Marie-Thérèse and Bengt Danielsson

(1991, Polynesia)
Joint Award with the Rongelap People / Senator Jeton Anjain

...for exposing the tragic results of and advocating an end to French nuclear colonialism.

About

Marie-Thérèse and Bengt Danielsson, married couple expert of Tahitian culture and society, denounced the French nuclear colonialism in the Pacific and the disastrous medical ill-effects of the radiations coming from the nuclear testing base at Moruroa, French Polynesia. Despite the environmental damage has been enormous and there are undoubtedly widespread health effects, the French government blocked all independent investigation and study of this human tragedy, so that their full extent is not known.

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Biography

Bengt Danielsson was born in Sweden in 1921, obtained a Ph.D. in anthropology and was director of Sweden's National Museum of Ethnology. In 1947 he joined Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition, ending up in the South Seas. He married Marie-Thérèse, a French national, in 1948, after which they lived on Tahiti, where she was very active in local politics and women's environmental organisations. The Danielssons published numerous scientific studies on Polynesia, including a six-volume history of the islands, and popular books, many of which have been translated. 

In addition to their anthropological and scientific work, the Danielssons ceaselessly sought to expose and campaign against French nuclear colonialism, with its widely destructive social and environmental impacts.

Although the French had 'ruled' French Polynesia since 1842, they had little use for the islands, which were therefore relatively untouched by colonialism until 1963, when President de Gaulle decided to use them for atomic testing, having been denied further use of the Sahara by Algerian independence in 1962. The islands were suddenly overrun by French troops, bureaucrats and other immigrants. The indigenous economy took a nose-dive (from virtual self-sufficiency in 1960 the islands now import 80 percent of their food) and all the evils of maldevelopment appeared: slums, malnutrition, traffic congestion, etc. The Danielssons' account of this situation was first published in 1974 and then a revised version in 1986 as Poisoned Reign: French Nuclear Colonialism in the Pacific (Penguin, London).

The Danielssons were also concerned with the health and environmental effects of the nuclear tests. Starting in 1966, 44 atmospheric tests were conducted there and, after international pressure drove them underground, more than 130 tests were carried out on the two tiny atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa. The environmental damage has been enormous and there are undoubtedly widespread health effects. However, the French government blocked all independent investigation and study of these effects so that their full extent is not known.

Shortly after receiving the Right Livelihood Award, Bengt's health deteriorated considerably and he died in July 1997. As a friend wrote to Marie-Thérèse: "At least you have the memory of a wonderful man, who made a magnificent contribution to the world of scholarship and to the people of Polynesia." Marie-Thérèse Danielsson was then following alone their common goals: to help the Polynesians to find the right way to a fair and rational independence and, at the same time, to obtain complete information on the harm caused by the French nuclear tests over 30 years. She died in 2003.

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by Marie-Thérèse and Bengt Danielsson

December 9th, 1991

French Nuclear Colonialism in the Pacific
 
Are the radio nuclides released from the French nuclear tests in the Pacific any different from those produced by the American, Russian, British and Chinese bombs? Certainly not, for there exists numerous proofs that it is impossible to give any credence to the French official claims that the detonation of 44 nuclear weapons in the Pacific skies between 1966 and 1974, followed by 131 under ground tests in the fragile bases of the two small atolls Moruroa and Fangataufa, have been totally harmless. Just like in Micronesia, where 66 American bombs were detonated between 1946 and 1958, there has been a gradual increase in French Polynesia of radia tion-induced diseases such as leukaemia, thyroid cancers and brain tumours.

Although the French government keeps all health statistics secret and constantly refuses the demands of the Territorial Assembly to let an independent team of impartial, foreign radiobiologists make a health survey, much information about the disastrous medical ill-effects has leaked out of French Polynesia and been published in numerous articles and books. We shall therefore in this essay focus on the less known, but not less distressing social and economic aspects of this human tragedy.

Until the 1950s the native inhabitants of French Polynesia undeniably had a much happier existence than the indigenous population in all other colonies in the world. The reason was simply that although they were under French rule since 1842 they had never actually been colonized, due to the total lack of exploitable resources in these remote and scattered islands, which therefore did not attract any French settlers. As late as in 1962, when a reliable census was made, the number of Frenchmen in the colony was merely 2 030 in a total population of 84 062, and the vast majority of them had practically all married Polynesian women, which meant that their children were brought up in native fashion by their mothers. As for the Tahitians, they were, with a very few exceptions, still independent, self-supporting farmers and fishermen, who lived with their large, extended families on their ancestral land.

While most other colonial peoples had by then been granted independence or were on the waiting list of the U.N. Decolonization Committee, France in 1963, for the first time, began really to colonize her Polynesian islands, because President - General de Gaulle had decided to use two small atolls in the Tuamotu group for the testing of French nuclear weapons, which could not continue in the Sahara desert, since Algeria after bloody struggles had won independence in 1962.

The island worst hit at the outset was Tahiti, which was the administrative and commercial centre of the colony and had the only international aerodrome and the only well-equipped harbour. Within a few months, no less than 18 000 troops, including 3 000 Foreign Legionnaires, disembarked in the small capital, Papeete, suddenly doubling its population and rapidly creating a multitude of social and economic problems hitherto unknown.

