet, a marine biologist and newly elected mayor of a small town on Tahiti.

"We've become more and more dependent on France. We produce less and less, and we hold out our hand more and more."

Before France moved its nuclear-testing facility from Algeria to Mururoa Atoll more than 30 years ago, Polynesians lived on what they could grow on the land or draw from the sea.

With the establishment of a test site on nearby Mururoa, there were concrete test bunkers to be built, barracks to be constructed, office equipment to be purchased, boats and aircraft to be maintained. The French Army paid double the salaries offered in France, with perks, to attract needed manpower.

Thousands of Polynesians moved from remote islands to fast-growing suburbs around Papeete, exchanging life on a fishing boat or among coconut palms for high-paying jobs with French nuclear testers or in burgeoning public bureaucracies."

Swedish ethnologist Bengt Danielsson first came to Tahiti on the Kon-Tiki raft in 1947. He and his wife, Marie-Therese, have written extensively on Tahiti and Polynesia's outer islands.

"Before the bomb, families here were self-sufficient. They didn't need to buy much. After the testing program began, the coffee and taro plantations were abandoned, trees were cut down everywhere. Suddenly, instead of being able to provide for yourself, you were dependent on a salary," says Ms. Danielsson in an interview.

"It all happened very quickly," she adds. "Now there are social problems. Two generations have been born in very bad conditions and not in a normal environment. They can't care for themselves. …

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