David Ransom talks to activist GABRIEL TETIARAHI at his home in Faa'one, Tahiti, about positive options for the future.
David Ransom: You were at the centre of the opposition to French nuclear tests and you've stopped them. Does that mean it's all over?
Gabriel Tetiarahi: Not at all! We set up our organization, Hiti Tau 'the sun is coming' at grassroots level to be an alternative not just to nuclear testing, but to everything it represented. When we built the Peace Village in the centre of Papeete [the main town on Tahiti] during the nuclear tests it was the first time grassroots people had decided to do something like that. Before that we never had a voice. And we never gave a chance to the workers on Moruroa Atoll, either, to speak about their story. Now we have met more than 1,500 of them. All those people who suffered from the nuclear age are coming together to speak for the first time.
The feeling we had was: 'OK, that's all very well, but what are the alternatives?' On Moorea Island, for example, we worked with the local community against a proposed golf course and hotel. The Government said golf was good for young people, good for jobs. But the young people said: 'No, we don't see ourselves in this hotel. We do see ourselves working to produce things like vanilla, because then we can learn from our parents, who will show us how to plant.'
At the beginning the Government would not accept their ideas. But the young people wanted to go back to the land anyway and cultivate vanilla which comes from a special kind of orchid and takes a lot of tending on their farms and with their communities. We started with nine or ten people and now there are 157 on one island alone. They have started tending vanilla on other islands too. So now they can see that not all jobs have to come from the French, from nuclear tests or tourism.
DR: What difference does it make where the money comes from?
GT: The model of development represented by nuclear testing is not ours. What we are trying to do is to open the minds of people, to decolonize the mind. For me the most important effect of the nuclear testing is not on health, not on the environment it is on the minds of people. They have forgotten what is possible, because they are not decolonized.
DR: Well, do the Tahitian people really want independence from France? Wouldn't they be worse off financially?
GT: Look at this coconut oil. It is famous around the world. Who is making money from this oil? A French company. A Chinese company. We say that it is the intellectual and cultural property of our people. Our mothers and grandmothers before them knew how to make it. With our help there are now 82 women making the oil at home, and they can earn as much as $1,000 every month. They've come to realize what the big companies are up to. I was with a co-operative on Moorea Island last weekend, and a mother said: 'Now we are sure we can build ourselves up by ourselves.' But before, in the mind of these people, it was impossible to build up a project without the support of the Government.
DR: How much do you think Pacific Islanders feel they have in common with each other?
GT: Once I was invited to Samoa, a big conference of Pacific peoples. I remember speaking in my own language with people from the Cook Islands, Samoa, Hawai'i I think it was nine different nations in all without using the French or English languages once. My mind was opened.
DR: But the distances are so great, the ocean so vast.
GT: The Europeans say that we are isolated from each other. We say no, the sea links us together. It's really a Pacific concept of culture: 'You know, it's not so very far just the other side of the world!'
DR: We in the North live in these huge conglomerations of wealth, consumption and power, but I think we often feel pretty powerless. Here, in such small and powerless societies, people don't seem to feel like this. A strange paradox.
GT: When I was in France and Germany I talked to a lot of organizations. They said they'd be very happy to work with us as 'partners'. And I said: 'What is the meaning of "partner"? I have no word in my story, in my culture, for "partner". I have only one picture the outrigger canoe. To be a "partner" with us you have to be in the same canoe on the same ocean. And there's only one destination.'
DR: Well, what destination is that?
GT: I think one of the big issues being faced now is intellectual and ultural property rights. In Papua New Guinea some big American companies have stolen the blood of the people. And now in Tahiti they are stealing our medicines. At the last festival of arts in Western Samoa, Pacific peoples set up a parallel forum on healing. It's not just for tourism that transnational companies come here. Medicine is a very big issue.
DR: Why should anyone else care about what happens so far away in the South Pacific?
GT: I think what we really want, you know, is just to be left in peace to live in peace to be quiet. Leave us with our culture. Leave us with our people. We'll be able to hammer out our own development for future generations well enough. We have no reason to believe that we can have sustainable development from the big powers of this world. During the nuclear campaign I lost count of the times the police came here one day 200 French troops. Last week they came again. Today I have no money. But I have my freedom. Grassroots people in the Pacific want to be free and left to live in peace, if only we can free our minds. *
Gabriel Tetiarahi is a director of Hiti Tau (Conseil national des ONG du pays Maohi), which can be contacted at BP 4611 Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia. Tel: (689) 52 13 71. Fax: (689) 57 28 80.