At the same time the Centre d'Expérimentations du Pacific (or CEP for short) began recruiting thousands of Polynesians in the outer islands to build the numerous bases, barracks, hangars, airstrips, wharfs and roads needed to realize de Gaulle's ambitious testing program. Most of these Polynesian workers brought their families to the rear base at Papeete, which was soon surrounded by fetid slums. When about 1970, all military bases had been completed, most of these Polynesian workers were laid off and those recruited in the outer islands told to go home - which they did not do, because they had become too fond of their new "civilized" life. It can therefore be said that Tahiti had eventually caught up with the civilized world by the emergence of this new class of proletarians.

The arrival in Tahiti of these French troops and Polynesian workers from the outer islands was soon followed by a steadily increasing immigration of ordinary French citizens, numbering between one and two thousand per year, who had realized that it was now possible to make a fast buck in papeete by selling goods and services. Today their number has reached almost 30 000, which represents one fifth of the total population in Tahiti.

This enormous demographic increase has, of course, made it necessary to build up a huge, powerful administration, which has led to the appointment of about five thousand French government officials. Many of these bureaucrats, as well as impressive number of officers, soldiers, sailors and legionnaires, become so enchanted by the beautiful nature and the attractive Polynesian women that they resign, retire and remain in Tahiti, making the island even more overcrowded.

Unfortunately, there is still another cause for the overpopulation which the Tahitians have now been suffering from for the past thirty years and that is their gradually higher birth rates. This is why the numerous families who have sold or been deprived of the ancestral lands cannot any longer feed their children in the traditional manner by growing taro, yams, sweet potatoes, bananas and breadfruit, but must buy their food in the commercial stores. The majority of the Tahitians therefore today live on bread, rice, macaroni, beans, sweets and canned food. Not surprisingly, diabetes has become a very common disease.

The psychological problems of these families, who live on small plots without a garden or in European style dwellings built by the government, without any community life, are as serious as the material ones. To begin with, promiscuity often results in quarrels and fights. Since there is no room for them, parents and other elderly relatives, who traditionally were well cared for by their sons and daughters, are abandoned to themselves. For the same reason countless teenagers leave home and join gangs of juvenile delinquents, or become prostitutes.

The solution adopted by the French authorities to make the future easier for these up-rooted Polynesians, living in a cultural vacuum, has so far been to give the children a French education and culture, starting at the age of two. Unfortunately, the method used is totally inadequate, for it consists of teaching the Polynesian school children the French curriculum in French! But French is a foreign language for them, so it takes a year or two before they understand enough of what the teacher is saying to realize that he is teaching them French history, literature, civic life, geography and natural history, and nothing about their own culture and country. A great number of school children therefore drop out at an early stage and cannot find a job. This is also true for those who finish their studies with a baccalaureate, since it does not qualify them for the sort of commercial and technical employments which are the only ones available in Tahiti.

When criticized for this aberrant policy, the French authorities usually reply that they have now created a new type of economy based on tourism, which is totally adopted to the local problems. About twenty hotels have indeed been built in Tahiti, Moorea and Borabora during recent years by foreign or multinational companies, eager to exploit the reputation these Polynesian islands always have enjoyed for being earthly paradises. But in spite of the huge sums spent by these companies and the French authorities on promotion in America, Japan and Europe, the annual number of tourists visiting French Polynesia during the past ten years has increased only from 100 000 to 140 000, and the hotels are rarely more than half full. The reason is, of course, that Tahiti, Moorea and Borabora are not any longer unspoilt South Seas paradises. Since the Tourist Board continues to project this false image, all visitors are terribly shocked, when they step off their aircraft or cruise ship and suddenly find themselves entangled in a heavy automobile traffic and see the road skirted by only modern houses of ugly shacks, inhabited by shabby natives of whom only a very small number have been able to obtain low-paid menial jobs in the hotels.

The most tragic consequence of General de Gaulle's sovereign decision in 1963 to install a nuclear testing base at Moruroa, however, is the maintenance of the colonial rule, which means that the Polynesians still have no say in their own country and are unable to solve all these social and economic problems. The French government nevertheless claims that the Polynesians are self-governing, just like their neighbours, the Cook Islanders, and it has replaced the old dirty word "colony" with the non-committal word "territory".

The official proof of this alleged reform is the existence of a local little parliament, called the Territorial Assembly, with 41 elected members, which appoints in parliamentarian fashion an executive cabinet. This looks fine on paper, but the only criterion on which the system can be judged is the amount of real power wielded by the Assembly and its executive branch. Whereas the Cook Islanders are, indeed, free to run their own affairs, in French Polynesia, the Paris government has full control of defence (meaning the right to establish military bases and conduct nuclear tests), foreign affairs, the police, justice, courts, immigration, the monetary system, overseas trade, international air and sea traffic, communications, information (radio and TV), fishing rights, ocean wealth, mineral exploitation, higher education, research, the municipalities and the civil service.

This leaves to the elected representatives of the Polynesian people only the troublesome task of raising enough money to pay for primary education, health care and public works, which are the only areas in which they have power of decision. But often with severe restrictions. For instance, although the health service is run officially by a minister in the local government, the hospitals are staffed with French army doctors, who take orders not from him but from their military superiors. It should also be noted that decision made by "the locals" can at any time be rescinded by French courts, if found anti-constitutional or illegal - according to the laws made in Paris. Nor does it help that the territory has the right to elect representatives to the National Assembly, considering that the total number of deputies is a staggering 577. In the Senate, the total number of deputies is 319, of which one is reserved for the elected representative of the Polynesian people, who therefore is equally powerless.

It is therefore quite understandable and fully justified that many other political leaders keep asking the French government to organize another sort of populate consultation: a referendum allowing the Polynesian people to reject the present colonial domination by being able at long last to vote for independence.

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