October holds a lot of political weight for the islands of Tahiti, especially for the Independence Party of Tahiti: Tavini Huira’atira (People’s Servant). Every October, Oscar Temaru and twelve delegates associated with the Independence Party of Tahiti lobby at the UN for decolonization from France. The task of the delegation is to express why we, as Mā’ohi people, have the right of self-determination over our own islands and ocean.
The archipelago is known as Tahiti, or under its colonial name, French Polynesia, and includes roughly 118 islands in the Pacific Ocean. Our geographically dispersed islands and atolls stretch an expanse the equivalent of the geographical area of the European Union. Five island archipelagos are located in this territory, each with its own its own language, culture, and ways of knowing and being. Our history of migration by way of the ocean means that each archipelago has strong cultural links with the others, giving us a sense of solidarity in identity. Tavini Huira’atira gathers this solidarity of islands under the name Tahiti Nui, or Mā’ohi Nui.
As Mā’ohi people, we trace our lineage back thousands of years to these islands and the ocean. Our tupuna (ancestors) developed cultures and ways of living off the environment that have allowed us to thrive in our surroundings, historically and in the present. Today, our culture persists through the ways that we continue to fish, grow our own food, build our own houses, and relate to the land and each other. With such a long history of living on these islands, our Mā’ohi cultures are deeply embedded in who we are as a people.
This history, this lineage, motivates Tavini Huira’atira, Oscar Temaru and delegates, to make the annual trek to the United Nations. They attend a meeting focused on the decolonization of territories around the world called the Fourth Committee meeting (Special Political and Decolonization Committee), which takes place each October. The results of this meeting could potentially contribute to a push from the U.N. in the process of decolonization for Tahiti Nui. Although this meeting holds a lot of weight for Tahiti Nui, Tavini Huira’atira is given only three minutes per person to create a case for the independence of our lands. In just three minutes, Oscar Temaru and the delegates must summarize how over 100 years of French colonialism have impacted and affected our cultures and the lands we inhabit.
For Tavini Huira’atira, one of the most significant topics at hand is the 30 years of French nuclear testing on our islands. The tests started in 1966 and lasted until 1996, taking place during the global nuclear arms race of the 1960s. This was a time in which major colonial powers — such as the U.S., France, the U.K., and Russia — were developing nuclear weapons and testing the effectiveness of these weapons in lands across the world.
In order to separate the tests from their own land and population in Europe, France created the Centre d’Expérimentation du Pacifique (the French Experimentation Center of the Pacific) in Tahiti Nui after it had to vacate a similar testing center in the Algerian Sahara (see Samia Henni in The Funambulist 14 Toxic Atmospheres). Halfway across the world from France, our islands in the Pacific were used as sites of what Oscar Temaru calls “nuclear colonialism.” With the building of the Center came the military infrastructure: airports, military buildings scattered across the islands, harbors, military ships, and military personnel. The main city, Pape’ete, went from a small town in the Pacific to an expansive city in a number of years, with the intention of supporting a nuclear testing agenda.
There were 193 tests over that 30 year period, with a large number occurring in two atolls, Moruroa and Fangataufa. Many of the nuclear tests took place underground, affecting the land and waters, but others were aerial, such as the series of tests for the Hydrogen bomb. These aerial tests not only contaminated the actual islands and waters, but also led to atmospheric contamination of surrounding islands. Because of this contamination, Tavini Huira’atira identifies this era as a time of “crimes against humanity.”
For people who survive off the fish from our oceans and what we grow in our farms, the issue of nuclear waste on our lands directly threatens our food sources. This touches not only the food that we eat, but also a part of our identity formed in the practices of fishing and harvesting that have sustained for several millennia.
With this direct clash of interests and values upon our lands, we as Mā’ohi people have been put in a position to speak out. The goal of Independence for Tahiti Nui is to advocate for why we, as Mā’ohi people, would better care for the land and should have our own voice in determining how it is used.
Although nuclear testing stopped 30 years ago, its legacy lives on in our waters and land today. Three decades after the nuclear testing ended, we are still in the process of seeking nuclear justice from France: demanding a complete clean-up of the islands, proper disposal of the nuclear waste, and justice for the people who have been affected by the nuclear contamination.
While it is Tavini Huira’atia who attends the UN Fourth Committee meeting annually, numerous groups work alongside them, and have also been speaking out against the colonization of our lands. In Tahiti Nui, local grassroots organizers have focused on raising awareness of nuclear testing and nuclear justice for our islands and people. Other groups reinforce Mā’ohi cultural values, such as the importance of land and ocean that we survive on, and continuing to care for our environment. Tavini Huira’atira belongs to a history of Mā’ohi activists traveling the world, raising awareness of our conditions in Tahiti Nui and the need for worldwide support. French nuclear testing only stopped in the second part of the 1990s due to worldwide outrage generated by these activists at what was going on in our lands.
While we have gained a lot of traction in the fight for Independence of Tahiti Nui, we also see the need to continue our efforts for self-determination. In going to the U.N., our struggles and strengths can also be found in other colonies and post-colonies in the Pacific. For examples of our possible future, we can look to post-colonial countries in the Pacific that have gone through independence, such as Samoa and Vanuatu, in strength and solidarity. In the self-determination of their nations today, we see what the future could hold for us in Tahiti Nui.
When we head to the U.N., we also stand strong with other colonies who are in the struggle for independence. Another current French Pacific colony, Kanaky-New-Caledonia, is currently struggling for independence, alongside Tahiti Nui. With the help of the U.N., Kanaky-New-Caledonia is planning a self-determination referendum in 2018, a historic event for their country and the Pacific. Because the last country to gain independence in the Pacific was over 20 years ago, this type of movement gives us hope and shows that our efforts are worthwhile.
In solidarity, we find ourselves connected through our paths to self-determination, and our concern for the future of our islands and shared ocean. We continue to work for support on an international level with the U.N., as well as locally for our own rights to clean water, land and justice for our people. Undoubtedly, we understand that our surroundings will continue to be the source of culture, identity, and survival for our children and the coming generations. As such, we continue to strive on for our future.